Culture critic Ruth Horsburgh reviews the Spectacular Classics concert at Symphony Hall, enjoying an evening of stunning performances.Written by Ruth Horsburgh on 20th November 2017
REVIEW: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Culture Critic Phoebe Hughes-Broughton enjoys a hilarious performance of the controversial play, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
This is the first performance of ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ in the UK, and somehow it feels like both the best and worst time for it. Best, particularly here in the UK, because in this day and age laughing at ourselves and our ancestors seem to be the best way to look back on our history. Worst because, well, Donald Trump exists. And whether by happy coincidence or terrifying intention, the stories of Andrew Jackson almost 200 years ago ring a striking parallel with America’s 45th president.
When we entered the theatre, the set design was far more impressive and eye-catching than one might expect for a smaller scale performance, with more than enough to intrigue and entertain audiences before the production began. In particular, the choice to set the stories of a man who became president in the early 19th century against the backdrop of mid-20th century rock n’ roll America was made clear by the advertising, while not being ‘in your face’ about the slight shift towards the modern era. If anything, the addition of phones and modern slang that this allowed the production to use throughout simply made the audience more empathetic towards the characters’ plights.
“The whole play drew attention to how easily people get swept up in a president’s personality rather than their policies
Those plights being the familiar, if by this point almost overused, American ‘will of the people’ to rally against the elites and “corrupt aristocracy” – anyone else getting very Trump-style “people’s president” vibes? The whole play, while being rapturously entertaining, worked effectively to draw attention to how easily people get swept up in a president’s personality rather than their policies. At one stage, Jackson stands in the Oval Office openly asking tourists and friends what they think he should do about the Native American people; when one tells him that they voted for him as a person, and didn’t much care what he did, both he and the audience are faced with the fact that many people don’t think far beyond the ballot box on voting day. Jackson chooses to keep ploughing forward with his gut, continually attempting to get rid of Congress, and the Supreme Court, and anyone else who stands in the way of him carrying out “the will of the people”, but the audience is left wondering what more modern presidents might decide to do when faced with the same issue of an uneducated and demoralised public.
Being a smaller scale production allowed the audience to feel more comfortable and truly be on the cast’s side, rather than simply observing from afar. While there were a few minor technical faults, such as microphones not catching a few lyrics, or people’s dancing being out of step for a few beats, these were mostly happily ignored by the audience. Or, in the case of the decision to use an old-fashioned dummy in place of Jackson’s adoptive son, the constant technical failures only added to the humour; its head briefly falling off drew raucous laughter from the audience, while its foot falling off halfway through almost become a plot-point as it was picked up but never actually reattached to the leg.
“This performance made for hilarious entertainment
As well as being a smaller, more friendly audience, these features were probably also helped by the overall postmodern ‘meta’ feel to the play. In particular, the choice to have the band visible on stage at all times, without dressing them in clothing matching the period of the piece, was a constant reminder that the whole thing was simply a performance, not to be taken too seriously. This was further emphasised by Jackson at one point calling out to the pianist, asking if he was in agreement with the president’s decisions. While I’m sure this was a well-rehearsed plot point, the musician’s startled look definitely added to the feeling of immediacy and spontaneity of the whole piece.
On the whole, despite a few minor hiccups, this performance made for hilarious entertainment, and if this play doesn’t make its way to the West End and larger production groups in the next few years it’ll surely be a loss for all.