If good theatre is about the suspension of disbelief then President of an Empty Room inspires it in spades. Its portrayal of a semi-real contemporary Cuba is somewhere between a Latin American 1984 (just imagine Orwell’s nightmare vision set in a shabby sweatshop of a cigar factory somewhere in Havana) and a kind of folksy Trainspotting with the occasional flamenco dance set-piece thrown in.
The plot. A gifted young man descends into confusion and despair, fuelled by a heroin habit that renders him delusional after his supposed sweetheart takes off in a boat for Key West. Meanwhile, a framed picture of Castro – presumably President of the emptying room of Cuba – looks on as the workers – a crippled veteran of a ‘pointless war’, played by a wheelchair-bound Anthony O’Donnell, another old cynic played by a panama hat wearing Steven Moore (though, to be honest I preferred him as Kevin’s aka Harry Enfield’s dad); and the deliciously sassy backroom girls (Petra Letang and Inika Leigh Wright) – bicker more or less cheerfully over the rolling-room play list.
The performance of Paul Hilton as Miguel the agitated junky and self-appointed President is cold-sweat-in-a-hot-room intense and highly compelling. Indeed, the musical interludes serve as sweet relief from his ravings as he oscillates between wishing his love all the best and damning her to the bottom of the ocean. Bunny Christie’s incredibly evocative set is filled with the combined haze of implied stifling heat (huge fan on wall) and – the very real – billowing cigar smoke issuing not least from the amply statured if quietly majestic Jim Carter as Don Jose. This proves the perfect backdrop for some accomplished ensemble performances, superbly directed by Howard Davies, and bringing Steven Knight’s wonderfully lyrical piece to life.
The uneasy tension generated by the failed promise of a distant revolution and the persistence of voodoo in the lives and imaginings of the characters is never far away. The influence of the latter is arguably a little over-indulged though, and the production perhaps goes a dream-sequence too far as the ghostly Alexandra appears and re-appears to playfully haunt Miguel to the swoonsome laments of the mysterious fiddler standing in the wings. Don’t ask. Other than that, this is a welcome detour from the vaguely-leftish ‘anti-war’ gesturing of recent offerings. Indeed, give or take the occasional reference to the inferior quality of the cigar leaf of Guantanamo Bay, there is little of the otherwise obligatory anti-Americanism discernible.
Like all good things, President of an Empty Room comes with a health warning attached – yes, it is (as the critics have rightly gushed) authentic, atmospheric and quite transfixing, but remember, poverty isn’t funky, shabby isn’t sensual and cigars are definitely bad for you.