English novelist Rose Tremain once suggested research should be done far enough in advance so that by the time of writing, most of it has been forgotten. Judging by the amount of research patiently spelled out throughout “The Observer,” that’s not a view held by playwright Matt Charman. Helmer Richard Eyre marries the play’s urgent authenticity to elegant staging, but Charman’s study of the conflict between political involvement and necessary detachment only fitfully lifts off into drama.
Set in a fictional African country not unlike Zimbabwe, Nigeria or Zambia on the brink of its first democratic elections, the play is less about the workings of new democracy, and more about personal influence and its political consequences.
Fiona (Anna Chancellor) has been deputy director for 12 years of the International Election Observation Team, the organization sent to monitor elections to ensure that they are free and fair. Her frustration simmers as she’s passed over for promotion yet again.
Unexpectedly, an opportunity for action arises. If she can persuade the powers that be to beef up additional voter registration for the second round of voting — an act, surely, that is abidingly democratic — then the incumbent right-wing president might not prevail. Her motives, however, are decidedly mixed.
Fiona proposes that a higher turnout from the countryside regions will tilt the vote toward the opposition party that she and the West privately favor because they represent a move away from the unholy alliance of the president and the military. However, by choosing not merely to observe but to act, Fiona compromises herself, her team and the country.
The play’s stumbling block is Fiona’s lack of self-knowledge. Everyone else, audience included, can see exactly what she’s doing from the outset. Once she’s involved, her responses to discoveries about beatings and other electioneering tactics are bizarrely naive for someone working in the field for so long. Chancellor keeps Fiona’s energy high to disguise the problem, and Charman provides the excuse of her vision being blurred by her emotional attachment to handsome translator Daniel (a nicely controlled Chuk Iwuji).
He serves as the audience’s way into the play — he’s new to the team, so everything has to be explained to him, and us. As the bilingual character, he also represents the African perspective. But the power of his final attack on Fiona’s behavior — “We don’t need you to save us” — is compromised because their relationship is referred to but unexamined.
A further attempt at generating tension comes via an overarching surveillance plot with a minor, Graham Greene-esque Foreign Office official (James Fleet) secretly reporting back on Fiona’s dangerous activities. But Charman’s undramatic structure is against him. He too obviously sets up exactly what he’s going to do, shows it being done and then has Fiona explain what it is she has done.
The least expository scenes work best. As the stern chair of the Central Electoral Committee, Aicha Kossoko is in effortlessly commanding form, lending a courtroom scene true authority. And Cyril Nri is equally impressive whether leaping about as an excitable barman or chilling the atmosphere as a lethal senior member of the armed forces.
Rob Howell’s set design — a succession of translucent African print cloths rising in varying configurations to create different spaces — is a model of economy. It allows Eyre to keep the play’s locations, actions and ideas moving with a lack of fuss.
Much of “The Observer” is an ends-vs.-means play. Were the writing less bogged down in debate and scenes less intent on showing what is all too predictable, its important questions about what is allowed in pursuit of a larger goal and a greater good would resonate more strongly.