A twist on the Edward Snowden story, Mike Bartlett’s new play “Wild” is really an examination of rampant rational skepticism. If ours is a world in which nothing is what it seems and nobody can be trusted — and Snowden pretty much proved as much — how exactly do we go on living in it? In the play’s world premiere in London, Bartlett (“King Charles III”) holes up an American whistleblower in a Moscow hotel room with his rising paranoia and lets his world come tumbling down — something Miriam Buether’s design stretches to realize rather spectacularly.
Actually, “Wild” feels like a stage direction with a play tacked on. In its final five minutes, the whole thing turns on its head, and Bartlett and Buether turn the stage into a brilliant metaphor for a topsy-turvy world in which nothing is fixed. Until that point, however, it’s a fairly flat-footed affair that exists, almost entirely, to set up a finale.
Secluded in a soulless Moscow hotel suite, three days after undertaking the biggest data drop in history, Andrew — a jittery, joyless dude played by Snowden-a-like Jack Farthing — waits for someone to tell him what’s going on. In the event, two turn up: One, calling herself George (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and claiming to work for some tech bigwig stuck in an embassy; the other, also apparently George (John Mackay), claiming the same. It’s up to Andrew to decide which of them, if either, he can trust, and whether he has any other option.
With two manic interrogators (friendly but barbed) and a frazzled everyman under house arrest, Bartlett’s playing with literary allusions to Pinter and Kafka. Yet he finds neither the menace of the former, not the logical lunacy of the latter. Instead, the two spooks just seem a little off-kilter, too out-there for the real situation and not out-there enough to unsettle. With a fair whack of exposition and explanation, this is a talky play that press gangs its characters into moral debate. Anyone who’s thought about Snowden will have considered most of this long before director James Macdonald’s production begins.
In fact, Bartlett’s best lines of inquiry are specifically psychological, picking at the whistleblower’s motivations for his actions and the implications on his own life. Why would somebody give up their entire life, and perhaps even life itself, to reveal widespread corruption? Is it altruism or self-interest? Conviction or boredom? Vanity or naivete? Andrew isn’t the brightest — not dumb, but no Einstein — but with one click he’s secured his place in history. What next? What’s life when your legacy is already set?
But the real focus of “Wild” is what happens to a world with its cover blown. Do we build something else, or carry on, heads in the sand, as if nothing’s changed? Having pulled back the curtain, Andrew can’t be certain that the world behind it is any more real. The whisky in his minibar tastes odd. His desk phone’s an empty case. In outing mass surveillance, Snowden ensured he’d be spied on. He made his own fears a reality, and ensured any paranoia had a basis in fact. Whistleblowing was like waving at those watching.
Bartlett’s written for a specific space before — “Game,” for example, set a domestic drama in a shooting range — and here uses theatrical reality to expose reality as a set-up. Buether’s set reveals itself as just that: a set. Andrew’s hotel room folds itself away. Its walls fly upwards. Furniture flatpacks back down. It would be a coup de theatre were it not for the visible cracks and joins from the get-go, serving as telltale signs of what’s coming. Buether goes one step further — another huge twist that literally turns everything on its axis — but that’s spottable too. Spectacular? Yes. Contrived? You bet.
Buether (“Love and Information,” “Escaped Alone,” “Bend It Like Beckham”) can be the best designer in Britain, but she can also be the worst, and her sets sometimes squeeze the life out of plays by doing everything alone — a design solo — rather than creating a space to hold and illuminate the action. That’s what happened here and, if Bartlett’s play wasn’t quite so limp already, Buether’s design would have hobbled it. Which, you wonder, came first?