It was the biggest laugh line of the night, but it wasn't a joke. "We are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good," says U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a line originally delivered at his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing.
As delivered by actor Peter Davison in London's Vaudeville Theatre on April 24, the line got a big laugh drenched in irony from the primarily British audience. Tillerson is one of the "characters" in a play, All the President's Men? devised by director Nicolas Kent, based on verbatim testimony from this year's Trump administration confirmation hearings by the U.S. Senate. Kent, former artistic director at the Tricycle Theatre in London, pioneered this type of documentary theatre — focusing on such issues as detention in Guantanamo Bay, and Britain's involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The director thinks it's unlikely the line about American exceptionalism will be greeted the same way in New York City, when the play receives a one-night reading at the Town Hall theater on Broadway on May 11, in a collaboration between London's National Theatre and the Public Theater in New York. "For an English audience, that [line] comes across as rather curious," Kent says, in a telephone interview. "[In America], I think that is generally how people think."
The play is centered round the senate hearing of four of Trump's nominees— Tillerson, who is now Secretary of State, Tom Price, who is now Health Secretary, Scott Pruitt, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions— and their cross-examination by a committee of senators from both parties. Ellen Burstyn will play Elizabeth Warren in the May 11 reading, Ron Rifkin as Bernie Sanders, Aasif Mandvi as Pruitt and Senator Todd Young, and New Yorker editor David Remnick as Al Franken.
The choice of four male, white candidates, as opposed to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, was deliberate. "I think they were most representative of the most important areas of policy that the Trump administration would affect people worldwide," he says. They also were the most precise reflection of the lawmakers asking the questions. " The thing I found most interesting about this was how male, white and old the Senate was," he says. "What comes across is the complicity between the questioners and the questioned."
To create the play, Kent had to whittle down around 22 hours of testimony into less than three hours. At points, the London production was slow-moving, as Senate hearings of this kind tend to be, but Kent says the Public Theater's iteration will be shorter by around 15 minutes. The President himself is something of an elephant in the room; Kent projected selected tweets by the Commander-in-Chief between scenes in London, but suggests he might leave Trump offstage completely in New York.
Instead, center stage in All the President's Men? is the rigid partisan divide, the evasive answers of the then-nominees, and the alarming conflicts of interests: be it Exxon Mobil's alleged objections to Russian sanctions under Tillerson's charge, Sessions' voting record, Pruitt's doubts about carbon dioxide affecting climate change and Price's healthcare stock portfolio. But then again, haven't these things been dissected to death by the media? Isn't this old news?
Kent disagrees. This kind of theater acts as a "living newspaper," he says, in that it has the power to hold people's fickle attentions and give them a fresh perspective. "As you read a newspaper article, you may stick with it for 10 minutes or quarter of an hour..[verbatim plays] demands some form of participation and it's effective," he says. "You're actually sitting down, looking at something, thinking about it in depth, getting a rounded view about it, and you're seeing it with a number of people who in a way focus your impression of it."
Unlike a British newspaper at least, Kent strives for impartiality in his verbatim theater. In All The President's Men? he says he attempted to be as fair to both Republicans and the Democrats as he can be, never cutting to a different answer following a question and working through the testimonies chronologically. But he admits his choices of subject matter reflect his political thinking. "I don't do Srebenica because I am in favor of genocide. I don't do Guantanamo because I am in favor of imprisonments indefinitely without trial. So obviously by taking this process, I am saying to some extent this is giving me cause for concern on world affairs," he says.
This year's Senate hearings already had a big audience — they were streamed live on various news sites, and many of the exchanges in All the President's Men? will be familiar to politics fans. One scene where Bernie Sanders grills Price over healthcare has garnered half a million views on YouTube.
Seeing it on stage brought the issues into sharper focus for this U.K.-based audience member. But Kent says he's hoping for a more electric response across the Atlantic. "This play is for Americans," he says. "I think they will be shocked."