Lee Harvey Oswald – Finborough Theatre – Carole Woddis.


Remembrance Day looming.  So too, at the end of the month, Nov 22nd.

It’s now 50 years since Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have pulled the trigger in the Book Depository building opposite from John F Kennedy’s cavalcade as it made its way through downtown Dallas.  Forty eight hours later, as he was being transferred to a county jail, he was shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

Ever since, speculation, controversy – and conspiracy theorists – have continued unabated.

So it’s good to be reacquainted with a play that tries to look at some of the conundrums of both the evidence and the personalities who were involved.

Three years after JFK’s assassination, British playwright, Michael Hastings (later known for Tom & Viv,  about the troubled marriage of T S Eliot and his wife Vivienne), attempted to pin down the personality of the equally turbulent times of Lee Harvey O.

Hastings was interested in how biography could be played out in the theatre.  And Lee Harvey Oswald (subtitled A Far Mean Streak of Independence Brought on by Negleck) revived now at the powerhouse that is the tiny Finborough Theatre in west London, is both a confirmation of the effectiveness of the genre but in this particular production, also raises its own dramatic question marks.

Theatrical documentary can leave you feeling you could do just as well reading an article or seeing the tv news.  Even with someone as skilled as David Hare in his heavily researched `factionalised’ version of the Iraq War, Stuff Happens, there were moments when one wondered if the style worked.

Hastings finds a clever way to deliver information, firstly by having the main witnesses cross-examined by a lawyer from the Commission – the Warren Commission that was set up very soon after to investigate – and secondly by a fictionalised exploration of the possible relationship between Oswald, his Russian born wife Marina and his mother.

In the Finborough production, by far the more successful moments come from this interplay of oppositional personalities and societies.  Oswald was a renegade from and a deep critic of, capitalism.  At 16, he was already declaring himself a Marxist.  Within a few years, he had travelled to live and work in Russia where he married Marina.  When they returned to the US, he evidently found it difficult to get or hold down jobs.

Hastings portrays an anxious, working class outsider, a loner, albeit one who read widely, And also a wife-beater.  His relationship with his mother is, at best, fraught.

Marina, by contrast, is cool, obedient, submitting to the volcanic eruptions and volatility of her husband and occasionally hinting, as her mother-in-law is at pains to point out to the Commission, that she may be in the US for other reasons than only a better way of life.

Was she an agent?  Was Oswald, whose return to the US was paid for by the American Embassy in Moscow, an agent?

In Alex Thorpe’s production, Gemma Lawrence supplies a fascinating performance of a woman who may be more than she seems.  Adam Gillen unfortunately overplays Oswald’s personality defects, delivering more of a fully fledged psychopath, complete with little boy vulnerability switching to violent, screaming bully that isn’t always entirely helpful in convincing us what held these two opposite poles together.

Between the domestic frays, Patrick Poletti’s cross-examinations give us other, factual information.  In a larger venue, these episodes might have added a much needed distance providing historical as well as a philosophical perspective.

But for those who would like to be reminded of the issues surrounding what was then and remains the official, unsatisfactory `line’ on who killed JFK, this will prove well worth the journey.

Lee Harvey Oswald is at the Finborough Theatre to Nov 19, with special perf Nov 22nd; see www.finboroughtheatre.com for more details.

© Carole Woddis, 8/11/13.