The finest song in Hamilton hymns the urge to be in “the room where it happens” and also proves that drama can be built out of exclusion from the place where the big decisions are taken. Nancy Harris’s new play seizes on this to show the wives of the French and American presidents engaging in their own power battles during a summit conference and the result, over the course of 95 minutes, is provocatively amusing before descending into improbability.
The setting is the Cote d’Azur, where the US president has come to seek his French counterpart’s support for military strikes in retaliation for terrorist acts that have left a thousand dead. But Harris’s focus is on the excluded first ladies and she hasn’t strayed far from reality. Sophia, the American first lady, is a Croatian ex-model whom her rich, rightwing husband treats as a useful trophy. Helen, an English former journalist, is the wife of the French president and is significantly older than her husband, over whom she is said to exert undue influence.
So far, so familiar, and Harris gets plenty of mileage out of the frustrations of the two women. Aside from being shut out of the pivotal debates and unable to reach her husband, Helen complains that public banquets leave one permanently hungry. Sophia, who arrives spattered in blood after being attacked by protesters, is manipulated by a zealous press officer and claims that her husband “speaks to me only in front of other people”. Initially regarding each other with wary suspicion, the two women eventually bond and devise ways of radically overturning male power structures.
The play is persuasive up to a point. It falls apart only when the two women attempt to seize control. It is difficult to list the play’s implausibilities without revealing too much of the plot but a few points can be made. The geopolitical premise is unlikely: you wonder why, during a crisis, the US president seeks support from France rather than exploiting the “special relationship”. The two ladies, both of whom have been badly wronged, assume, too, that the world could be changed by an act of violence on their part.
That may be wishful thinking but it’s hard to see how it offers an alternative to global terrorism. It also ignores the fact that women such as Hillary Clinton and President François Hollande’s ex-partner Ségolène Royal have opted for the democratic path to power.
But, for all the play’s illogicalities, Nicholas Hytner’s production is pleasant to watch and boasts two strong performances. Zoë Wanamaker captures to perfection Helen’s bristling anger not just at her politically and sexually errant husband but at the patronising assumption that age, rather than intelligence, confers wisdom: as she ebulliently cries, “I could wipe the floor with the whole fucking lot of them.” Zrinka Cvitešić is equally good at convincing you of Sophia’s tormented past and desire to show the world that she is infinitely more than a glamorous presidential adornment. Lorna Brown as her press aide also stands up vigorously for female independence. But, while Harris’s play is passionately on the side of women who are not in the room where it happens, its suggestion that they should gain access by force is puzzlingly counterproductive.
At the Bridge theatre, London, until 26 October.