A Mirror at the Almeida Theatre review: thrilling and infuriating in equal measure

Micheal Ward and Jonny Lee Miller in A Mirror  (Marc Brenner)
Micheal Ward and Jonny Lee Miller in A Mirror (Marc Brenner)

Rarely have I been simultaneously so thrilled and infuriated by a play. Sam Holcroft’s arch comedy about a playwright navigating an authoritarian regime is a beautifully crafted, mind-bending piece of work.

Jeremy Herrin’s production features a rivetingly OTT central turn from Jonny Lee Miller that burns his past heartthrob image to the ground, and fine, subtle performances from Sex Education’s Tanya Reynolds and rising star Micheal Ward, making a quietly charismatic stage debut.

But A Mirror is also a tiresomely metatheatrical paean to the writer as hero and martyr, and a disquisition on the nature of truth and authenticity. For much of the uninterrupted two-hour running time I absolutely hated it.

Initially we’re ushered in as guests to the cheap ‘n’ cheesy wedding of Leyla (Reynolds) and Joel (Ward), with a sweaty, leather-gloved Miller officiating. An alarm is raised, the set cleared, and we are suddenly in the culture ministry of a hazily sketched autocracy. Former soldier Adem (Ward) has been summoned to discuss the moral failings of his verbatim play about life in his crappy housing block with bureaucrat Čelik (Miller).

Bullet-headed and physically contorted with power fantasies and sexual longing, Čelik compels his embarrassed young assistant Mei (Reynolds) and Adem to act the play out with him, then offers to mentor Adem through the maze of government censorship.

Jonny Lee Miller, Tanya Reynolds and Micheal Ward (Mark Brenner)
Jonny Lee Miller, Tanya Reynolds and Micheal Ward (Mark Brenner)

Adem responds by writing a perfect transcription of this encounter. He’s a truth-teller, you see, whose hyper-realist scripts exposes the hypocrisies of Čelik and his friend, the nation’s neutered star playwright Bax (Geoffrey Streatfield). He will, it is implied, eventually defeat totalitarianism, even if his hands are smashed and his life extinguished.

The wedding scenario periodically reappears, there’s a jagged live cello accompaniment and more play-within-a-play layers are added to wrong-foot us, including a finale that gives actor Aaron Neil 10 minutes of stage time. I hope he gets a full wage.

Holcroft wrote this after visiting North Korea then meeting genuinely oppressed playwrights at a conference in Beirut, and it’s clearly a sincere work. But there’s nothing more boring than a writer writing about how important writers are. Except when that writer is assembling lazy tropes of tyranny (spurious military victories, place names like “Unity Square”, Shakespeare’s plays banned etc) in a society that’s still relatively free, while also musing chin-strokingly about truth and storytelling.

This remains a cleverly wrought, thoughtful piece, its tricksiness well-served by Herrin. Miller, Reynolds and the slow-smouldering Ward are excellent. It made me want to pull my own head off in exasperation, though. If the Almeida is dedicated to truth and authenticity, they can put that on a poster.

Almeida Theatre, to September 23; almeida.co.uk