Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is set to arrive at the O’Reilly with a bang in 7th week. First performed off-Broadway in 1990, the revue-style musical presents nine would-be assassins in murderous attempts (only three of which are successful) spanning two centuries of American history.
The scenario is intriguing. An eerie Proprietor (Femi Nylander), who shape-shifts into an executioner, has the nine characters in limbo; the musical presents imagined encounters between the assassins which are charged with a disturbing and comic energy. Presiding over them all is Niall Docherty as the ghostly Balladeer, who guides the audience around the narratives and functions alternately as a silent judge and devil-angel conscience of the characters.
The cast are thrillingly good. Docherty in particular seems set to shine, stalking the stage with a manic energy while maintaining a superb vocal performance. Further excellently controlled performances come from Luke Rollason as a hauntingly defeated Guiteau, Jasper Gold as the manic-depressive Samuel Byck, and Sammy Breen as John Wilkes Booth, assassinator of Abraham Lincoln; all three offer poignant portrayals of fatally deluded characters. Much attention has also been paid to the group scenes; the horribly difficult four-part harmonies of The Gun Song are executed to perfection, while the Ensemble are self-consciously of the “cheesy musical-theatre” tradition until a revelatory moment towards the end of the musical, producer Emily Lunnon explains.
Working alongside Lunnon is director Silas Elliott, who has exciting plans for how Assassins will take advantage of the O’Reilly’s space. Elliott plans to have a multi-levelled rostrum, which will alternately function as a viewing platform for the spectral Presidents, an electric chair and more. He also explains that a projector screen along the decking is part of a plan to “embrace 21st-century technology” in order to evoke the distinct periods of each assassin as vividly as possible.
Lunnon points out that the production does not really need an overt agenda or ‘new angle’, as the musical “speaks for itself”. Certainly, if Assassins is performed in its entirety with the same sensitivity that I saw in the preview – committed to a nuanced presentation of characters who could very easily become unsympathetic caricatures – it will powerfully show how the American Dream fails people. Moreover, the production team are planning to display biographical information in the foyer; this is a production intending to make people curious about its characters’ fascinating stories.
It is also evidently a project that has been carefully thought through by the cast and creative team, and looks likely to create thrilling, thought-provoking theatre. Assassins will run from 26th–29th November (Wednesday–Saturday of 7th week) at the O’Reilly Theatre at Keble College.
Assassins is running at the Keble O’Reilly from the 26-29th November