Morality in a Fledgling Democracy

Matt Charman’s new play, The Observer, questions the role of impartiality in contemporary international politics.

Western democracy has long been considered the blueprint of the ‘civilised world’, but a new play at the National Theatre questions the legitimacy of this dominance and explores the extent to which a burgeoning democracy can be nurtured before becoming its own form of rule by force.

The Observer is Matt Charman’s third play, and his second production at the National Theatre after the successful reception of 2007’s The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder. The young writer’s diversity of subject matter is remarkable, lurching from greyhound racing, to polygamy, and on to international politics with his latest production. As a writer, Charman takes inspiration from today’s saturation of media and often stumbles across his theme, “very often I realise that I’ve come to that world from a different angle. For example, my second play was actually a play about marriage and monogamy, but it was looked at through a prism of polygamy.” Charman’s process is very much character-led. “You’ve got to be partly in love with your characters and partly loathe them in order to push them around the page, to see where they’ll go and where they’ll end up taking you.”

The setting of The Observer is a fictional West African country on the cusp of its first democratic elections, focusing on a group of international observers. The observers are a veritable part of the democratic process, independent agents placed into an election situation by the international community to oversee voting. Fiona Russell is a member of this team, and the play’s exploration of acceptability focuses on her role in the election. Overseeing the first round of voting, Fiona bares witness to the ugly side of the country’s transition, with voter intimidation rife and members of the electorate being denied their right to vote after journeys of up to six miles to the polling station. Gradually transgressing from the independence expected of a moderator, Fiona takes action to the country’s court officials in an effort to register higher voter numbers for the election’s second round. In what is perceived as a further intervention, the newly registered voters are disproportionately rural, resulting in the fictitious tyrant who has held power for so long, being felled by the interference of the supposed ‘observer.’

The developed world’s interpretations of Africa can suffer from generalisations about the continent, it becomes a homogonous whole with national boundaries, diversities and differing political situations overlooked in one-dimensional characters. Charman’s writing is at pains to avoid such generalisations, with the character of Daniel, Fiona’s young interpreter, taking the audience on a journey of discovery. Daniel’s political alliances are ambiguous, he recognises the terrible state of his country under totalitarian rule, but he calls Fiona to task over her impositions. Stating: “I hated my President but I think I hate your intervention more,” his voice becomes the play’s strongest argument with a passion that leaves a lasting impression in comparison to the observers’ cool inquisitiveness. Aware of these pitfalls, Charman instilled Daniel as the play’s focal point: “I had to invest in him exactly what I’d invested in every other western character. The problem of generalisation comes when a writer or artist uses an indigenous population as a foil to bounce the story off.” Daniel recognises his country’s predicament, that they are between a rock and a hard place, and his self-interest is important because, “when Fiona’s held to account, if Daniel’s arguments aren’t heartfelt, true and informed by his world, then the play wouldn’t work.”

Charman’s research process was immersive. Studying to be an observer himself, he notes the remarkable nature of the profession’s impartiality, especially considering the personal commitment required. Fiona’s transgression is excusable when her time away from home, and her crumbling marriage in the face of such work commitments, are considered. Nevertheless, this protagonist is exceptional to her profession. “I’ve tried to surround Fiona in the play with observers who ask her questions, I think that’s important.” Of paramount value is an observer’s impartiality, “most observers are remarkably diligent people who do tricky jobs in thankless circumstances”, so Charman has exercised significant poetic licence with Fiona. “Of course drama doesn’t exist in normality, in things going right, so you get to the point where you put that aside, wipe your mind, and think where’s the fiction, where’s the story?”

The Observer questions the role of Western democracy, and the increasingly confused reality between right and wrong. Fiona’s genuine belief is that she is helping the country in its route to democracy, that she somehow has a right to its destiny because of her own personal sacrifices to the cause. The opposition’s political credentials are clear, in the face of the incumbent’s violent campaign the play’s conclusion is the only preference for the audience, and for Fiona’s government, but the means of implementation are morally questionable. These questions began the writing process. Charman expands: “Nowadays we have a judgement on things and it’s very hard to be impartial. You can imagine being on the ground in a country where you are met with some things that would really change your mind and make you see the situation in a different way, so I posed that to myself as a question. What would happen if someone couldn’t stay impartial, if someone felt the need to cross the line for the right reason? Or so she thinks.”

And is Charman highlighting the dominance of the Western democratic ideal, an Anglo-American unflinching belief in a one-size fits all formula? “For me, it’s fresh-faced, looking at democracy as an adult and asking how I feel about this. How do you reconcile the deals that are made in order for a democracy to emerge with a debt to the foreign powers that have helped them on their way? More often than not, most democracies emerge to get money from the International Monetary Fund, so in a sense, we’re encouraging democracy by giving people money. I haven’t necessarily reconciled these issues in my mind but this play discusses that idea.”

One character, Waletta comments, “to start with they are all good men. You wait till he has the army and the police in his pocket. You see how good he is then.” Power holds unquestionable potential to corrupt, and The Observer draws clear parallels with the UK’s recent history both domestically and abroad. “From Mugabe, who when he was elected was very much backed by the West, to our own Western leaders, who we often think occupy a different moral frame, but they spend 10 years in power and get their hands dirty and inevitably fall off the pedestal.” In light of such misjudgements the play becomes peculiarly poignant. There is a tragic reverence in Daniel’s dying father’s comment that, “blood is a hopeful sign. It means they’re panicking.” This proximity of blood and hope is significant, and it alerts the viewer to the possibility of bad deeds not only as a consequence of good, but also as a precursor – things are far from black and white.

The Observer challenges the dichotomy of today’s entertainment. “That’s how I see the world really – there are no goodies or baddies, there’s no right or wrong. The more we move along and the more we learn about freedom fighters and terrorist cells, even in extreme cases, we start to realise that you can’t characterise them in a way that the Bush administration would have liked us to characterise them.” It is an integral process of art to alert us to our own society’s shortcomings; the prerogative of the writer is to raise these questions and alert us to the confusions and complications in life. “You turn over stones that are full of strange people, desires, wants and needs, and they aren’t black and white, they are full of grey areas. Art has to live in that grey zone, to have a constant question mark at the end of everything you read and see. That’s what keeps pushing us forward all the time. I don’t think that’s a conscious thing I think it’s just an inevitability of art.”

The Observer was showing at the National Theatre until 8 July 2009.

Pauline Bache