15 June, 2009Issue 9.8The ArtsTheatre

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Free and Fair Enough

Tumi Makgetla

toibinMatt Charman
The Observer
Directed by Richard Eyre
The National Theatre until July 8

When seasoned election observer Fiona Russell (Anna Chancellor) encourages a man who has been savagely beaten for ferrying people to the polls to use a van to carry even greater numbers, her faith in the power of elections to achieve democracy seems callously short-sighted. The man’s mother, who has brought a bloodied rearview mirror to Russell and her team of international observers in the hopes that they will do something about the violence, is mortified at the suggestion; she literally cannot understand Russell, who assures her loudly and slowly in English that her son’s actions should make her proud.

This scene in Matt Charman’s new play The Observer throws the tensions surrounding the role of electoral observers into relief. As the title suggests, the play is primarily concerned with the electoral umpires responsible for determining whether the process of an election are sufficiently “free and fair” to consider the results valid. In the aforementioned scene, the woman’s unrealistic faith in the observers’ powers highlights the limited authority that they wield in a local context despite the possible significance of their findings. This dynamic underpins a central concern of the play, the dissonance between the observers’ idealized conception of elections and the imperfect manner in which they are inevitably executed.

The bureaucratic task of electoral monitoring might not seem to be the stuff of high drama. The observers are hardly dashing heroes, clothed, as they are, in uniforms of blue polo shirts and khaki pants, with officious laminated identity tags hung from their necks. The play reveals, however, that the observers are routinely placed in situations where they must make snap judgments based largely on their own intuition. This puts a strain on the team and calls into question their legitimacy when quick decisions are shown to have important consequences.

A strong ensemble cast under the direction of Richard Eyre ably explores the ways in which the observers and locals negotiate personal and professional objectives. In a tense face-off with an army general, Russell strives to get the incumbent to accept electoral defeat while the general seeks to define the terms of his concession. The shock that flits across the face of her interpreter highlights the extent to which she has brazenly taken on responsibility to engage him on matters beyond her remit.

Charman paints the work of the international electoral observer team as a highly subjective and immensely difficult task. The interpretative nature of the observers’ work is captured in a scene where Russell and her team of two argue over what to include in their report. Should they include reports that student opposition supporters were intimidated and forced to eat their placards? Was this shown to materially have affected the elections? Once one accepts that standards of fair elections are often set impossibly high, and that that impossibility often leads to a slackening of the criteria for assessment, such judgments are almost dangerously arbitrary.

The impartiality of Russell’s decisions is threatened, however, not by unrealistic monitoring criteria, but by her preferences for the opposition candidate. She puts more stock in the possibilities offered by a change in leadership than the prospect of continued rule under the ogre-ish autocrat who ruled the country before the onset of multiparty electoral competition. Motivated by these preferences, she convinces the electoral commission to allow her team to register more voters in between the first closely contested elections and the next round run-off.

Blind to the degree of her involvement, she defends her action in terms of a principled interest in enabling citizens to vote. This tension drives the plot as Russell struggles to deny the true implications of her action, evoking the travails of numerous other naïve protagonists such as Alden Pyle in The Quiet American. Chancellor gives a convincing portrayal of an emotionally inaccessible workaholic, self-righteously executing her office out of a blind faith in the power and importance of elections. To the extent that her breakdown in the second half becomes tiresomely weepy, it is a weakness of the plot, which, in a moralizing turn toward tragedy, overdoes her descent into dejection.

Placing the play in a “fictitious, Igbo-speaking, former colony in West Africa”, Charman runs the risk of distorting the intricacies of the continent. He skirts this danger with credibly complex characters, successfully avoiding the misrepresentations that could so easily riddle a play about conflict in Africa. A scene where Russell confronts the electoral commission to ask if she can help them register more voters could easily have become a cliché: the defender of democracy, facing off against lazy, self-interested African office-bearers. As the episode unfolds, however, our faith in her is undermined by her self-righteousness, even as she betrays her inferior knowledge of the country’s electoral law. In turn, we become more sympathetic to the commissioners as we realise their commitment to ensuring peace in their country.

Ultimately, the play offers a pessimistic view of elections and democratization, suggesting that a competitive struggle for the people’s vote is necessary but not sufficient to create a democratic system of government. The Observer reminds us of the human aspect of a subject often deadened by statistics, showing how a democratic procedure that has become routine in many developed countries can be a battleground in others.

Tumi Makgetla is reading for an MPhil Politics in Comparative Government at New College, Oxford. She is a contributing editor of the Oxonian Review.