Everyone loves a rebel, in life and in fiction. David Bowie knew it. James Dean knew it. Louis XVI came to know it. But if you’re going to rebel, it helps to be cool. Cool Hand Luke opened last month at the Aldwych, adapted by Emma Reeves from Donn Pearce‘s 1965 novel and directed by Andrew Loudon.
Set in a 1940s Florida prison camp, the play follows decorated WWII veteran Luke “shoot or give up the gun” Jackson (Marc Warren), who marches out of the army and into a two-year prison sentence for vandalising parking meters. Luke disrupts life inside, pulling various stunts and escape attempts, to the joy of the inmates. They like him. They think he’s cool.
Warren weaves skillfully between vulnerability and violence…
Truth is, they’re all cool. The ensemble is superb with nary a false note between them, the Brits comfortably at home in their Southern drawls. Scene changes are punctuated by a female singing duo/quartet, whose gospel songs cleverly give the flavour of the era, comment on the action and help Luke keep his cool; he may feel “like a motherless child a long way from home,” but its cooler if ladies articulate these insights for him.
Warren weaves skillfully between vulnerability and violence, wearing Luke’s chains whilst making it clear that no one is pulling his strings. Richard Brake is frostily magnetic in slacks and shades as Boss Godfrey, and Lee Boardman brings energy and laughs as Dragline, the inmate relating Luke’s escapades to the gang.
…there are only two choices: shoot or give up the gun.
Cool Hand Luke, however, reveals itself as more than your cockle-warming prison buddy yarn. Loudon does not shy away from showing the violence perpetrated both by and on the prisoners, directly addressing man’s capacity for both the diabolical and the divine. It is in the conflict between these that we find our common humanity, and, beneath all the jokes and stunts, the struggle of being human is what burns at the heart of this production. Prisoners and bosses alike need something to believe in to help them go on, be it God, their parole, or Luke.
We know what tends to happen to rebels, but they are loved because they remind us to live fiercely – to choose a side and fight for it – because when it comes to the crunch there are only two choices: shoot or give up the gun.
The production continues until 7 January 2012.
Tickets from £15
Image courtesy of Cool Hand Luke