Stage Door Review
Monday, January 30, 2023
by David Haig, directed by John Dove & Josh Roche
David Mirvish, Royal Alexandra Theatre,Toronto
January 29-March 5, 2023
Eisenhower: “If you’re wrong thousands of men will go to their deaths”
Some advertising for David Haig’s 2014 Pressure call it a play about “the most important weather forecast of all time”. Some people might say that claim should be reserved for the forecast of 40 days and 40 nights of rain that Noah received. It’s true that the subject of Pressure is weather, but if that’s all Haig’s play were about people would be right to think the subject was boring. In fact, in Haig’s hands the subject absolutely gripping. Pressure is a tautly written play of mounting tension leavened with humour. The production is beautifully detailed and the acting and direction are impeccable.
In terms of the play “the most important weather forecast of all time” is the forecast for D-Day. The Allied forces, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower known as “Ike", plan to invade continental Europe from Britain in what would become the largest seaborne invasion in history. It would turn the tide against the takeover of Europe by the Axis Powers. Eisenhower had decided that June 5 would be D-Day, but, to be certain, he chooses two meteorologists to determine if the weather that day will be suitable for such a massive invasion. The chief meteorologist is the Scotsman James Stagg, who has studied weather patterns in Northern Europe for more than 30 years. Stagg’s assistant is the American meteorologist Irving P. Krick, who had served as Eisenhower’s weatherman since 1941.
The central conflict in the play is that the two do not agree and the fate of the 350,000 men under Eisenhower’s command depends on the day that the two men choose. The conflict arises because the two have fundamentally different ways of analyzing weather patterns. Krick’s method, called the “analog technique”, analyzed old weather maps for the same day in past years and believed these would predict the weather for that day in the future. Krick’s greatest triumph using this method was to predict when there would be three days of fine weather for the scene of the burning of Atlanta in the film Gone with the Wind (1939).
Stagg, in contrast, sees the analog technique as completely unscientific. It relies on looking at two-dimensional representations of weather even though weather is not a two-dimensional phenomenon. As Stagg states with irony, “Americans can’t think in three dimensions”. Stagg thinks in three dimensions and is concerned with how jet streams affect weather patterns below it. The idea of a jet stream was new having been identified and named only in 1939 by German meteorologist Heinrich Seilkopf. Krick doesn’t even believe that jet streams exist. Stagg’s method requires constant monitoring of current weather conditions to determine whether trends emerge. His view that the weather can be predicted only 24-hours into the future is precisely not what Eisenhower wants to hear.
While the play’s immediate focus is if the weather for June 5 will be suitable for invasion. Haig plays Stagg and Krick against each other in such a way that we can see a larger concern emerge. When Eisenhower has to choose between Stagg and Krick, he is choosing between two completely different ways of looking at the world. Krick’s stance is that the past is the guide to the future. The past June 5ths he has selected to look at predict that the coming June 5th will be fine. Stagg’s stance is that only constant observation of what is happening now is a guide to the future. Weather is changeable and all factors have to be taken into consideration before any prediction can be made.
The Krick-Stagg division reminded me strongly of how people approached the appearance of Covid. One side, let’s say the Krick faction, said that Covid was only a type of flu and that no special precautions needed to be take, The other side, let’s say the Stagg faction, said that Covid is indeed a type of flu but it is behaving in a different and more deadly way, and new precautions had to be taken and new vaccines developed. Krick’s view is characterized by narrow-mindedness, rigidity and unfounded confidence; Stagg’s by open-mindedness, flexibility and well-founded caution. In this way Haig’s play achieves resonances beyond its specific historical subject matter.
For the current production by the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the Chichester Festival, co-directors John Dove and Josh Roche have re-assembled the entire creative team and two of the three actors of the three principal roles of the original production. The newcomer to the show is Kevin Doyle, who replaces the playwright David Haig as Stagg. Doyle, of course, is best known for is role as Mr. Molesley from the Downton Abbey television series and the two Downton Abbey films. Doyle’s portrayal of Stagg involves constantly projecting several layers of emotion at once, a feat we seldom see accomplished on our stages.
His Stagg is firm in his belief that his method is the only accurate one and his experience greater than that of anyone else of his subject. He can’t bother to hide his disdain for Krick. At the same time, being human, Stagg has his doubts and must subdue the fear “What if I am wrong?” Simultaneously with his work for Eisenhower, Stagg’s wife is pregnant and in hospital with preeclampsia, a condition that can lead to death. As the hours pass and hears nothing from the hospital, Stagg’s private worries threaten to undermine his public duties. Yet, at other times it seems as if Stagg throws himself into his work to drown out his worries. Doyle brilliantly portrays Stagg in all his complexity.
Malcolm Sinclair and Laura Rogers are the two actors who have been with this production from the very beginning. Sinclair’s turn as Eisenhower was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2019. It is a bravura performance. Like Doyle’s portrayal of Stagg, Sinclair’s portrayal of Eisenhower allows us to read the subtext of what the character is saying as clearly as what he says aloud. Sinclair shows that Eisenhower is desperate for certainty but is frustrated with the reality that weather prediction does not deal in certainties.
His Eisenhower can fly into a rage when a protocol is broken and yet be calmed when the reason for the lapse is fully explained. In judging between the views of Krick and Stagg, Eisenhower must choose between what he would like to be true and what may actually be true, and Sinclair beautifully shows this internal struggle playing out within the general. In a long speech in Act 2, Eisenhower explains the huge burden he carries of ordering young men into battles knowing lives will be lost. He can only hope that the cost will not be too high. With this speech Sinclair caps a great performance of a man coping with an almost unbearable responsibility.
People may not know that like Stagg and Eisenhower, Kay Summersby is also based on a real person. She was Eisenhower’s private secretary and she and Eisenhower were rumoured to be having an affair. As written by Haig, following the most recent views of two, there is no reason to believe that their relationship moved beyond intense mutual admiration. Laura Rogers plays a completely no-nonsense woman who is a mechanic as well as a driver and secretary. Though in public she betrays no emotions, in private her impulse to care for Eisenhower emerges naturally. She takes an instant dislike to Stagg, but one of the pleasures of the play is to see how as she gets to know the harried man better the more she comes to like him and even feels she can tell him how best to deal with his anxieties. Rogers presents a model of military efficiency underlaid with personal compassion for those who have to make the hardest decisions.
In smaller roles Philip Cairns’s portrayal of Irving Krick is one of a man caught up in the glory of his authority and unwilling to share it with anyone like Stagg whose theories he doesn’t understand. David Killick plays the upright Admiral Bertram Ramsey but he provides a welcome purely comic interlude as an aged electrician who natters away nonstop on trivial matters once he enters Stagg’s office until he leaves. It’s a wonderful reminder that there is an enormous range of people working on Operation Overlord, the name of the D-Day project, and an example that they all are only human.
Dove and Roche have judged the pace of action perfectly. Tim Mitchell’s naturalistic lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s projections on the cyclorama beyond the French doors of Colin Richmond’s finely weathered set are key to a play were every change of light outdoors may spell either military or personal disaster.
There’s no doubt that Pressure is a play written in a very traditional style and would not be out of place among certain plays written 60 or 70 years ago. Nevertheless, after a series of scathingly satirical plays on gruesome subjects staged in a non-naturalistic manner, Pressure comes as a pleasant reminder of the virtues of clarity in the best traditional plays and the beauty there is in the mastery of naturalistic staging and acting. The amazing thing about Pressure is that we already know the outcome of the story and yet it is still thrilling. Haig has managed to get us so caught up in how personally investing the characters are in what they do that the play keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Photos: Kevin Doyle as James Stagg; Philip Cairns as Colonel Irving Krick, Malcolm Sinclair as General Eisenhower and Kevin Doyle as James Stagg, (in background) Stuart Milligan as Commander Franklin, Laura Rogers as Kay Summersby, James Sheldon as Lieutenant Battersby and Matthew Darcy as Andrew; Malcolm Sinclair as General Eisenhower and Laura Rogers as Kay Summersby. © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann.
For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.