Assassins hits the bullseye

Sondheim fans don’t need anyone to convince them to see a production of Assassins, and they are selling out fortyfivedownstairs every night to see new a company, Watch This, take aim and fire.

Matt Holly, Nadine Garner, Sonya Suares and Mark Dickinson in Assassins
Matt Holly, Nadine Garner, Sonya Suares and Mark Dickinson in Assassins

Assassins was first produced Off-Broadway in 1990 and at London’s Donmar Warhouse in 1992, the MTC showed it to Melbourne in 1995 and the Broadway revival was set to open in 2001, but was postponed in the light of the September 11 attacks and the nature of its material. It’s a show about people who assassinated or tried to assassinate US presidents.

With a book by Tony Award nominee John Weidman, it’s a bitter and darkly funny look at American culture and how the American dream can go so wrong that some need to blame and punish. By presenting characters before the moment that assassination/attempt marked them as insane and unAmerican, it presents people who are not asking for sympathy or even empathy, but are simply seen as more than just the act of violence they are remembered for.

Watch This is Sonya Suares’s (who was General Manager of Red Stitch) new company and this debut has assured that Melbourne’s music thearte lovers are already looking forward to their next production.

With a rehearsal time that was counted in days, not weeks, their Assasins is assured and complex and deserving of its full houses. While there’s an inconsistency among performances and voices, this doesn’t take away from the production and leaves us imagining how amazing they will be with the support and funding to rehearse for a reasonable amount of time.

Musically, well it’s Saint Stephen Sondheim so it captures the inner turmoil and emotions of its characters in ways that are felt more than heard, then hangs in your head until you buy the CD, know the work backwards and find yourself singing it at inappropriate moments. The small orchestra can’t grasp the intricacies of his composition, but again all this does is wish them the support to have a bigger orchestra.

Without a central character, it’s a story that takes some work to engage with because each scene is about someone new, but there’s a balladeer who connects them all and reminds us how history’s truth is easily distorted and a small ensemble of everyday people to reflect on the events. This production suffers slightly in its focus on the individual tales and hasn’t dug that little bit deeper to find the connections that make it one story that’s about us as much as the people who chose to pick up a gun. Then towards the end “Something just broke” beautifully brings the stories into our lives and hearts as it forces us to remember hearing about an event when something in us just broke.

It also doesn’t seem certain about it’s opinion about guns. Most people on the stage have a gun that they play with and shoot, and too often their guns are clearly light props. I’d love to see the menace turned up and to have the guns treated as if they were real – heavy, dirty beasts that can kick back and burn their holder. I wanted to feel more unsettled when the guns are pointed at the audience.

Sondheim fans, don’t wait to get a ticket for Assassins because there might not be many left. It’s not a perfect production, but it captures the mood and power of the work, asks questions that resonate, introduces some terrific new talent (and reminds us why we love some of the old) and as this is Watch This’s first show, I’ll be first in line for their next one.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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