At the Shaw Theatre till the end of October is a new play by John McGrath titled BAKKE’S NIGHT OF FAME. It is set in the condemned cell of an American prison on the night that Bakke is to be executed for the murder of a woman. On coming into the auditorium the curtain is already up and the prisoner and two guards are on the set before the play commences. After establishing early on that it was taking place during the last hours of the prisoner’s life, I began to wonder how the play would progress. Were we to see a last minute reprieve coming from the governor, or would the prisoner be dragged off screaming for mercy like one of those old James Cagney films.
Well, a plea against capital punishment was certainly made, but the main part of the evening was spent on a character study of this anti-hero Bakke. Somewhat like a character out of an Edward Albee play, we watch him goading first his warders, then the priest, and finally his executioner. Throughout the play he is asking to meet the man who will pull the switch on the electric chair – ‘My buddy’ as he refers to him. When they finally meet it is somewhat anti-climactic to fine Bakke using the same technique towards his executioner as he had done to others throughout the evening.
Hywel Bennett plays this complex character to perfection, once and for all destroying his past image of the young hero in all British films. With a crew cut and quite authentic American accent he is one minute humorous, and the next moment very ferocious as the compulsive liar Bakke. He is ably supported by David Healey and Nikolas Simmonds. The content of this play is not a pleasant subject and its chances of a transfer to another theatre are slight, but for an interesting look at a complex character, I urge you to see it whilst you have a chance.