He Built It, They Came
The 20th century was a century of movement.
Aldous Huxley once wrote, ‘Now that we can travel easily, we spend our lives traveling.’
The pendulum began to swing back during the pandemic, when many realised that a large proportion of their journeys were unnecessary, and it had been moving against the petrol engine for some time – climate change has seen to that.
So what are we now to make of Robert Moses, the unelected, untrained public official so obsessed with shifting people from place to place that he set about destroying much of the old New York? His plans for twin expressways chimed with times when gas was cheap and Americans were going pedal-to-the-metal for change. His plans influenced a generation of engineers, architects and urban planners and paced up the US’s slower way of life. But it brought him into conflict with those who saw their communities torn apart by freeways.
It’s a subject that has interested director Nicholas Hytner and writer David Hare, who have once more teamed up with Ralph Fiennes, this time at London’s wonderful Bridge Theatre nestled beside Tower Bridge. They’ve created a fascinating character study of a zealous, innovating radical who over four decades saw the tide eventually turn against him as his own views calcified into blind intransigence.
‘Straight Line Crazy’ seems something of a niche subject until it broadens in the play’s second half to show why so many of America’s problems stemmed from the idea of terraforming at great speed. A visionary Moses might have been, but he failed to remedy his own flaws, clearly believing he could bend the laws of nature through willpower alone.
He denied being Jewish despite his surname. He was unqualified but more driven than a charismatic preacher. He professed a desire to bring the masses to nature, yet refused to plan for any kind of public transport, even deliberately building bridges too low to allow rapid transit vehicles. He wanted equality, but only for the right kind of people.
In his cars-only future where every green space contained a gasoline-drenched bridge, tunnel or freeway he imagined people scurrying from place to place – but to what end? Did he assume his own restlessness was universal, that we all felt the need to drive everywhere? Moses didn’t – he’d never even been behind the wheel of a car. His motivation remains unclear, but it’s Hare’s job to present the man and throw open the questions, and Ralph Fiennes is the ideal actor to lead them.
Fiennes roars and postures and spits and stamps, demanding his own way by sheer force of will through the map-strewn set, breaking laws, bribing, intimidating and downright defrauding, behaving like that great American archetype the huckster, forcing us to share his vision. Yet after the intermission he returns pale and ever more worn out by his endless battles. Fiennes’ performance is ablaze, although he more than meets his match in Siobhán Cullen’s Finnuala, his fiercely loyal second lieutenant.
Hare doesn’t dig quite deep enough into Moses’ motivation, especially claims that innate racism caused him to bulldoze mostly Black and Latino neighbourhoods, but he reveals man who will block anything that interferes with his vision. There’s more than a touch of Ayn Rand here, but a late revelation reveals the human cost of such single-mindedness. Eventually those too long marginalised sought to take back neighbourhoods. History was not, ultimately, on his side.
By the way, how nice it is to be back in a civilised, well-spaced modern theatre with such stunning views, seeing a brand-new grown-up play without songs? A second Bridge Theatre is coming, this time to my local neighbourhood, and I cannot wait.