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Brighton Fringe 2013

The Trials of Harvey Matusow

Robert Cohen

Genre: Drama

Venue: The Caxton Arms


Low Down

This one-man show recounts the story of Harvey Matusow, the highest profile Communist turncoat of the 1950s’ Senator Joe McCarthy “witch hunts”, as told by the man himself (played by Rob Cohen).


Having missed this one-man show at last year’s Brighton Fringe we were intrigued to see if it lived up to its rave reviews and were pleasantly pleased to note that the intervening 12 months have not diminished Cohen’s masterful portrayal of the eponymous character one bit.
Set between 1966 and 1973, Harvey reflects on his life as a member of the US Communist Party, and as a paid witness for the House of UnAmerician Activities Committee. He reveals his relationship with McCarthy and the relationships with his numerous wives (the number being a telling insight of its own).
Despite performing under testing conditions (the Caxton Arms was hardly the ideal location on a particularly raucous bank holiday Monday) Cohen’s stage presence captured the crowd utterly, drawing them into the ludicrous world of paranoia, accusations and counterclaims of spying, lying and subterfuge.
Cohen manages to enrapt the audience so completely with his kinetic and frenetic performance, constantly engaging with them and drawing them in to his confession. But he does this not with outraged polemics, but with very real humour at the genuine absurdities inherent in the mad scramble to discover “reds under the beds.” Matusow bitterly points out how various political figures like Bobby Kennedy and Richard Nixon allied themselves to McCarthy’s rabid crusade (designed simply to get the Senator re-elected), yet all fair much better than our protagonist, who ends up in a self-imposed exile in London.
As an accomplished performer Cohen’s casual improvisation manages to incorporate occasional mishaps with such deft aplomb, they almost look intentional, while his own script slowly unravels Matsusow from post-World War 2 disillusionist, through early Communist idealist, and slowly revealing a needy, attention-grabbing egotist. Matusow comes across simultaneously unsympathetic, sympathetic and just pathetic, and you get the feeling that this is simply a huckster who’s found himself out of his depth. “Time was, being a Communist was a good way to meet girls. Now it’s a good way to get yourself killed,” he muses, revealing the fascinating history of the party in America. Matusow comes across a sort of Jewish Billy Liar or Walter Mitty figure, and we are never 100% certain as to whether we are getting to the real truth, or merely “America’s most famous liar’s” version of events. Regardless, the journey Cohen takes us on is as gripping as it is enlightening, and left us wanting to know more about one of history’s great character actors.
What this play does for us now is hold up a pertinent mirror to the Muslim witch hunts that are currently taking place in the West. The ludicrous concept that an entire “bogey man” ideology could be responsible for the downfall of Western “Democracy” is no more puerile, illusionary and reductive today as it was 50 years ago. It’s a salient point worth remembering in these times of febrile headlines. In years to come there will be much hand-wringing and washing about how innocent people have been demonised by fellow citizens and their governments. If only they’d watched this play beforehand.
And all for just £5 each, as part of the £5 Fringe. A “bargain”, is the understatement of the festival.