Right, let’s get caught up on the reviews, and two start with, I have three fringe plays to catch up on, all seen between the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes (or Brighton and Buxton, to be more precise).
Mark Farrelly has two solo shows to his name, both touring since successful runs at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. I only reviewed The Silence of Snow the first time round, because I had trouble following the other play. Admittedly, it didn’t help that this was the last play on an intensive fringe visit when my concentration powers were near zero, but the main difficulty was that I didn’t really know what Quentin Crisp was famous for, and this is only touched on in the play. This time round, I resolved to do some basic Wikipedia-level research, and I can tell you the key information is this: Quentin Crisp was an eccentric gay man who lived some sort of life, until he wrote his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant when he was sixty. This was an unexpected success, culminating in an ITV film where Crisp was played by John Hurt. From there, he was thrust into the public spotlight, becoming a celebrity in his own right. That’s the basics – I would recommend anyone else does the same, because once you know this, it opens out the whole play for you.
However, this play isn’t about his sudden rise to fame, but his life before and after. A lot of the play is about Quentin as a person, but there one overarching theme throughout the play: his is gay, and gay people were not particularly well liked for much of his lifetime. The world’s attitude to people like him changed over the decades – by the time he rose to fame, the fashion was more like treating them a novelty than prances around department store going “I’m free!”, but at least that’s an improvement on earlier decades where he was routinely beaten up. At a time when many gay men played it safe and lived life in the closet, Crisp opted to be open about about it because he was, in his own words, “an obvious”, and he wouldn’t be welcome in any closet as he’d expose everyone already in the closet. Instead, he adopts what I can only describe as a “shit happens” attitude, with a mixture of cynicism and gallows humour.
And it is this mixture, I think, that is the key to this play. By building up the character of a man who stumbles through life not giving a damn, only for this attitude to accidentally transform him into a beloved raconteur, it gives a convincing yet sympathetic portrayal of the man in front of and behind the camera. A lot of the script is borrowed from Crisp’s real-life quotes – an opener, where he says as soon as he steps out of his mother’s womb he realised he’d make a mistake, set the scene very well for the rest of the story. So I’m going to break a habit here and recommend seeing it, but do the background reading first. Normally, I expect plays to be accessible to an audience whether or not they know anything about the subject, but here, it really does make a difference if you know about the man. So do see it, but read a little bit about the character you’re seeing first. It will be worth it.
Super Hamlet 64
Now let’s ratchet up the nerd level a bit. I should really start off and warn you that it you don’t recognise the pop culture reference of something that starts in “Super” and ends in “64”, this is going to take a lot of explaining. And it’s no use giving a crash course on Super Mario 64 because this play references basically every computer game ever made. I freely admit I recognised only about a quarter of the games referenced (there’s a very long list in the programme), but I did recognise the intro where a green-clad Hamlet rides on a horse uncannily similar to Epona to music that sounds a little like the intro to The Ocarina of Time. Apologies if I’ve lost you already.
This version of Hamlet, it must be said, takes a lot of liberties with the story. Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, when you die, that’s it; and although cameo appearances as ghosts are permitted, such as Hamlet’s father informing his son of his murder by his wicked brother, that’s as far as it goes. Whilst the truth, as we all know, is that you can die and come back to life as many times as you like, through multiple lives, save-reload, or – at the very worst – starting the game all over again. So whilst the original Hamlet with his one life is more cautious, Super Hamlet repeatedly confronts his evil uncle Cladius / Luigi, murderer of King Hamlet Sr / Mario, husband of Queen Gertrude / Peach. And dies repeatedly, by various means of text adventure and graphics. I did wonder how this was going to work for the final battle (or should I say the final boss battle), what with coming back to life all the time being heavily at odds with the original ending, but don’t worry, the play has that one covered.
I do have to say that the acclamation of Super Hamlet 64 as an introduction to Shakespeare is somewhat overstated – although Shakespearian language features in the play, such as levelling up language skills, it’s far more a comedy device than a homage to the Bard. It is far more a homage to four decades of iconic computer games. Fans of computer games who know little Shakespeare will feel right at home – the other way round and you’ll probably feel somewhat confused. But even if you can’t tell your Candy Crush from your Mortal Kombat, it’s still good fun to watch, because this solo play is a multimedia extravaganza, mixing in live action, music and back-projection (something that is hard to do) to an excellent standard. So apologies if you’ve read this review and have no idea what I’m on about, but see it anyway.
And then comes this one. I was been umming and ahhing about whether to write a review for this. I decided to in the end because Wrong Shoes is a clearly capable company who can do plays to a high standard of production values. The acting was good, the staging was good, and the sound and lighting effects were excellent. Unfortunately, they have fallen foul of a trap that only theatre companies of this standard can stumble into: they overloaded the play with theatrical devices to the point where it was impossible to follow the story.
The setting, as far as I can gather, is that four women are locked in a dungeon underneath a church. We don’t know much about why they’re locked up or what their captors intend to do, but we go through the backstories one by one. The first promising backstory is of a woman who found a way to make a living telling fortunes and making up any old cobblers; all well and good until society turns against her and proclaims her a witch – and the chant of “witch” as the witch-mask is placed on the victim was a good touch. And then … I’m not sure. When I saw Wytch two years ago (admittedly a play that was far less ambitious with production values), the thing this focused on was the terrifyingly unfair show trials of 1650 where anything and everything was twisted and used again you. In The Unbinding, the plot appears to be more that a checklist of harrowing events. Also, the setting of the play was somewhat confused, and when you go into sultry jazz number My Discarded Men, good though the song was, I had no idea when this play was meant to be set, let alone where. It is only at the end of the play where things start to get interesting: that one of the accused really is a witch and embracing the occult might be way out – only for the play to end before we know the outcome, just a general message that mistreating people who are different is bad.
However, it is only fair to acknowledge that this got some good reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, so Wrong Shoes is doing something right. So my advice for them is to keep doing what they’re good at and look again at what they could do better. When they play to their strengths with the staging and devising it works well, but this is currently coming at the expense of a story the audience can follow, and it doesn’t need to. The Unbinding is the play it is, and changing it now would make it a different play. But as and when Wrong Shoes embark on their next project – and The Unbinding appears to have done sufficiently well to make a follow-up likely – that is the time to rebalance the two. Theatrical device overkill is an easy mistake to make in devised theatre, but a bit more restraint could turn this into a great strength.