Not I / Play – Upstairs at Three and Ten – 6/11/08
Drunken Masks, a young theatre company that names amongst its founding members two Sussex graduates, are clearly a rather masochistic bunch. Not content with taking on the big bad literary headfuck that is Samuel Beckett, they also chose to tackle two of his plays that are particularly demanding in terms of production and performance, even by Beckett’s standards.
The first piece of the double-bill, Not I, is a rambling monologue of some 250 lines, mumbled, spluttered and shouted by an actress whose only visible feature, thanks to the pitch-dark in the auditorium and some precise lighting, is her mouth. Though at first I longed for other facial features to accompany the words uttered by this isolated orifice, I soon found myself being lulled into a semi-hypnotic state in which the mouth seemed to take on a whole personality of its own.
In contrast to the usual frantic renditions of the play, actress Charlotte Slater delivered the words in a slower more drawn-out manner, assigning signature intonations and pitch to certain words which gave the piece a mysterious musicality. Whilst this undoubtedly added to the lulling hypnotic effect it detracted a little from the sense of a long overdue outburst, both desperate and uncontrolled, that definitive performances manage to convey more effectively (see for example a recorded version of Billie Whitelaw’s performance on youtube.com).
It was with the second piece of the night that Drunken Masks really got into their stride. The imaginatively named Play consists of three characters, a man, his wife and his mistress, who are all inside man/woman-sized urns from which their decrepit heads poke out of.
The quick-fire spats between the characters were well-executed and the blackly comic side of the play was brilliantly conveyed.
Having never seen Play before it was a surreal surprise to find that the second half of the piece is a precise repetition of the first. At first I attributed the acute sense of deja-vu to my often unreliable and inventive memory but it soon became clear that I was in fact watching the exact same thing I had seen just minutes before.
The repetition had the curious effect of making the hilarious play just seen suddenly seem like an empty shell of its former self, devoid of any humour or life. This wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience but was nonetheless an intriguing reflection on what exactly it is that makes something funny and how that humour can evaporate in the simple process of repetition.
An interesting after-show talk between performers and audience, though giving me a slightly uneasy sense that I was spending my Thursday evening in a seminar, capped off a thoroughly thought-provoking evening.
Luckily, then, Drunken Masks have the skills to go with their guts.