Robert Penn Warren once declared that ‘storytelling and copulation are the two chief forms of amusement … they’re inexpensive and easy to procure.’ He was referring specifically to the American South, but two new theatre offerings have transplanted such diversions once again to London’s centre-stage. In both, the sex is mostly contextual: the real focus is on storytelling, with all of its associate ambiguities and solipsisms.
The first, and less substantive, of these productions is the Lyric Hammersmith’s reworking of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Her 1984 novel has always tempted theatre directors: lush, bawdy, and filled with spectacle, its characters’ brashness and lewd humor complement darker, more sombre inquiries into definitions of progress, storytelling and love.
Sultry circus freak Fevvers, winged-woman and showman, is the star of a slightly sordid turn-of-the-century London cabaret. The irrepressible offspring of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession and Germaine Greer, ‘The Cockney Venus’ is the archetypal New Woman (updated for the sexier 1980s). A charismatic performer, she is her own MC, spinning the story of her ‘miraculous birth’ and ‘mythological’ life into a limelit livelihood. Into Fevvers’s spotlight trips Walsers, a self-professed cynic—and New York Times journalist, of course—who sets out to expose the barren shoulder blades behind her smoke-and-mirrors and who becomes so captivated by Fevvers that he falls head-over-heels. Literally, as it turns out: bungee-corded aerials are employed skillfully throughout the production as their love burgeons.
The fantastical conviction behind Fevvers’s narration of the mid-air acrobatics is, presumably, supposed to leave the audience unsure if the high-flying love between Fevvers and Walsers is meant to be fiction, metaphor or realised miracle. Actress Natalia Tena as Fevvers tries her best to scheherazade appropriately: she has a huge stage presence and struts around stage like she means it, although her Cockney is more hackneyed than Hackney—think Dick Van Dyke.
Fevvers’s accent is a minor problem. More inexcusable is the gross over-simplification of the book’s plot and style. Huge chunks were cut from the story in this adaptation, including the entire Siberian sojourn. More importantly, its verbal flair—very much the backbone of the story—is diluted. In the novel, the unreliable narrator is appropriately complimented by buckets of wordplay. On stage, however, most of the puns and neologisms, the classical references rife with double entendre, are exchanged for visual slapstick. While the play still manages a few of Carter’s original hi-jinx—Fevvers claims she was born covered with ‘egg shells and nesty bits,’ and uses rhyming slang and literary reference with equal prowess—this abridgement pointlessly leaves little but the basic story, which is a pity. Carter’s characters here seem no more than a collection of raunchy stereotypes: Fevvers is all bluster and breasts and simply isn’t complex enough to be sympathetic; Walsers, as played by Icelandic aerialist Gisli Örn Gardarsson (who is beautifully lithe with excellent comic timing), seems similarly bland, no doubt in part owing to a lack of lines; Boffo the clown is depressed, oversexed and cruel; and the ringmaster, decked out in a ten-gallon hat and a Texan accent, apes about like Steve Bell’s George Bush.
The problem is not with the acting, then, which is consistently good, but with the script and direction. Although necessarily vaudeville, the staging lacks mature humour, cleverness and genuine titillation. Its shock tactics—including cross-dressing, y-fronted clowns, feigned sex and fake genitals, a champagne bottle sprayed as ejaculation (hardly inventive), and the odd nipple or two—were neither shocking nor funny, and inspired nothing more than weariness.
Just so the play’s half-baked attempt at Carter’s themes: fin-de-sieclé anxiety, notions of progress and the dawn of a sexually liberated age become reduced to a cross-dressed Anjoa Andoh singing in bass range ‘die, old century, die/ give us a chance to let yesterday lie’ and too many midnight chimes on New Year’s Eve. More bizarrely, Andoh-as-balladeer later reappears clad in a First World War uniform, perhaps suggesting the subjective nature of time, or maybe a morbid anxiety, or a sardonic commentary on the transcendence of love—but no more is made of it and no other visual anachronisms help place it in context.
Ultimately, despite its bouncy aerials and no doubt lofty ambitions, Nights at the Circus falls very flat, and I left the theatre bored, unamused, and slightly resentful. Most unfortunate of all, I left wondering if perhaps I’d misjudged Carter’s novel.
A far subtler, and more impressive, inquiry into the authenticity and artistry of storytelling is Canadian performance artist and director Robert Lepage’s The Andersen Project. Recently in residence at the Barbican, this big-budget one-man show relates the story of Québécois librettist Frederic Watson, who is hired by the Opéra Garnier to script a children’s opera celebrating Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s ‘most famous export.’ The other main character is the artistic producer of the Opéra, who makes it clear that Watson is only being hired and Andersen is only being commemorated out of sycophancy to the Opéra’s Canadian, Danish, and pan-European funding bodies (a pointed jab at Lepage’s own international patronage).
Appropriately, perhaps, Lepage employs Andersen’s biography merely as a window into wider themes. Andersen was an unrequited fetishist, and felt both fascinated with and alienated by sexuality and society at large. Lepage’s latter-day characters inherit some of Andersen’s plight, in magnified and updated form. The Opéra producer’s marriage is on the verge of collapse because of his addiction to pornography; Watson’s career is jeopardised by his naïve integrity; and Rashid, the Algerian porn-palace janitor, is rendered liminal, glimpsed only as a hooded parka graffiti-ing in Metro Invalides ‘…mais pas sans valeur.’ But the temptation to see resemblances between Andersen himself and Lepage’s characters as anything beyond human archetype is openly discouraged, usually by the opera manager’s Gallic shrug and a comment about generic human frailty.
Andersen’s stories are used similarly, serving as discursive launchpads rather than easy metaphor. The inspiration for Garnier’s children’s opera, ‘The Dryad,’ is no Disney fable: avoiding rural ‘once-upon-a-time,’ it is set very specifically in Paris during the 1867 World Fair and obsesses about urban progress (the narrator comes to Paris ‘not on wings of air but on wings of steam’) and its accompanying decadence. And yet The Andersen Project uses the conflict between the romantic and the modern less as direct parallel to postmodern Paris than as self-satirising cliché, and, more expansively, as a caution against the dangers of over-simplification and glib conclusion.
The play’s structure reflects this: a mise-en-abyme, The Andersen Project feverishly and cleverly cascades between ‘characters’ and ‘narrator’, and between opera and striptease. Project opens with a man—possibly Watson, possibly Lepage—apologising to a packed Opéra Garnier for the cancellation of ‘The Dryad’ owing to a strike and proposing instead to dramatise one Canadian’s self-discovery in contemporary Paris. From there, Lepage heads full-tilt into a whirling, sympathetic tale whose primary lesson is self-fulfilling: the necessity of looking beyond a parable’s easy morals for a more chaotic system of truths, relations, and causes (if, of course, such connections can be drawn at all).
Lepage’s scope is broad indeed, targeting in two short hours the pastoral vs. the urban, the cruelty of children, the ‘civility’ of adults, the importance of the Parisian expo of 1867, sexual fantasy, contemporary socio-economic inequality, racism, colonial longing for the motherland, old-world decadence, therapy culture and the politics of the individual, and the bureaucratic inanity of arts councils. Ambitious, certainly. But rather than appearing glib, The Andersen Project radiates an ironic authenticity expressly because of its irresolution and unwillingness to offer easy moral answers.
Remarkably amidst all these mighty themes, the show also remains spectacularly entertaining, with little of the self-importance and egotism usually associated with one-man-shows. The choreography is well-oiled and the staging hi-tech. It is supremely clever: the Parisian lapdog (addicted to Prozac and ecstasy, and a charming mainstay of the performance) is reduced to a jingling collar darting about on a zipline at ankle level. Likewise, when Watson pops a couple of the dog’s meds on a train between Copenhagen and Paris, hardcore beats fill the Barbican (to the incomprehension, no doubt, of many a white-haired patron) and the rail tracks retreat a tempo into a distant point that slowly opens up into a techno laser. Opéra Garnier becomes an interactive, photo-real flatscreen—and yet it’s the simple black-box porn palace that is so filthily authentic you can smell it. Lepage manages character and costume shifts with miraculous speed, and is a convincing actor: from Canadian to Continental, he gets the accents and demeanors dead-on.
There are a few meagre problems: because the show’s scope is so wide, a couple of themes feel too tangential. For one, to portend the banlieues’ imminent revolution by hasty mention of Rashid’s disenfranchisement seems a bit overly topical (in both senses). Compared with Nights at the Circus, however, this is a flaw of ambition, not omission, and taken independently, The Andersen Project amply, entertainingly, and thoughtfully delivers. Lepage’s storytelling is virtuosic, and his story provocative and euphoric. If great theatre should involve high-flying, intelligent wit and adroit showmanship, this is as close to perfect as it gets.
Kristin Anderson is a DPhil student in English Literature at Exeter College.