Comic Mysteries

Tue 14th – Sat 18th May 2013

reviews

Samuel Lane

at 09:08 on 15th May 2013

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This is one of the few productions where you can truly gain a real sense of what the show will be like as soon as you walk in. Five figures, half hidden in shadow, staring towards you: their faces fixed in absolute concentration. Then the music starts, and they surround the audience, thrashing canes on the ground in absolute time and talking in clipped, rhythmic tones about the beating of Christ. The beginning was slightly unnerving, dramatic and profound. Yet, unlike so many other shows with a promising opening, these qualities did not fade and disappear, but remained throughout.

At first sight, the title of the play seems somewhat ill-fitting. There is little obvious scope for comedy in the Massacre of the Innocents and the Crucifixion of Christ, just two of the stories depicted. Yet Dario Fo's writing is clever, as is the translation and Sami Ibrahim's direction. The humour is definitely present, yet never crass: never undermining the poignancy and drama of the tales. It is rarely "laugh-out-loud", though there are a few witty gags, most notably from Michael Comba's hilarious drunkard. Most of the comedy, though, is darkly ironic. Papal ostentatiousness, for instance, is scornfully exposed and dryly mocked, climaxing with Christ refusing to allow Pope Boniface to help him carry the cross.

One highlight of the show was the fact that there was little staging and no seating, so that all the action took place around and amongst audience members. This was used most effectively in the hubbub before the Raising of Lazarus, where there was a cacophony of noise and frenetic action, with each actor saying different things, all at once, providing a confusing, chaotic spectacle. There we also were directly involved in the action, kneeling, on instruction, to pray. With the small size of the Burton Taylor Studio, this worked wonderfully, creating a sense of great intimacy, with the actors just inches from your face, and often interacting with and addressing you individually. Thus I found myself unavoidably dragged into the stories, enveloped and immersed in them as the action unfolded.

The music was also striking. A single musician provided all the music, chiefly from his guitar. This set up the mood of the various pieces and captured a real sense of tragedy in the final scene, the Crucifixion of Christ, with some simple strumming and touching falsetto singing. In a brief song, Laura Whitehouse's Jewish mother, surrounded by the Massacre of the Innocents, showed a sweet, faltering voice which truly captured the moment.

What the play really hinged on, however, was the acting. This was generally exceptional, with all playing their characters with real commitment and intensity. Alex Tyndall proved to be especially memorable, with brilliant performances as a snarling and sarcastically cruel centurion, and as the vile and arrogant Pope Boniface. Whitehouse, too, was marvellous as the mad and frenzied mother. There were a few flaws, with the occasional line being muddled and every so often an actor, most frequently Comba, getting so into his part and so impassioned that words tumbled inaudibly away. Yet these are only relatively rare and minor blemishes on an otherwise outstanding production.

This show is remarkable. It combines moments of genuine comedy with moving drama; abstract performance with believable acting; and age-old stories with unrelenting intimacy. This all adds up to create a powerful production, and one of the best student shows I have ever seen.

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