First published in The Times, Saturday August 13 2016
The rumours are true: sometimes, when creating theatre, all you need is an empty space, a performer, and, if you’re lucky, an audience. This new show from the writer, actor, director and fringe regular Jack Klaff is so bare bones that it’s even hard to discern where the introductory pleasantries end and the meat of the performance begins. It’s only as Klaff departs the stage that you realise quite how much wisdom he has condensed into an hour’s monologue.
“I’ve been very unfashionable for a long time,” he says, early on. “I’m an old-fashioned storyteller, you see.” Thus, a key element of this show is a wry denunciation of what Klaff considers to be some of the more pernicious aspects of contemporary theatre and the skewed values of a culture that endlessly prioritises the bottom line over complexity and integrity.
He dismantles everything from the risk-averse Royal Shakespeare Company to vapid high-concept fringe shows, but this is no bilious rant. Rather, the performer, who was invited to contribute ideas for this year’s Summerhall programme, flits capriciously from one anecdote or legend to the next, building a rich meditation on that Orwellian notion: “cultural value”.
A dizzying amount is thrown into the mix, from Shaw’s quip to the film producer Samuel Goldwyn that “You are only interested in art and I am only interested in money” to a brief reflection on the public spectacle of the pandas in Edinburgh Zoo and their mating window. He repeatedly returns to the moving story of his nonagenarian mother in South Africa, whose weariness and pain was assuaged by the music she considered to be “beyond price”.
Klaff’s performance style is at times so informal and conversational that his craft appears almost invisible, as though these stories and ideas are only now occurring to him for the first time. Unlike the pub philosopher, however, Klaff is able to change the temperature in the room with a downward glance or by lowering his voice. His funny, angry, sad monologue does what all-good fringe shows should do: it expands in the mind long after the lights have gone up.