First published in The Times, Thursday February 15 2018
On entering the auditorium, the audience is handed a “programme” in the form of a crumpled piece of paper that’s festooned with scribbled notes and illustrations. As the house lights go down the curtain slides hurriedly back and forth across the front of the stage, offering a narrow, keyhole-view of the scene within.
Such novelties might provoke a few raised eyebrows among the uninitiated, but followers of the work of David Leddy and Fire Exit are accustomed to expecting the unexpected. This, after all, is the writer and director who conducted his audience around the bowels and backstage of the Citizens Theatre for his gothic melodrama, Sub Rosa, and invited us to don kimonos and sit within a circle of origami birds as the action unfolded on the Japan-inspired White Tea.
The inspiration for this new show – arguably Leddy’s most ambitious project to date – is the life and work of Jean Genet, the Bambi-eyed French writer and political activist, whose early experiences as a drifter and petty criminal informed his work while helping construct a rich personal mythology.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
The surface story could easily be an episode from one of Genet’s autobiographical novels, such as Our Lady of the Flowers. At the height of the Israeli occupation in 1970, Mitri (David Rankine), a Palestinian teenager, arrives at a Gaza brothel, having been sent to lose his virginity by his older activist brother. The snag is that the bordello, apparently presided over by Irene Allan’s haughty Mother Superior, is scheduled for bulldozing the following morning. To complete his rite of passage, Mitri must join in with the prostitutes as they indulge in games and enact a series of grand myths.
This archetypal fish-out-of-water scenario is a strong basis upon which to revisit themes familiar from Genet’s own plays, notably The Maids, with shifting power relationships, self-creation and the nature of theatrical performance all explored through the assorted characters and stories. The white set and costumes, designed by Becky Minto, and lit in bold colours by Nich Smith, adds to the pungent, constantly shifting atmosphere.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
There is much to enjoy in these multiple stories and puzzles and the profane dialogue, even if the sprawling script, which is dense in references to Genet’s work as well as his activism on behalf of the Palestinians and the Black Panthers, at times disrupts the narrative flow and our capacity to engage.
Indeed, everything feels overcrowded in Leddy’s production, from the text to the modest 70-minute running time and the physical confines of the stage at the Tron. Though the piece provides still more evidence of Leddy’s agile mind, one wishes the playwright had allowed himself a little more time and elbow room in which to really get to grips with his preoccupations.