Wednesday, July 15, 2015

'Noonday Demons' at the King's Head Theatre, 14th July 2015

In 1953's Duck Amuck, Daffy Duck is tormented by an offscreen animator, his physical appearance, clothing and voice are sadistically screwed with. The duck collides, violently, with his limitations as a fictional character, despairing as he realises he cannot escape his creator. In Peter Barnes' Noonday Demons a similar process occurs. 

Standing in for Daffy is St Eusebius (Jordan Mallory-Skinner), a medieval holy man who's spent the last 13 years living in a dank cave, subsisting on a daily handful of olives and sips of stagnant water. He lives a life of lonely torment; spending his time contemplating his own misery as rotting skin peels from his emaciated flesh. Theoretically, by rejecting every single comfort, his intense asceticism will bring him closer to the suffering of Christ, and therefore closer to God. 

For the most part, his only company has been a steadily growing heap of accreted human waste, yet he's soon spiritually attacked by the devil (taking the form of a mischievous vaudevillian dramatist) and later physically battled by rival ascetic. This develops into a classically sitcom-ish scenario, the new spiritual recluse Pior (Jake Curran) and Eusebius trying to undermine each other's miracles to gain control of this shit-caked cavern.

Both Curran and Mallor-Skinner are top notch, their eyes glistening with demented fervour as they repeatedly debase themselves. With their matted hair, filthy loincloths and diseased looking skin, they emanate a real aura of religious intensity, even when they're being ridiculous you can sense their sincerity. Their Gollum-ish body language gives them a bestial intensity, their sinews straining as they try their best to escape their sinful flesh.

This is all accentuated by some wonderfully textured stage design. With the only piece of scenery a disgusting looking heap of shit, it's down to a large bag of dust, dry ice and lighting to convey a sense of place. At times it's almost choking how thick the fog gets, which, in combination with spotlights at the sides of the stage casts jagged shadows on the men, leaving them looking increasingly skeletal. Even better, in the moments of genuine transcendence, where Eusebius is backlit by a spotlight, the arcs the shadows of his arms make through the mist begin to look eerily like angelic wings.

Though this is broad farce and slapstick, there's a core of existential misery to the whole affair. Though about two would-be holy men, Barnes' play is written from a materialist, atheistic perspective. The misery of these men becomes a cosmic punchline, the external force they're humiliating themselves for isn't God, it's us. This makes their ordeal a  a trial by theatre, with the playwright as cruel interrogator and audience as jury.

Highlights are when, to the Eusebia's dismay, Barnes (taking the form of Peter-Cook-as-Satan) assumes control of his body, tempting him with a multitude of sins - eventually demonstrating his power by putting the two men through a surreal soft-shoe-shuffle song and dance hall. Though Eusebius claims to be spiritually tough enough to withstand any demonic revelation, not even he can cope with the suspicion that he's a fictional puppet designed to entertain a modern audience.

This eventually comes to a head as two saints compete to have out of body experiences. Pior pretends to fly over the desert and witness the sinner's city of Alexandria, breathlessly describing the crimes against God going on under his eyes. Not to be beaten, Eusebius undergoes his own vision. He also flies to Alexandria; but our Alexandria. With horror he regards a world of municipal parks and general godlessness; eventually swooping over the terrifying neo-Babylons of London and New York. True horror comes not from his observing open sinning, but from a sedate, uncaring areligiousness: nobody cares enough about God to consciously disobey him.

Eventually the wool completely falls from Eusebius' eyes, resulting in him being granted the spiritual ascension he desperately craved. But in a cruel twist, all this does is propel him into being a member of the audience, staring in traumatised disbelief as his doppelganger soaks up the applause and leaves the stage.

It's a pretty marvellous night at the theatre; spinning some impressively powerful comic gears, the minimal staging used to fullest effect and the whole production infused with an earthy physicality that perfectly complements the themes throughout. Colour me impressed.


Noonday Demons is at the King's Head Theatre until 2 August. Tickets here.

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