Friday, July 8, 2016
'Peter Schlemiel' at Theatre N16, 7th July 2016
Friday, July 8, 2016 by londoncitynights
What would become of a man whose shadow has been ripped away? This play posits that he'd be shunned, have dirt thrown at him and considered innately suspicious. Just what quality does a shadow bring to a person - and why is it so damn important?
These are questions asked by Peter Schlemiel, an adaptation of an 1814 novella by exiled French aristocrat Adelbert von Chamisso. Though widely read on its original publication it's been largely forgotten now - or at least I'd never heard of it.
A cautionary fable, the story follows the eponymous and ambitious Peter as he unwittingly makes a deal he'll come to regret. He's alking one night when he comes across a mysterious stranger who professes an appreciation of his shadow. It's a bizarre moment, only trumped when the stranger makes him an offer: would Peter be interested in trading his shadow for a bottomless wallet?
For Peter (and I suspect most people) this is a no-brainer.What practical use is a shadow anyway? Before too long he's revelling in his newfound wealth, rapidly ascending to become a man of means and attracting the attentions of sexy socialite Mina. But after pride comes the fall: upon noticing his lack of shadow Mina's father rejects him as a suitable husband, society treats him as a leper and he descends into poverty, only wishing for his beloved shadow be returned to him.
Eventually the mysterious stranger returns offering another deal. Peter will get his shadow back, at the cost of his immortal soul.
Peter Schlemiel feels like prototypical magic realism, the play presenting the loss of a shadow as something aberrant yet apparently not particularly shocking. Though hardly an everyday occurrence, the characters take the intrusion of the supernatural into their lives without too much comment. This makes it feel like less of a sci-fi/fantasy tale and more of a political allegory.
Problem is, it's difficult to pin down precisely what that allegory is. Early in the play we watch a gaggle of champagne quaffing socialites preen as they compare their beautiful lives. The pinnacle is them chortling over the suicide of a servant who'd been told that anyone who's not a millionaire is a "snivelling worm". From the sidelines an awkward Peter watches on, apparently unnerved by their behaviour yet determined to enter their ranks.
Later in the play he does, repeating the scene word for word in vainglorious top hat and tails pomp. On the most basic level, Peter Schlemiel demonstrates that money is the root of all evil, and that basic humanity is much more valuable. Fair enough, but you want a little more than that from something so obviously allegorical. Sadly, the much-longed for complexity never comes, the play instead tying itself up in stylistic flourishes that divert, but don't exactly tickle the grey matter.
It's a pity, there's a decent amount of quality here. Prime amongst it is Robert Hill's striking bit of set design. Theatre N16 is 'yer typical room above a pub performance space and I assume that the production is running on a pretty skinny budget. Nonetheless, the notion of a doorway/picture frame for characters to pose in, crowned by a pagan-looking wings made of tree branches is striking and well-executed, hearkening back to the primeval fairytale myth-making pulsing through the play's veins.
Mention must be also be made of Edvardas Bazys' lighting design. Being asked to light a play in which a character has no shadow sounds like a nightmare brief. Obviously, Peter has a shadow throughout, but there are moments where his silhouette is accentuated to nice effect.
The cast also put in a decent amount of welly. Alex Marlow's Peter is a stolid and dependable stage presence, effectively conveying Peter's gradual slide into spiritual misery. He suffers a bit from having about half of his dialogue pre-recorded, but manages to find occasional moments of pathos and desperation as he reaches his 'red-line' when haggling with the devil. Said devil, played by Billy Irving, is an appropriately serpentine presence, his voice transitioning from charming smoothness to threatening in the blink of an eye. Irving displays a disciplined body language and wonderfully threatening aura as old Nick - only somewhat diluted by having to cycle between multiple characters within scenes.
Peter Schlemiel is one of those shows that goes down easy enough but leaves you faintly unsatisfied. Chamisso's novella, showing the disintegration of a man who opts for an easy path to the top, is fertile ground for saying something pointed and timely about modern culture. But this production doesn't really explore that aspect, instead presenting flashes of interesting drama but with little intellectual rigour underpinning it.
★★Tags: alex marlow , billy irving , edvardas bazys , play , robert hill , theatre , Theatre N16