This review was first published in Cape Times on 12 October 2015.
EPSTEIN. Directed by Fred Abrahamse, starring Nicholas Pauling and Sven Ruygrok. At Theatre on the Bay, Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm (until October 17). STEYN DU TOIT reviews.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” American author Joan Didion once observed.
Narratives are important because they allow us to create projections of who we are that is easy for other people to understand.
In addition, by constructing “stories” out of our lives and the important events we go through, as individuals and as families/communities we are able to preserve the past for longer.
But what about those who, despite their best intentions, can never truly find a way of “explaining” themselves properly to the rest of the world – let alone to themselves?
With his page in the history books forever secured as the guy who discovered and steered four Liverpudlian rapscallions to global stardom, The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was, and remains, just such an individual.
If repeating a story to the point where even the storyteller starts believing himself can be compared to creases being ironed out of a shirt, Epstein was the guy whose unchecked wrinkles eventually damaged his trademark tailor-made outfits beyond repair.
Directed by Fred Abrahamse and stopping over in Cape Town for a very brief run, Andrew Sherlock’s Epstein is neither a biographical play about him as a person, nor is it another Beatles tribute piece without substance and with no real purpose other than to play their songs. For that try Wikipedia or YouTube.
Performed with welly by Nicholas Pauling and Sven Ruygrok, what we find here instead is a series of reflections around addiction, loneliness, isolation, internal conflict, mental illness, self-sabotage and ultimately, what the price tag is for being a visionary genius.
Taking place in London over the course of roughly a night, the production opens to a 32 year-old Epstein (Pauling) bringing home a young lad (Ruygrok) that he had met at a club earlier that evening. Both their mutual intentions, as well as their respective social standings in life, appear clear-cut.
Known only as This Boy, we learn that Ruygrok’s character hails from Liverpool. A kind of Everyman, he is the playwright’s representation of the extracurricular carnal activities Epstein enjoyed throughout his life, as well as the youth and promise he found on the dingy Cavern stage on that fateful November 1961 afternoon.
Under Abrahamse’s usual impeccable control, what follows is a dance, a sort of mutual unravelling, between his cast members. Starting off on an awkward, unbalanced foot between their respective characters, seeing their clothing and other restrictions come off over the course of the play’s two acts results in an intense evening of revelation.
Pauling, apart from remarkably bringing Epstein’s mannerisms and general way to life, stretches himself further with each gulp of alcohol or pop of a pill his character executes. Spiralling downwards fast and becoming more conscious/self-aware by the second, the gifted actor succeeds in painting a compassionate image of his study.
Following regular appearances in the Spud film series, Ruygrok here presents another dimension to his abilities. Maintaining a difficult working class Scouse accent throughout, it makes for a thrilling experience to see the young actor matching Pauling’s performance blow by blow.
True to form, Abrahamse and longtime creative collaborator Marcel Meyer have once again made sure that all other aspects of the production – from the research to the design – serve to enhance the cast and narrative in an authentic, unembellished way.
Performed on what he described to me afterwards as a “claustrophobic internal funhouse where Brian can wrestle with his demons”, Meyer’s visually arresting set is made up of a myriad of considered elements.
From the chrome and black leather couch to the flokati rug to the Mondrian painting dominating an entire wall; every element of 1960s chic and Epstein’s persona is captured and blended together, before being reflected back to the viewer via a striking mirrored panel completing the set.
Seeped in shades of silver, chrome, black, white and grey, Meyer’s costumes display similar intentions – appearing stylishly and ethereal under Abrahamse’s lighting. As major themes dealt with in the piece revolve around life/death and light/dark, also notice how the director tweaks his design to shift from a lighter to a darker palette as the evening (and Epstein’s life) gradually comes to an untimely end.
Even though I promised this wasn’t a musical tribute show, a final element that makes Epstein highly recommended fare is the strategic, cognitive use of recorded music to supplement key events or to highlight certain emotions. No shortcuts were taken here either, with Abrahamse only opting to use rare demo recordings and out-takes instead of the polished versions of songs such as “My Bonnie”, “Help!” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” that we all know too well.
l Tickets are R100 – R170. To book, call Computicket at 0861 915 8000, or see www.computicket.com.
Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions, please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com.