REVIEW: EPSTEIN

Nicholas Pauling as Brian Epstein and Sven Ruygrok as This Boy.
Nicholas Pauling as Brian Epstein and Sven Ruygrok as This Boy.

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. 

Advertisements
REVIEW: EPSTEIN

REVIEW: BLUE ORANGE

Andrew Buckland, Marty Kintu and Nicholas Pauling in Blue/Orange. (Photo: Rodger Bosch)
Andrew Buckland, Marty Kintu and Nicholas Pauling in Blue/Orange. (Photo: Rodger Bosch)

This review was first published in Sunday Independent on 22 February 2015.

BLUE/ORANGE. Directed by Clare Stopford, and starring Andrew Buckland, Marty Kintu and Nicholas Pauling. At the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, Monday to Tuesday at 7pm, and Wednesday to Saturday at 8.15pm until March 14. STEYN DU TOIT reviews.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind,” Ralph Ellison’s unnamed African-American narrator tells us at the start of The Invisible Man (1952).

He’s referring to what it is like living as a black man in the United States.

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.”

The young English black man at the centre of dramatist Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange appears to suffer from the same affliction as Ellison’s protagonist.

Described as bringing psychiatric theory and practice under scrutiny, this trenchant production walked away with the Evening Standard, London Critics’ Circle as well as the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2001. It makes its local debut under the direction of Clare Stopford (Green Man FlashingPurgatorio), who have opted to to retain the plot’s original UK setting.

Opening on his 28th and final day of being a patient at a London psychiatric hospital, we frequently see Christopher’s (Marty Kintu) well-being openly discussed by young registrar Bruce (Nicholas Pauling) and his supervisor, Robert (Andrew Buckland), as if the twenty-something weren’t sitting a few feet away watching them from behind a non-soundproof window.

Used as a pawn in their Darwinian struggle for institutional power, the script’s parallels to colonialism, evolution, racism and modern living become gradually clearer as we begin to realise that Christopher will most likely be released from the hospital in a worse condition than what he was in when he first arrived.

And that is saying a lot about a patient who was brought in following “an incident in a market square”, and claiming to simultaneously be the illegitimate sons of both Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and boxing great Muhammad Ali, as well as that oranges are, in fact, a blue-coloured fruit.

But what if the angry, teeth-kissing Christopher has suffered neither a brief psychotic episode, as per Robert, nor showing the early warning signs of schizophrenia, as Bruce seems convinced of?

What if, instead, his behaviour is simply the manifestation of how the doctors – and, by implication, today’s global Eurocentric society – respond to young men from his specific demographic background?

Through Patrick Curtis’s entirely reflective set design Stopford proceeds to distort the audience’s reflections before presenting it back to us. Caught between self-reflection and being critically-engaged with the ideas ping-poned across the stage, the result becomes a theatrical excursion in which each viewer will likely have a unique viewing experience.

“I am frequently asked why I haven’t adapted Blue/Orange from the English to the South African context where the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of black mental patients are a large and relevant issue,” Stopford explains in a recent interview.

“Here, our racial past and present and our conflicted notions of cultural difference or sameness make the topic of black mental health diagnosis politically fraught. I thought it could be useful to look at the issue sideways, from a different angle, and not fully in the face.

“In this way we can perhaps think differently or freshly about the problem.This is what Joe Penhall’s hugely articulate play does for us in South Africa. It gives us an opportunity to think about our own problems while looking at someone else’s (in this case another country’s).”

The success of this sardonic, comical play ultimately relies on its cast. Lead by Andrew Buckland, not only does each actor deliver convincing and nuanced performances, but as an ensemble they successfully rise to the challenges presented by Penhall’s tightrope script.

There are few who could deliver a line such as, “Lick my anus!” with such skill that it comes out sounding like a Tony-winning monologue, than Buckland. Composed, calculating, ambitious and not ashamed to admit it, his Robert makes for riveting theatre.

A versatile, edgy young performer with an impressive CV that includes Death of a Colonialist and Amadeus, Pauling is another actor one can always bank on for your money’s worth. Where his character lacks in experience he aims to makes up with good intentions, although, as many of us can attest to, good intentions will eventually only get you so far in life.

Asking its viewer to consider what exactly the definitions of madness and sanity should be in 2015, Blue/Orange is highly recommended fare.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions, please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

REVIEW: BLUE ORANGE