Brighton Fringe 2011
The Fever by Wallace Shawn
The Gallery, Brighton Media Centre
The writer of this play, Wallace Shawn, first performed it himself in an apartment near 7th Avenue in New York City in 1990. He deliberately wrote it to be gender-neutral and able to be performed by actors of almost any age to small groups at a time. Saltpeter’s director Gary Merry has expertly adapted The Fever for six different voices, three male and three female. It is performed in the Gallery at Brighton Media Centre – an inspired and very fitting choice. The audience is offered a glass of wine on arrival at the Gallery and we are treated as cultured guests at a private showing. There are two sets of back-to-back rows of chairs but we are invited to come and go as we please, get more drinks and view the artwork on display. The performance begins amongst us. 115 minutes later we have been challenged to view our own comfortable lives honestly in relation to poorer countries and neighbours, and to question the nature of identity.
Have you ever decided to ignore a homeless person begging on the street for change for a cup of tea or a hostel bed? Or maybe you gave some cash, but how did you decide the amount that is ‘enough’ to give? The Fever makes you question your values in these situations and many more. There are other plays, other writings that cover some of the questions raised in this play, but there is something very special about this one. It combines one person’s profound breakdown and identity crisis (the ‘fever’ of the title is both physical and existential) with a sort of hypnotic questioning logic that twists and turns, making you constantly shift perspective and expose for questioning your most taken-for-granted beliefs.
What is special about this production is not only the way the setting has been chosen to match the theme so well, but how the production has been recreated (possibly for the first time?) for six distinct voices, six characters created with precision and contrast by the company to represent different aspects of one person’s fragmenting personality. As these characters walk around us, often talking directly to our faces, it is as if we are being woven into the story. The actors behave as if they are thinking this stuff up, experiencing it, working it out in front of us, with us. Facts, anecdotes, memories, questions are all part of the mix. And they relate to our lives. We are the ‘fanatics’ in the kitchen, who create havoc if our favourite coffee has run out; we are the ones who are seen as all alike by those poorer than ourselves, however much we treasure our sense of our own particular personalities.
As we sit in the white-walled gallery, glancing at the framed artwork, the cast play eloquently with Shawn’s sharp, poetic dialogue. There’s no preaching. They take us deep into the exciting and sensuous detail of unwrapping presents at Christmas, or the delicacy of being taught to urinate inside the toilet, against the backdrop of the traveller in a strange hotel room in a foreign country on the day of an execution. They lead us through innocent denial of middle class privilege to the turning point, after a day at the nudist beach and after the fall of communism, when the narrator finds himself naked in bed reading Karl Marx and discovering the phrase ‘commodity fetishism.’ And he wants to understand it but knows that ‘to understand it, your whole life would probably have to change’.
Saltpeter’s production works with the script with a light, intelligent touch, making us laugh at the juxtapositions of points of view, as we are challenged by them.
This is a bold and inspired production of an astonishing play. The contemporary relevance and urgency of its themes is undeniable and I can’t imagine that any member of the full audience I attended went away unchanged or unaffected by it. If there’s a chance to see it again, it’s definitely a piece that must be experienced.