Brighton Fringe 2013
The theatrical convention of the ‘fourth wall’ means that we the audience look into a space through one side of it which is rendered completely transparent. In the case of ‘Belvedere’ the space is very small indeed – about the size of a prison cell. The set had the bare look of a cell, too, with a set of blocks forming a bench on which a man lay, smoking a cigarette while doing a newspaper crossword.
Upstairs at Three and Ten is a narrow, low-ceilinged theatre with the stage at one end, and that very narrowness seemed to extend the cramped space out over the theatre seats to incarcerate us alongside the cell’s inmate. I thought of the irony in the title – ‘belvedere’ coming from the Italian ‘bel videre’ meaning ‘beautiful view’. Whatever facilities the cell’s inmate had been provided with, a view was not one of them …
The cell wasn’t completely bare, though. The wall was white, with a crossword grid painted on it. The grid was on the bench blocks, too, and a number of squares had been filled in with letters, giving us words such as MEMORY, FIGMENT, OUT, CONDITION, MASHA and THE SEAGULL. Halfway up the wall a small shelf supported a goldfish bowl containing one fish, the small orange prisoner circling slowly inside its own transparent cell.
A lot of the fascination of theatre lies in making connections from available clues, and a good playwright will provide just enough information to allow the audience to construct a believable scenario. Ana-Maria Bamberger would seem to be a very good writer indeed – in the opening moments she and Genevieve Girling, the show’s director, had given us a character (obviously literate), a location (some kind of institution), and a set of keywords leading us towards both Chekhov (his sister was called MASHA) and psychology (words like ‘FIGMENT’ and ‘ANA G’ pointing me, at least, towards Freud). All before a single actor spoke.
So it was no great surprise when the door opened and a middle-aged woman entered. Brown trouser suit, striped blouse, glasses, hair scraped back into a short bun; she hardly needed the file case that defined her as either a lawyer or a doctor. Once the man had acknowledged her as ‘Dr. Defoe’ the roles were clear. He was indeed a patient and she was his doctor. She called him Anton, and though it’s never made clear whether he actually believed himself to BE Chekhov, the man cemented the link to Chekhov by quizzing her about details of the Russian author’s life which had come up in his crossword.
It turns out that Anton is delusional, and his doctor is studying him for her scientific paper on – ‘Schizophrenia and Art: The Hallucination – between Creativity and Psychopathology’. But, like a good many delusional patients, Anton seemed to be the dominant one of the pair. He browbeats Dr Defoe, and in fact Defoe might not even be her name – Anton constantly heaps abuse on her, accusing her of not hearing properly, and he may well be taunting her with the insult ‘Deafo’. She’s nervous, too, and Anton points to her habit of nail-biting and throws doubt on her memory and her qualifications. He’s a powerful, highly intelligent individual, and there was more than a hint of Anton evoking sexual attraction in the doctor.
So the scene was set, and when Dr Defoe left the room I foresaw the play being a battle of wills between this pair – Anton not only claimed to be completely cured, he actually sounded the more logical of the two.
But suddenly there was a knock at the door and a younger woman came into Anton’s room. Shoulder-length hair, wearing a buff cardigan and carrying a bunch of yellow flowers, she seemed shy and awkward, and it took me a few seconds to realise that it was the same actor as before. She introduced herself as Stephanie, telling Anton that they had known each other as students years before. At first he didn’t recognise her, but sitting alongside him on the bench, she teased out his memories of their past relationship. She seems to have come from nowhere, and she’s obviously an hallucination of Anton’s. It seems he IS delusional after all, and the fact that Stephanie is the same woman as Dr. Defoe makes it probable that she is a projection of his subconscious desire for his physician.
So far, so surprising; but when Stephanie leaves, and Dr Defoe returns to question Anton about the raised voices in his room, she initially suggests to him that the younger woman is a figment of his imagination, and later even starts to become jealous of Stephanie. At this point the true existential nature of this piece became apparent – if Anton remains inside his room and has no knowledge of what is happening outside, then if Stephanie is an hallucination, why not the doctor also? All we really know about Anton and his predicament is what he seems to see. People come in through the door, but we have no way as audience of knowing what is real and what is unreal. And neither does Anton. We’ve already had a brush with Freud, and now it’s the spirit of Einstein that seems to be present.
The shock of realising that there’s another whole dimension to this play was deeply unsettling. ‘Belvedere’ has a truly brilliant structure that sets it apart from most current drama. Ana-Maria Bamberger’s scene-setting and plotting are faultless, but it was her actors who brought the piece alive for us. Both actors had wonderful clarity and projection in their delivery; Steve Wickenden giving Anton a pugnacious intelligence and self-belief, but also reflective moments where he tried to gauge the reality of what he’s seeing. Kathryn Worth gave us two (differently) damaged women, both very believable in voice and in body language. Remember, also, that she had to change between them several times, making her performance even more technically challenging.
But there’s yet another level to come. Anton is a creative writer, and he begins to anticipate the women’s lines – in exchanges with Dr Defoe he’s actually writing them on the crossword grid before she has said them. The play is even more self-referential and convoluted than we had thought, and we finally realise, with a further unsettling shock, that Anton has been writing a play all along, and that both the women are his characters.
As Anton himself must therefore be. Or is he standing outside this level of reality?
The play curls back on itself like a Moebius Strip, and at the end I realised that the title must come, not from the Italian, but from M C Escher’s lithograph of the impossible tower – ‘Belvedere’. That building is architecturally impossible, with the perspective completely skewed so that columns at the front are seen as though they are also behind structures further back. You can draw it, but you couldn’t build it. (Escher also produced engravings of Moebius Strips, come to think of it.) There is something addictive about perspective flipping between two alternative states, and some of that sense of unease – the lack of firm ground beneath one’s feet – pervades this play. This is a real five-star production. Try to catch it.