Brighton Fringe 2013
"My people need me – I am aware of that. But what I know my people need, and what they think they need – are always very different things."
"If you want to save the country, take care of ME – I am its only hope…"
"I will tell you what our army needs to do – crush this treasonous rioting…"
That could be Bashar al-Assad last week in Syria. It could equally well be Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania over twenty years ago, or one of Machiavelli’s Renaissance rulers addressed in ‘The Prince’. Indeed, it could be any dictator, tyrant or absolute ruler throughout history. The trouble with being an absolute ruler, though, is that they become isolated at the pinnacle of power, surrounded by sycophants, yes-men and self-serving advisors – insulated from contact with the population that they claim to lead.
I assume that the play’s title is taken from Plato’s allegory of prisoners, chained facing the wall of a cave, seeing only the shadows cast by people and things passing in front of a fire which is behind them. All they ever see are the shadows on the wall, and they have to try to interpret reality from these transient flickers…
Marcus is an absolute ruler. It’s he who spoke the lines above, and in his smart black suit and short dark hair he could very well be al-Assad. But the play is carefully timeless, and he could equally well be Louis XIV – "L’Etat, c’est moi", or Louis XV – "Après moi, le Déluge…". Marcus is blind – a strip of red silk covered his eyes – and lame, sitting on a throne-like armchair with his stick, so he’s completely dependent on his advisors to give him information about the world outside the palace.
Marcus sat in the centre of the stage at The Warren, isolated under a spotlight with no scenery or props to distract our attention. Under the red silk, the stage makeup rendered his face completely smooth, and the frontal lighting made him seem curiously featureless- almost plastic. He was certainly not an old man, but not a youth either – I imagine that Andrew Scott, who plays him, must be in his early twenties but his character seemed curiously ageless.
At the start, he was musing about his rise to power. As so often with dictators, we learned that this had come about through the assassination of an older ruler – whether a father-figure or his actual father was unclear. He’s at pains to tell us that – "I was not the only conspirator", and to justify the act – "I committed the sin…the necessary sin". That ‘necessary’ reminded me of W H Auden’s poem about the Spanish Civil War, where he muses on – ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.’
Somehow, after the killing, Marcus lost his sight – "The blade struck, I bled…and my heart wept for forgiveness". The actor’s delivery left it unclear (the lines were rather garbled), but it seemed that Marcus had done this to himself, slashing at his own eyes in guilty repentance, and the end result was that he had become a ruler – though he had also become blind.
Marcus has three close advisors – Velia, his sister, who is in charge of foreign policy, Rivers, who is running the economy, and Tyrell, who is head of the security forces and the army. These three – played by women in their early twenties all dressed in smart black business skirts or trousers, now rushed on, swamping Marcus with updates on the state of the country, and demands for political decisions. They are obviously alert to unresolved problems across the nation, outside the palace walls, but the Ruler dismissed their competence – "Are you the ones running this country? … No, it’s me, it’s always been me".
Blind rulers can be actually physically sightless, or merely metaphorically so – as in ‘King Lear’. Lear had his three daughters: Cordelia loving and supportive, the other two the embodiment of ambition and the hunger for power. It quickly became apparent that the physically blind Marcus had his equivalent of Lear’s daughters in these three advisors. The main action of the play involved the machinations of the women as they manoeuvred for power and plotted to replace Marcus.
Velia, his sister, had a slight American accent as she was played by Sabrina Gutiérrez, who’s Mexican. She’s been with Marcus – "since the beginning" and loves him, but she fears that he’s lost touch with the needs of the nation, and she only wants to do what’s best. She turns out to be malleable putty in the hands of the snake-like Tyrell, who gradually convinces her that she has a duty to murder her brother – "for the good of the State". Slim, serpentine, hissing her venomous proposals into Velia’s ear with an eastern European accent (she’s Czech) Magdalena Dvorska as Tyrell was the classic evil conspirator. Her delivery needed more volume and projection, but it was an inspired piece of casting. Authors seldom choose characters’ names completely at random, and Tyrell probably refers us to Margaery Tyrell from ‘Game of Thrones’, another ambitious, calculating woman bent on the pursuit of power.
Rivers, the third advisor, has a name which immediately recalled Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. Earl Rivers was the faithful courtier charged with looking after the boy-king Edward V and his brother (the princes in The Tower) and who was killed by Richard for blocking Richard’s murderous plans. Tabby Kell’s Rivers was the totally honest courtier, remaining faithful to Marcus even when he had lost trust in her and her own life was at stake. She was disgraced, tortured and finally murdered by the other two.
And so it proceeded, with the inexorable logic of a Greek tragedy. Velia stabbed her brother to death, still loving him but convinced that it was the only solution for the country. But before she could even arise from cradling his body in her arms, Tyrell had slipped her own knife into Velia’s back, and as the lights fade she stood triumphant over the dead siblings. Tyrell has achieved her goal of supreme power. She will need her own advisors, though – is the cycle about to begin again?…
The stripped-back staging in the black space made it seem very close to classical drama, with a minimalist music score, mostly Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, underpinning the sense of timelessness. I was told by the actors later that they had devised this piece themselves – they had referenced a wide selection of tropes to put together a remarkably satisfying production. The audience at The Warren was not large, but we felt that we had seen something memorable. I shall look out for Re:Conception Theatre in the future.