Brighton Fringe 2013
Venue: The Warren
Festival: Brighton Fringe
‘In the mind of the fantasist, the real and the fanciful become dangerously blurred’.
‘The Fantasist’ is a play about Louise, a woman suffering from the delusions that are a part of schizophrenia, and that’s how her situation was described on the show’s flyer.
Louise sees people who aren’t really there, and objects moving of their own accord. She sees objects move, and grotesque puppet creatures – all given life by a pair of puppeteers, completely dressed in black, with black hoods hiding their heads and faces.
Louise’s brain processes produce sensations that do not exist in reality. But we, the audience, employ another kind of mental processing to block out the black-swathed figures who move the objects on the stage. After a short while we focus on the puppets themselves and the puppeteers seem to – disappear. We have entered into a pact with the theatrical company – you will tell us a story and we will suspend disbelief while you do so.
It’s how all theatre works. We know that in reality these people in front of us are actors, and that the door at the side just leads off to backstage, but we choose to believe, for the duration of the play, that these people are lovers, or murderers, and that the door opens onto a hospital, or a garden, or a courtroom…
I’ve long felt that theatre is the only really ‘grown-up’ medium. Film tries to get closer and closer to a simulacrum of reality, with sound, then colour, followed by high definition, and now 3D. Theatre, by contrast, doesn’t try to convince us that we’re seeing reality – instead, the basic cues are sketched out on the stage, and we the audience fill in the details ourselves.
Louise’s story could be done as film, with computer-generated special effects to produce her hallucinations, but it wouldn’t generate that same degree of involvement, that wilful ignoring of the strings, and of constantly processing what we are actually looking at, to produce what we have decided – chosen – to see.
So, with ‘The Fantasist’, we have the interesting philosophical situation of an audience deliberately blocking out things that are happening, in reality, in front of them, to follow a story about a woman who is, involuntarily, seeing things that are only happening within her own consciousness.
And what a story it is. From the first moments when we saw Louise lying on the bed, hearing rasping, rumbling, screeching noises overlying the sound of a heart beating as she tossed and turned, her situation was profoundly unsettling. For one thing, the bed was upright, vertically mounted on the stage, and Louise was in fact standing up, pressed against it. It gave the impression that we were looking down at her from the ceiling, and the bed itself was not the reassuringly rectangular shape that we’re all used to, but a crazy form with every side askew.
Suddenly the bed sheet was sucked away under the woman, through a crack in the bed, which we then realised was not a bed at all, but a wardrobe in a lurid green colour – a weird piece of furniture all crazy angles, like something from Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, something out of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’. Unsettling for the woman, and for us too, as our perspective was wrenched through ninety degrees and we were now looking at a room from a normal side view.
She’d lost the bed-sheet, and then she lost the pillow, also sucked into the wardrobe through a gap between the doors. Next the chest of drawers began to act up, drawers springing open as fast as Louise could push them shut. There was an artist’s easel in the room, and a desk lamp on a seat, and the lamp began to move as well, twisting its reflector on its short swan-neck stand as it flashed on and off. This was clearly a woman in the grip of a nightmare or some serious delusions.
The desk lamp was actually moved by a black-swathed puppeteer, one of a pair who operate all the figures which constitute Louise’s increasingly powerful hallucinations. She’s evidently a painter, hence the easel in the room, and she has a small lay-figure, a human form about a foot high whose articulated joints can set its limbs in different poses. As Louise works at a painting, the lay-figure climbed down off the chest of drawers and crossed the stage towards her, giving out little squeaks to attract her attention. It took both puppeteers to operate the little figure, but they made its movements so natural and expressive that it appeared to have a life all of its own. More than just simply life – its hands were oversized, and the way they gestured – palms up, pleading – gave the figure a lot of pathos. It was funny, it was intriguing, but it was also very moving.
Catherine Gerrard and Julia Corrêa were the extremely talented puppeteers, and offstage they removed their hoods and donned coats to re-enter the room as Louise’s doctor, Josie, and her friend Sophie. The doctor is keen to administer a sedative to curb the patient’s visions, and Sophie wants to provide some company and support to her friend, but after they leave Louise is again on her own, and there’s a knocking from inside the wardrobe…
When the wardrobe door opened there was a collective gasp from the audience, as we were confronted with one of the most astonishing sights I have ever seen in a theatre. An enormous figure, at least seven feet tall, stepped out onto the stage. Black fedora, long dark blue overcoat with a red rose on the lapel, worn over a wing-collared shirt and tie, all this was secondary to his head. His head was pale blue-green, almost the colour of luminous paint, and moulded so that his prominent nose and cheekbones stood proud of the sharply angled planes of the rest. Crudely modelled, with a rawness that was offset by his rather sad eyes. Mysterious, powerful, but also exuding menace. Crude – but that very crudeness making him fantastic and unreal, nightmarish.
It took both the puppeteers to operate the man. One (presumably) supported his head, and they each had one arm in a sleeve of his overcoat, so that he had two workable hands, a left and a right, to caress Louise as he took her in his arms to dance with her, and later to pour her a measure of a mysterious blue liquid – a drug? For this mysterious figure seemed to be the painter’s muse, urging her to take up her brushes and paint.
Julia Yevnine, who played Louise, only came up to the figure’s shoulder as they danced. She was clad in a short, flower-print garment that could have been a shift or a nightdress, pointing up the ambiguity of her status as a patient. Barelegged and shoeless, her hair was pulled into a loose bun at the back which became more disordered as Louise’s disintegration proceeded. She’s French, as of course is Theatre Témoin (which translates as ‘witness’), and she delivered a number of her lines in the language. In fact, though the location is never specified, the mysterious tall figure has a distinctly French feel, too, like a character from a French ‘noir’ film from the nineteen forties or fifties.
Julia gave a mesmerising performance, pulling us into the woman’s confusion and trauma. She moves extremely well, too, dancing across the stage or cowering in fear at her fantasies. As if that’s not enough, Julia Yevnine designed and built the puppets as well – truly a Renaissance Woman…
It doesn’t end well, of course. This kind of story seldom does. Despite Doctor Josie’s sedatives, Louise is visited by a much more malign fantasy – an evil bird. If the man was her positive painting muse, the bird is definitely a manifestation of her angst and lack of confidence. "You walk down the same street – there’s a chasm in the pavement!" screeches the bird. Julia built this creature too – narrow evil head with a long nose and a long chin to match, forming an enormous beak, like a fantastically stretched-out parody of Mr Punch. Add to this a pair of vicious claws, all in the same luminous blue-green, all loosely attached by a length of purple cloth. The two puppeteers moved a claw each, and one took the head, giving the creature a span of several feet as it flapped around the stage. At one point it settled on Louise’s shoulder, wrapping its cloth body around her head as the two of them gazed out at the audience, the woman’s eyes frightened and the creature’s glowing with malevolent intensity.
I haven’t mentioned the two disembodied heads in the wardrobe, nor how Louise jams one of them onto the easel, which comes alive, wooden legs stalking across the stage like some horrifying anorexic scarecrow. Or Louise’s final fate as the play ends. There simply isn’t room here to do justice to this gripping production. It’s truly a five star event – to miss it would be a nightmare.
‘In the mind of the fantasist, the real and the fanciful become dangerously blurred’.
Come to think of it, all that we really know of Louise’s world is what we see on the stage in front of us – which is presumably what she is seeing. We see her delusional characters, and we see her doctor and her visiting friend – but can we be sure that the doctor and the friend are any more real than the others? Finally, we as audience have no way of telling…