Brighton Fringe 2018
By my count, there were at least twenty-five characters crossing the Rialto stage for ‘The Polished Scar’ – it’s a busy show with lots of short scenes, telling the life story of a senior politician.
That’s a lot of interactions and dialogue – yet there was only a single actor on the stage the whole time, as Duncan Henderson performed solo in one of the most remarkable theatrical productions I’ve seen in years.
Duncan Henderson is a truly protean actor. In the flesh he looks to be in his early forties, with a rather angular face, ever so slightly craggy. But a few years ago when he grew a beard to perform as The Librarian in ‘Underneath the Lintel’ – a one-man show, like this one – he managed to look at least twenty years older.
In this production Henderson’s face seems somehow rounder and smoother. Unlined. He smiles a lot – the innocent happiness of a small child and then later on the well-fed smugness of a member of the Establishment, a successful politician in one of the main political parties.
Remarkable. Just a chair in the centre of the stage, with a table off to one side. As the lights come up he’s on his feet – dark suit, white shirt, striped tie – making a speech in what soon becomes clear is the House of Commons. We quickly understand this from the context of his words – he’s a government Minister, putting down “The Honourable Lady” from the party “on the far side of The House”. He’s vigorously defending the actions of his Department, and concludes his speech with – “Nobody likes to be treated as a child”. As he sits down he slumps backwards – the chair is obviously a green Parliamentary front bench – and turns to wink at the colleague to his right. Speech made. Opposition trounced. Job done.
This is minimalism of the highest level. Apart from a sound effect of The Speaker demanding – “Order … Order … Order” to start the scene off, there’s nothing else. No scenery, no props. Just Henderson’s parliamentary phrasing, his powerfully raised voice obviously addressing a large number of MPs, his body language as he leans slightly forward to emphasise a point, and finally that private little wink as he sits down. We are given sufficient cues that we can see his front bench colleagues, and the dark Rialto auditorium becomes a cavernous Parliamentary chamber, stretching out around us. In my mind’s eye I could see the Minister on his right mouthing – “Well done!”.
Minimalism. Unlike film or TV, which employ all sorts of technical wizardry to make viewers believe they are actually there; theatre treats its audiences more as adults – you suspend disbelief and we’ll tell you a story. Given the right context, a single chair can become a Parliamentary front bench, then later on it can become something else, as long as you choose to see it and believe it.
“Nobody likes to be treated like a child”. The lights darken and he puts the chair to one side, and as they come back to brightness Henderson is playing with something small in front of him, miming picking it up and examining it. Then he turns, with a rather goofy smile, to show it to someone. They must be very tall, as he’s gazing up towards the roof. When he speaks, it’s with a rather hesitant, softer-pitched voice, and there’s a giddying lurch of perspective as we realise that they aren’t tall – it’s just that he’s very small.
A sudden realisation – he’s a child. Two of the twenty-five other characters I mentioned before are there too. We quickly learn that they are his parents – and that they are about to send him off to boarding school – from the context of their conversation with the child. Or rather, from his side of the conversation. This show isn’t just about minimising on props, all the dialogue is cut back to just Henderson’s half of it.
Nobody likes to be treated as a child. As an audience we are made to work very hard during this production – we have to visualise the scene and the props, and we also have to piece together the other half of each of Henderson’s conversations. It’s a remarkably engaging experience. As a seven-year-old newly arrived at school he’s trying to telephone home. He’s little, so he has to stretch up high to put the coins into the callbox, and we hear his side of the call, and when the money runs out we hear the beeps going as he drops his remaining coins on the floor and has to scrabble around for them before the line goes dead on him. So much more effective – more involving – than if there had been an enormous public telephone mounted somewhere on the stage.
So that’s how it’s done – though it takes an artist of the calibre of Duncan Henderson to do it as convincingly as this production manages to. I use the word ‘artist’ deliberately, because Henderson also wrote this show – it’s his complete creation. And having engaged us, what story does he want to tell?
As I mentioned at the start, it’s about the British Establishment. It’s the arc of the life-story of the upper classes and their progression through Public School, then Oxbridge, and on to a career in Politics, the upper reaches of the Civil Service or as a Captain of Industry. That they would be white and male should go without saying. It’s about learning to hide any weakness you might have, burying it deep and always being a successful ‘member of the team’ – ‘one of the boys’.
So our small child goes off to Public School where he’s is bullied and humiliated. Survives, to bully and humiliate others in his turn. Meets the contacts who will ease his passage to Oxford, (disproportionately attended by the privately educated) where other privileged students will assist his Chairmanship of the Oxford Union, and provide the contacts that will secure him a job with a political Party. Probably as an intern research assistant to start (no need to worry about earning money) and then on to become an MP in a safe seat. Then a party Whip. (there’s a wonderful scene where he’s getting an MP to confess to some sexual misconduct). If he can outwit enough people (or stab them in the back) he might even become a Minister.
Gilbert and Sullivan understood about team players. I’m reminded of the lines from ‘HMS Pinafore’ –
“I always voted at my Party’s call / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all / I thought so little they rewarded me / By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy”
So predictable. So common. So British. In time he’ll marry and have a small son of his own. The cycle starts to repeat itself and we see him sending his seven-year-old son off to school, and then later taking the telephone call. This time, of course, Henderson is looking down rather than up – he’s the adult now, and we’re hearing his side of the conversation, the half we had to imagine earlier.
Sometimes, of course, things don’t turn out as we plan. All through life, sometimes there are tragedies. When that happens it’s all about keeping up appearances. Hiding the hurt, burying it deep. Keeping the scars well polished.