Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Paul McCleary takes his audience through a millenium or so of Gypsy history, starting with their expulsion from northern India. A whole people is represented through the genial host-type figure of the King of the Gypsies – who is more a repository of oral history than an actual king of the travelling race.
When our host says that he knows we’re only there for his stories, he’s not wrong. They’re crucial to the show that follows. As he hands out mugs of tea (there’s no sugar in sight, so I didn’t ask for one), the eponymous Gypsy doesn’t disappoint. He picks a new character for each period of history covered, from 1500s India to modern Britain, via Italy and Ottoman Greece. All of those characters feed their lives into the grand narrative of a people always on the run, personified in the King.
It’s a lifestyle that has its critics – many of them – but McCleary also manages to convey a certain romantic freedom inherent in a life lived on the road, one not tied to systems and institutions, one without taxes and exams. The charm and the danger are both present, as is the weariness of the man (or race) that hasn’t stopped moving in five hundred years. Anti-Gypsy sentiment is given a voice too, in recorded soundbites played through the show: voices of Gypsies and ordinary members of the public, some of whom are violently anti-Gypsy.
Of the stories told, those in Italy and Germany are the most powerful. The staggering number of Gypsy deaths inside Nazi concentration camps is introduced lightly and then left to hang in the air: half a million. Then there’s the old Romany man who finds his two drowned daughters lying, ignored, on a beach. The sense of tragedy is understated and never allowed to dominate the performance.
Another story, dated back to Biblical times, gives a possible reason for the persecution of Gypsies – namely that a Gypsy blacksmith allegedly provided the nails for Jesus’ crucifixion, but only three of them, as the fourth was hidden. Some believe Gypsies will be persecuted until that nail is found, and they’ve been looking for it ever since. It’s little snippets like that – in which playwright Pauline Lynch shines an unexpected light on Gypsy history – that make this play such an interesting, informative one. That it is entertaining and endearing as well is what makes it so recommended.