Edinburgh Fringe 2017
The true-life story of inventor Nikola Tesla’s disastrous working relationship with electricity guru Thomas Edison in the 1880s is used as the springboard for a dystopian, surrealist piece of theatre that, like the genius of the scientist at its centre, hovers perilously close to the thin line between madness and masterpiece.
There have been attempts to eradicate the name of Nikola Tesla from the history books. Both during his life, and in the years since, his anti-capitalist philosophies and unconventional approaches to science have failed to chime with the history-makers, and he has been sidelined in favour of scientific heroes whose stories and views are easier to digest. Recently, there has been something of a Tesla resurgence – he was played by David Bowie in the brilliant film The Prestige, he has lent his name to a hugely successful electric car company, and now – honour of all honours – he has his own Fringe show. Except of course even that rug has been pulled from underneath him, and the show is named not after Tesla, as it should be, but after his far less deserving arch-nemesis Thomas Edison.
It begins as a fairly conventional naturalistic coming-of-age tale – Nikola converses with his mother, in surtitled Croatian (I presume), about wanting to travel to America to work for Edison, she attempts to dissuade him, and then there’s a tender moment of mother-to-son advice about how best to fluff cotton. Then off we go to America, and the whole thing very quickly spirals wildly out of control.
The pom-poms wielded by the USA welcoming committee cheerleaders dissolve, and the gold Christmas ribbons from which they are made become the factory floor at the Edison Electric Light Company. This workplace has echoes of the Ministry of Information in the film Brazil, except that in said film the bureaucracy was all about the paperwork, and here, apparently, paper has been banned.
We follow Tesla around different departments at the company as he searches for the elusive Edison, where a string of characters come to Tesla’s aid or hindrance. Each successive scene becomes more and more bizarre, as Tesla engages in increasingly agitated contemporary dance instead of listening to his interlocutors.
Everywhere he goes, Tesla is shadowed by a pigeon. Yes, a pigeon. Well, not a real pigeon – a woman wearing a bad pigeon mask and making scant attempt to impersonate any sort of animal. I presume this pigeon is a reference to the apocryphal story that Tesla lived out the last years of his life in hotel rooms caring for injured pigeons, but we are none the wiser. Eventually there is a scene in which the “identity” of the pigeon is revealed, but the answer is so strange that it merely adds to our befuddlement. In one brilliant but baffling scene, said pigeon busies herself waterboarding another actor, while of course Tesla is off interpretative dancing over the other side of the stage. What any of this means is beyond me, but boy was it captivating.
I found the actress playing Tesla utterly mesmerising, the constant confused concentration on her face a perfect mirror to the audience’s bewilderment. Every absurdist production needs a strong focal point, someone through whose eyes we encounter the twisted reality in which we find ourselves, and Zoe Feldman pitched her puzzlement just right (apparently this part is shared by two actresses – you may see Juliet Mellon in the role).
Although Tesla tries in vain to encounter Thomas Edison, we get to meet him several times, and he’s not quite what you might have expected. More Frank-N-Furter than Victorian businessman, Jaz Blain (the only male actor in the cast of nine) entertains us with a string of madcap scenes, including, about halfway through, a superb and totally incongruous clown routine. He seems to be performing in a completely different play from everyone else, but then so does pretty much everyone else, so in a strange way it kind of works.
There is lots of potential to dislike this production, and it’s clear that people are already staying away in droves (there were more people onstage than in the audience when I attended). I’m pretty sure some of you who go on my recommendation will hate me for it. But I found something so fresh in the anarchy on display here that I am willing to forgive them all of their infractions. If you’re hoping to find out more about the real-life Tesla or Edison, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re hoping for a science lesson, again this is not the show you are looking for. If you want cogent storytelling, strong characterisation and a satisfying ending, steer clear. But if you want to fart in the face of theatrical convention, if you like your drama hewn from the recesses of a twisted poet’s mind, if you (like me) like coming out of the theatre going “whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?????????”, then to you I wholeheartedly recommend this strange, strange production. Fearlessly bonkers. Just like Tesla.