Hamilton Fringe 2016
This is not the first show I’ve seen at Hamilton Fringe this year exploring old age and the inevitability of death – it seems to be something of a recurring theme – but it is one of the best. Eric Helle creates a wonderfully intimate atmosphere in this wistful and delicate piece about art, loneliness and cookies.
At the far back corner of what must be the deepest, narrowest stage at Hamilton Fringe, a hunched, dark figure emerges and hobbles towards us. For the next half an hour, he will open up his heart, and his art, and we will be his best friends – possibly the only friends that this tragic soul has left in the world.
This is the ninth show I’ve seen at this year’s Hamilton Fringe, but bizarrely it is the first in which the performer has looked me (and indeed every other audience member) straight in the eye. Now, the thing that separates theatre from every other narrative artform is, of course, that I as an audience member coexist in the same room as the performer, breathe the same air, and react to the same unique set of circumstances that constitute this particular performance. Until now, I’ve been somewhat disappointed by the number of performers here who, although they have feigned direct address to the audience, have aimed their gaze a good half-metre above my head, out of a fear, I can only assume, of discovering something in the depths of my eyes that might set their performance off-balance. What a relief it is to meet Eric Helle and his alter-ego eyeball-to-eyeball. I’m here in the room after all.
The character’s identity is unknown to us, hidden both behind his lack of name, and by the Commedia dell’Arte half-mask the actor wears. I’ve met a fair few Commedia-style half-masks in my time, and I’ve even put some of them on my face, and I’m pretty confident about being able to spot a ‘good’ mask when I see one (and by ‘good’, I mean one that ‘works’, theatrically – one that ‘reaches out’ to the audience, and allows the performer behind it to ‘play’). And the mask used in this show is pretty good, but not absolutely top notch. Its dark colour, although thematically in keeping with the rest of the piece, limits its reach – a fact he seems to acknowledge by inviting us all to move closer and sit on the floor for the majority of the show. The mask has a good expressive asymmetricality to the forehead, which is unfortunately largely hidden behind the rim of his hat. But more important than the design of the mask is how that mask is worn, and Eric has an exquisite understanding of how to physicalise and vocalise his mask.
Whereas a full-face mask forces the actor to stay silent, by covering up his mouth, the Commedia half-mask forces him to speak. And speak he does, his monologue a tender parody of the wistful remembrances of a man in his dotage. Nevertheless, this show is more about what isn’t said than what is. The man into whose home we have been invited leafs through his sketchpad to regale us with the humorous episodes that gave rise to various (comically amateurish) works, but there are certain pictures he cannot bring himself to describe to us. As he stutters and falters, the tragedy shines through, and the full emotional resonance hits home. The fact that we do not know why the man is so sad, and what the memories are that are too painful to bear, allows him to become everyman. His fears of paling into insignificance become our fears. He is nameless, and faceless, because he has all names, and all faces.
It may only be half an hour long, but this piece gives more insight into the human condition than many plays four times as long.