Brighton Fringe 2007
Queen of the Slaughter
Venue: Komedia Upstairs
Festival: Brighton Fringe
With a low key 4pm slot at the tail end of the festival its fair to assume that Prodigal theatre are taking a sensibly tentative approach to bringing their devised performance “The Queen of The Slaughter” to their audience. It’s a characteristic display of sound judgment from a company who have again succeeded at bringing quality shows to full houses at the Nightingale.
This performance at the Theatre upstairs at the Komedia represents the move to a bigger canvas than is available in a small room above a pub and Queen of the Slaughter earns four stars straight out of the box for a production that shows a masterful grasp of the technical heart of theatre. This is a display of virtuosity in music and movement that uses stage and stagecraft with detailed precision. It’s a style of theatre I could really get to like.
So when I say “Queen of the Slaughter” doesn’t work yet it’s said with an opening caveat. That I can make this critisism in the first place is partly due to the fact that Brighton produced theatre is worth talking about again and Prodigal theatre are setting a very high standard. That’s going to invite strong opinion.
We are presented with a series of images, a bird, hovering in the wind, a man with a candle singing, a woman with a gun, the flag, symbols first then characters, the drunk at the piano, the femme fatale, the fresh faced idealists, the hardened partisans.
The stage is decked with a piano, a desk and chair, a scaffold upstage and terraced rows of canvas walls. We could be in a tented stockade, or a cafe or bar in any country a hundred years ago, many countries now. There are two stories being told here, one, is the drama of the idealist, wooed by the femme fatale, spiced with alcohol and camarederie, fired and feared into taking the gun. On the dying ground the idealist must, fight and kill.
The second is a story of symbols, the journey of the flag, the gun, the dance of war and the taming of venus and mars. The five arts of the Tao warrior. We are sung to, we are played to and the playing is good, accomplished. We are dazzled and hypnostised by a magnificent display of swordsmanship and a breathtaking dance with the point of a knife. We are stunned by the whirling dervish dancer and the masterful acrobatic control and precision.
The “dance of the partisans” as they confront the idealist with the threat of the sword while indoctrinating him in the words of “the red book” builds magnificently and serves as a forceful physical metaphor for coersion through violence and fear. The strongest moment of the play for me was the crossover from the dance of death to to the dance of love where the battle hardened idealist is rushed straight from the arena of battle into a breathless, seductive waltz with the queen of the slaughter. Eros and Thanatos.
The flip side to this hyperbolic prose 🙂 is that as a naive audience member with no knowledge or expectation of what I was going to see I was still not sure of what I was seeing 10 minutes into the experience. I could not relate to any individual character on an emotional level. I was confused by where they were going with the images, there was no strong sense of narrative that kept me involved. How was I touched or connected with this? What did it mean to me? I sympathised with the audience member I overheard mumbling “What a load of self indulgent w***!” on the way out of the theatre but more generously I wondered is this a deliberate example of a certain Brechtian coldness? Or is there something else?
There was a clue I think in the performance itself. The proficiency and confidence of the performance was greatest in those scenes involving one two or three performers and weakest in those with the whole ensemble. It didn’t then surprise me to read that the ensemble bill themselves as “Performer-Devisors”. When they are all acting a scene there is no outside eye to shape and direct the flow. And they have probably had limited opportunity to experience the way in which the individual images, symbols and scenes they create work as a whole for an audience. A director can see this flow taking shape as he or she takes the audiences role and feels the impact the whole is having.
If Prodigal theatre are as good as I think they probably are then this performance is the opening move in a new development process that provides them with the opportunity to do just that. It is a credit to them that they have managed to create a generous ensemble piece. I’m fascinated to find out how they begin to represent the eye and the heart of the audience in their devising process.