Brighton Fringe 2014
Inspired by the life and works of playwright
and poet Jean Genet, this is dark and
visceral theatre, not for the easily offended, but full of energy, with a little bit of beauty thown in for good measure.
Thief starts with a rather jolly heavy metal sea shanty melody, before the thief, the self named Sailor, bounds though the audience. No review is ever going to miss out the fact that he is stark bollock naked, and talks to us over his shoulder from the back of the stage as he jerks off. It’s a striking beginning, but both Liam Rudden’s writing and Matt Robertson’s portrayal are sharp, vigorous and punchy throughout the performance. Even knowing how it begins won’t detract from the sheer energy of that opening scene. As we become immersed in Sailor’s life story, you feel the power of his self definition – he may be at the bottom of the pile, a rent boy and thief, and you and his punters might see him as just that, but he laughs at your cosy summing up and writing off of his existence. From that first challenge at the back of the stage – “You want to watch don’t you, but you won’t admit it”, he makes it clear that it is his knowledge of your denial that gives him power.
However this defiant outlook comes at a cost. The performance segues quite naturally into his past, son of a whore who had rejected him totally, this summed up in the tale of the last time he saw her. As he says, he would have liked to have been liked, loved even, but since that has not been his lot he has chosen to inhabit fully the space he is defined in. You don’t need to know anything about Jean Genet, the French author and thief and darling of the existentialists and far left in the sixties and seventies, the dialogue and stage play make his status and his choices clear. That he exalts in this is shown, that he has deep sadness and misery corralled off by his defiance is also clear, amply demonstrated through the play. There is genuine pathos here as well as bravado.
In a first class production such as this, where the audience is hanging on every word, the ideas and the issues spring naturally out of the action, nothing feels forced. With such a rounded well knit production it is difficult to pull out individual pieces of evidence to show its quality, as one scene follows another seamlessly in dramatic form and in the unfolding of the narrative. The more melodramatic and shocking moments – the beginning, the self-harm scene, are well balanced in the whole, they stand out, yes, but they don’t eclipse the meat of the show. Pulling off this powerful but nuanced theatre is a difficult call, but Thief does it well. Sailor has had very little choice in the manner of his upbringing and his subsequent life, but he actively retains his sense of self by the attitude that he inhabits towards his outsider life – he’s hard core, criminal, poor and proud of it, but still you get the sense of a life that he would have embraced if he had had half the chance. He likes pain, so he says, but he suffers as well – pain is another thing he cannot avoid, only choose how he regards it, and you see that while he is defiant in his choice he is also trapped in it as well.
It was a moving performance that set this life story in front of us in all its pitiless poverty and grime, showing us Sailor’s rich sense of self, but also the grinding wheels of a society that crushes misfits unless they cringe and hide out of the way. Matt Robertson’s very physical and strong portrayal gave us a strong clear focus without veering into the two-dimensional – there was a richness in his acting that ensured you were fully engaged with the character in all his parts – foolhardy, sad, loving, reckless – I could go on – it was a heady mix but one that the actor kept on top of. The back drop of things like slavery, and of homosexuality as an illegal and despised act are very present, but again not laboured. These dysfunctional aspects of the society in which this takes place are the fabric of which Sailor / Thief is wove, and out of which he fashioned his own persona, in defiance of the worst that could be thrown at him.