Edinburgh Fringe 2011
A man, a cell, two interrogators and a picture that could spell the end of humanity. In a Kafka-esque nightmare of absurdity, the two men question a suspect to the point of confusion and hysteria.
Les Enfants Terrible have been around a while and provided us with some memorable shows at the Fringe, The Terrible Infants and Ernest and the Pale Moon spring to mind. The Infant feels quite different from these shows and is actually one that’s been around a while, a revival of a show that they first brought to Edinburgh in 2006.
The play opens with a man tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged. His interrogators question him mercilessly, seemingly oblivious that his attempts to answer are somewhat hampered by the gag. Cooper (James Seager) is the hostage of Samedi (Anthony Spargo) and Castagan (Martyn Demspey). Bewildered about why he is there and in a nightmarishly ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ situation, Cooper professes total ignorance to the reason for his presence there.
It turns out a picture is at the centre of it all, a picture that behind its innocent facade is at the centre of a heinous plot to destroy civilisation. Initially, Cooper doesn’t recognise the picture. Eventually, the light dawns: the drawing in question is by his four year old son.
From here, things go from farce to satire with wild flights of absurdity thrown in for good measure. Cooper first denies involvement, but eventually is willing to betray his son and his wife to escape involvement. His wife, Lily (Faye Billing), is drawn into the interrogation. The two play hapless victims, normality in the face of Samedi’s and Castagan’s frenzied questioning.
The two interrogators are the classic two handed comedy team of clever guy and fall guy as well as the classic good policeman, bad policeman routine. Samedi has elements of Tim Burton fantastical as the rather more intelligent of the two whose intellect takes him up many a fascinating blind alley with his increasingly absurd flights of illogic. Sargo’s is a performance that combines some wonderful clowning with masterful use of language. Dempsey’s Castagan is a hapless foil to Samedi, a bumbling idiot, who occasionally flags as stalwart interrogator in the employ of the state when basic humanity interrupts his unquestioning obedience. The wonderful synergy between the two actors ratches up the comic action, particularly with the contrast of their absurdity and Cooper and Lily’s normality.
Samedia and Castagn bounce between the two cells; a set composed of screens on a simple frame effectively making multiple transitions to depict the blank surroundings. Their questioning takes on increasingly ludicrous proportions, interrupted by stops for sugar-laden tea and rants about the evils of smoking. As time goes on and immersion in this poisonous atmosphere takes its toll, Cooper and Lily become drawn into the nonsensical situation and are prepared to do anything to escape its clutches, even handing over their own son.
The Infant is a deeply insightful satire on the politics of fear and where it leads. The Infant depicts a state where paranoia has become the norm, where fear has led us to gaze suspiciously on our neighbours and where increasingly draconian measures become justified in the name of justice but are frequently found to be misdirected and ineffective. Increasingly, in The Infant, it feels like the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Perhaps some small resonance for our own society then?
Oliver Lansley’s writing is sharp and witty. It rattles on from surreality to absurdity with plenty of one liners on the way. There are lots of laughs and some clever observation, with some wonderful tangents that take us nowhere in the most pleasurable of diversions. There’s good interplay between the characters, good character definition, lots of light and shade. However, while it has an engaging central theme, ultimately having made its point, it has nowhere to go, and goes on reiterating the same point losing something of its impact in the process.
It’s an entertaining hour with some wonderful acting, great clowning, a good script and insightful commentary on our times – and yet it somehow fails to take off as fully as it should.