Fringe Online 2021
Directed by Ian Talbot, Production Designer Andrew Exeter, Voice of Mother Samira Casteallo, Sound Designer Harry Regan, Additional Sound Cyrus Brandon, Associate Lighting Designer Matt Davies, Assistant set Designer Sorcha Corocran, Assistant Designer Costume Madi Omatseone, Scenic Painter Natalia Alvarez, Camera Operators Dan Bywater, Tyler Froward, Editor Ben Bull, Production Stage Manager Eve Hawes. Till April 11th.
31st December 1999. having survived a precise century – from slaves ships from Trinidad to a Croatian concentration camp – Scaramouche Jones prepares an exuberant farewell.
‘It is enough. Time to die… on the smooth surface of that last goodnight I feel distinctly over-dressed’ he says with a wink. The rich red-lit backdrop is an Aladdin’s Cave, a bric-a-brac of memories, a dressing room of seedy splendours and unimaginable shadows.
Shane Richie (EastEnders; The Entertainer; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) takes the role of the titular tragic clown in the digital revival of Justin Butcher’s absorbing solo play from 2003, Scaramouche Jones.
Ginger Quiff Media have form – the OnCom award-winning Martin Sherman’s Rose with Maureen Lipman, and Little Wars featuring Juliet Stevenson and Linda Bassett. This though is a real rollicking departure, recalling if anyone at all the poet Robert Nye’s novel Falstaff (1976) or particularly with a similar plotline The Late Mr Shakespeare, Nye’s last novel from 1998, recounting the adventures of Shakespeare’s erstwhile boy-actor Pickleherring, narrated in September 1666, in London.
The same sensibility – scurrilous, rich-tongued, scatological and omniscient as a talking clock on speed – marks Scaramouche’s creator Butcher as one of our most under-sung playwrights. Given phenomenal praise when he’s around, he somehow eludes a mainstream imprimatur. Fantastical tours-de-force darken with magic realism, an alchemical shiver make Butcher other, someone who disturbs into and out of fantasy, leaving flashes and the musk of hollows.
Directed by Ian Talbot there’s Big-Top-evocative sound design and occasional recorded voices (sound designer Harry Regan, additional sound Cyrus Brandon), musical composition sparingly used sound and sudden video-ripping visuals on occasion but not for scene change more mood ones.
Ritchie offers a masterclass of voices, speaking in the tongues of one man’s history. The gravelly narrator’s voice though is constant, a magic trip through Europe’s hell shafted with masks as they’re ripped away. His waistcoat however and even bowler hat seem constants against the plush metallic red of the backdrop, courtesy of designer Andrew Exeter’s aptly garish claustrophobia.
Born of a gipsy and unknown father (whom he thinks he’s identified), performance is in the blood, as Scaramouche thinks. He’s also unnervingly white, and when his mother dies on the job he’d dispatched by a Father to Barbados orphanage. He really sells him to an Arab slave-trader who can use his white face.
A twenty-five year service around a kind master and snake called Benjamin Disraeli and peripatetic education becomes more bonding than bondage, till an accident of fate in December 1930 plunges Scaramouche into the desirous arms of an Italian admiral which he escapes by frozen water, deliriously mumbling Romany his mother’s tongue. Recognised as one of their own, he’s rescued by gipsies.
We’re in Mussolini’s Italy and just over halfway through. Trying to rescue a young gipsy woman Scaramouche is beaten and incarcerated, marries and is punished for not being effectively a paedophile and after a symmetrical beating – there seems a few of these – a Polish actor rescues him to converse in Latin and residence in a Polish monastery.
Escaping in the war through Rumania he’s caught and forced to work in a Croatian death camp in Split. ‘shovelling white lime to cover the faces of so many clowns…’ And for once music overlays the voice as Scaramouche’s white face is used as a euphemism to comfort children: ‘we’re going to see the clown…’
In Spandau as an alleged collaborator he’s condemned to boredom with Nazi officers till 1951. Realising Scaramouche in fact alleviated suffering through clowning he’s forced to re-enact his feats in the Nuremburg trials (in truth wound up by then). Freed with compensation we’re finally treated to Welsh accents (acquitting a surname) and a Caribbean one (an accent not heard for fifty years). And never opening his mouth to speak again, it’s fifty years to make the clown, fifty years to play the clown.
This is picaresque looking in, a man with a slippery interiority, the sum of his adventures masking him as he suggests, exotic, impaled on the century’s cruxes and riptides yet only able to provide one kind of service: Scaramouche is inordinate and alone. It ensures Butcher’s spectral narrator leaves no human smear beyond our eyelids and brain, as we’re introduced to his own chimes at the millennial midnight.
Like the Chinese New Year Dragon Scaramouche flashes and vanishes, leaving you wondering what residual wisdom such a self-sealed tale might exhale – a compacted box of sweetmeats you can’t open. Where does Ritchie affect most as opposed to astonish? The death camps perhaps with their harrowing extensions over genocide. That, and Ritchie’s phenomenal energy and slidings in and out of tongues, is what mesmerises.
Butcher’s furious sensibilities range over much history in other plays, a satiric rich vein settling more easily into humanity here. On the strength of this 100 minutes, he’s a writer to actively seek out on the page – and snatch at in performance.