first night

Fin du Siècle

Kabir Jhala experiences an evening of one-act plays, ranging from Chekhov to Courteline.

Bailey Theatre Company’s latest production explores a variety of genres and styles, shifting from realistic to absurdist, farcical to sombre and back again in a collection of five plays all originally written around the turn of the 20th century. Director Fraser Logue has included plays by Chekhov (The Proposal and The Wedding) and Courteline (Monsieur Badin), alongside other far less well-known pieces (such as the traditional Hungarian play Ernőből, Ernőé and Sundberg-Laporte’s Gabby née Gabrielle), to deliver something of a mixed bag, though praise should certainly be given for the bold choice to present three plays which had, until tonight, never been performed in English. Overall, Fin du Siècle is a highly thought-provoking piece with several brilliant and emotive performances, but unfortunately it sometimes falters due to an unclear vision and a lack of polish.

The open and unfussy venue of Leech Hall worked well with the sparse set, which contained simple functional pieces and no decoration. This allowed for the emotive performances and physical comedy of the first play, The Proposal, to shine. Special mention goes to Richard Dyer, whose deft portrayal of Lomov injected the play with a palpable energy and wonderfully contrasted his twitchy yet spirited movements with the purposely trivial nature of the dialogue. In contrast to the fast-paced dialogue and buzz from the physicality of the first play, Gabby née Gabrielle was punctuated by a still and alienating tone, containing the most notably stylised scenes in the show. The eerie changes in lighting punctuated the shifts between expressionist and realist styles, shining a light on the sombre moonlit dance that signalled the play’s temporary departure from a more realist style. This play might have done better with a degree of elucidation, with perhaps a more immediate shift into and out of its expressionist outburst, or a greater contrast between the acting styles in these sections.

It is often tempting to treat each individual play as a discrete performance rather than five small parts of a play which each serve to reinforce and inform the other parts, and much can be said for the wise decision to order the more abstract and conceptually challenging pieces (Gabby née Gabrielle and Ernőből, Ernőé) in between the more accessible and light-hearted offerings. The decision to begin and end the entire play with Chekhov also worked well, giving the entire play a sound structure. That being said, treating these five plays as part of a bigger whole often highlighted the tenuous nature of the connections of each play to one another. While The Proposal perhaps raises questions about the cyclical and mundane nature of humanity, Ernőből, Ernőé—the most thought-provoking and thematically profound of all five plays—may deal with the rise and concepts of cities, nations and belonging. Each of these five plays seems, in their own way, to be addressing and exploring the various tensions and ideas that were present at the turn of the 20th century. Despite this, the end result appears at times disjointed.

What this performance might have lacked in its ability to achieve a cohesive vision was, however, made up for by several truly commanding performances. Jessie Smith’s performance as Natashya in The Wedding was delivered with a wonderful strength, presenting both a domineering presence and conveying the rising tension of hosting a wedding. Sian Round’s performance as General Revunov worked extremely well in acting as a counterpoint to Natashya’s increasing exasperation, as her movements and facial expressions helped her capture the character most convincingly. Undoubtedly, the most impressive performances came from the third play: Monsieur Bardin. Director Fraser Logue, playing the eponymous Monsieur Bardin, employed tremendous physicality as he bumbled and plead to his boss, and displayed an impressive yet subtle comedic timing. The staging here brought out the wonderful interplay between Logue’s performance and Le Directeur (Dan Carr), who was convincingly exasperated and officious. Logue made excellent use of the space as he explained his comedic woes and Carr was well positioned in interrogative stances throughout the play to highlight his character’s sense of authority. Combined with his domineering tone of voice, this perfectly juxtaposed the hilariously skittish and off-kilter performances of Ovide, played by Dyer, and Badin.

Ultimately, Fin du Siècle proved to be a conceptually ambitious performance, which showcased some of Durham’s finest acting talent. As five individual plays they were all very strong, yet the choice to bring them together and structure them into one play at times did little to illuminate what the play aimed to achieve as a whole. Nonetheless, they were thoroughly enjoyable to watch and provoked several important questions that were being asked at the turn of the 20th century, and remain as pertinent today as they were then.

Please note that the performance of ‘Fin du Siècle’ on Friday 18th November will take place in North Road’s Methodist Church.

18 November 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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