Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday, 22 February 2009
Last night I saw “The Mystery of Irma Vep” at a theatre I love, perfrormed by actors and a direcfor I totally respect.
Yet i found myself hating every minute of it.
It was a show I found didn’t possess a single redeeming feature.
Charles Ludlam is a writer whose work I’ve wanted to see for so long; to see this disaster was such a huge disappointment. Yet apparently in 1991 this play was the most performed work in the whole of the United States.
I thought one of the problems with the production - for all the skill of the performers - was that they were all straight. At least as far as I know. And they played it as if it was panto: as if it was a ridiculous story, just a bit of fluff, just something silly, without meaning or significance to it at all.
As if there is something straightforwardly funny about seeing a man in a dress.
Which was one reason why i found myself so totally affronted by it.
I suppose one of my deepest fears is precisely that: of being ridiculous. Being a grotesque. Being fit for nothing but ridicule.
And the performance of those two men in their frocks, squarely in the ‘dame’ tradition, totally reinforced these awful fears.
And in trashing drag, they also trashed so much else besides: bereavement, mourning, poetry, the possibility of love. And the act of creating theatre and the possibilities of imagination and make believe.
So it trashed everything I hold most dear: and in a cheap, lowest common denominator, unthinking kind of way that seemed to hold the script itself in deep contempt.
I couldn’t help thinking afterwards that it would have been far better if they’d taken the opposite line and treated it all very very seriously.
Supposing the rather silly storyline of the play on the surface was a kind of metaphor for a really deep, and perhaps even tragic, love affair between the two performers...?
And so all the dangers they went through, all the rapid changes of character and costume were actually images of the way the protagonists in a deep love affair do actually change in a really bewilderingly rapid kind of way. And so the werewolves and the mummies and the undead vampires would work on that level too - because the person we love does actually suddenly change into a scarey monster sometimes...
And perhaps if it had been played perfectly straight then it would also have ended up being much funnier...
So it was very reassuring, somehow, to discover that Ludlam called his theatre “ridiculous” in order to confront the prejudice under which he suffered and that he did, in fact, play his plays straight: "Our slant was actually to take things very seriously, especially focusing on those things held in low esteem by society and revaluing them, giving them new meaning, new worth, by changing their context".
Not only that, but in the original production he played Lady Enid; and the other part was played by Everett Quinton, his lover.
I wish the production I had seen had taken all that on board. Maybe then it would have been a show worth seeing.

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