“The Truth of Life lies least in the facts” – Edward Gant.
Presented by LaBoite and Sydney Theatre Company, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness is a fantastical tale that crosses theatrical form and genre from vaudevillian melodrama, bizarre fantasy and fable, through to absurdism, existentialism and back again, with a short interlude into musical hall – a kind of Lewis Carol meets Samuel Beckett labyrinth of literature.
The set designer Renee Mulder and lighting designer Damien Cooper complimented each other by creating a vintage carnivale setting with a raked circlular stage surrounded by footlights, which could be pulled out and held up to the actors face giving the effect of horror stories told by torchlight. It was also reminiscent of the circus ring-master, announcing with a hand-held retro microphone. The various trap doors lit from underneath added to the carnivale atmosphere.
Like one of those magical mirror mazes you would find in one of Edward Gant’s freak shows, the performance is a play within a play within a play, and the actors play characters within characters. In this theatrical maze, you abandon reality and follow the twisting tale until you don’t know where you are or what is real and the only way to get out is to continue to go down the rabbit hole.
Some shows really do need to be prefaced with a warning in the Director’s notes “please take the blue pill on the way in”, which thankfully debut Director Sarah Goodes included:
Anthony Neilson’s play invites you to hang your rational self on a hat hook and step into the bizarre and whimsical world of wonder, magic, heartbreak and loneliness. The play celebrates the power of the imagination and reminds us that even when we let go of reality and give in to mayhem, pearls of truth will roll forth about the human condition…
The playwright believes that a good play should be presented with leeway for eminent interpretation. He certainly achieved that with this play. So much that I had to sleep on it to gather my thoughts. I knew I liked it but couldn’t coherently explain why. We go to the theatre to escape, laugh, cry, to have cathartic experiences, to be challenged and most importantly to be entertained.
Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness is so eclectic that it basically covers what theatre is all about, but I liked it mostly because it was fresh, different, and unpredictable. Although it took me a little time to turn my rational brain off and just expect the unexpected, I was riveted throughout. There was no time to be bored or tune out or I might have missed a synapse that led from one moment to the next. The show consisted of the Victorian impresario Edward Gant (played by Paul Bishop) and his gypsy troupe of performers, Madame Poulet (played by Emily Tomlins), Jack Dearlove (Bryan Probets), and Nicholas Ludd (Lindsay Farris), who enact his bizarre, shocking, and at times grotesque vignettes of love and loss.
What I bring you now is no mere freak show. You will gasp, yes, and you will marvel and you will see your share of grotesquerie. But the deformities on show this evening are not the deformities of the frame, but those of the heart and mind. – Edward Gant.
Paul was playful, mysterious, and enchanting in the role of Gant, appearing later in the show as Phantom of the Dry – a malevolent spirit who sends actors who forget their lines to a type of purgatory where abandoned teddy bears tell their sad stories of woe in return for an imaginary cup of tea. And that was just one of the story lines.
Emily Tomlins delightfully plays many characters including Sanzonetta, a beauty inside but horribly deformed by pimples that when squeezed, produces beautiful pearls which her drag queen sister (played by Lindsay Farris) exploits for financial gain while her one true love (played by Brian Probets) becomes seduced by, albeit briefly until he is seduced by a mollusc who holds more mystery. In addition to the Pearl King, Brian Probets played Edgar, the solider who searches the world to realease the torment of the memory of his beloved fiancée, taken so swiftly taken from him mid jammy ring, to find an Indian fakir who will drill into his brain to remedy the internal torture. Unfortunately things as you would expect, don’t go to plan.
Then mid fake-interval, the actor’s revolt, namely Nicholas Ludd (Lindsay Farris), who just can’t understand the artistic merit of these wildly outrageous stories and the play within the play crumbles into anarchy, along with the conventional theatrical genre. It was unexpected, confusing, and thrilling. The only slightly anti-climatic thing about the play was the ending (and let’s face it, we really don’t know where the actual climax was although there were many along the way). It seemed that the mini-stories had derailed the main theme so far off the track that there really was no way to right it smoothly so it just ended abruptly and that was that. Then again I don’t think subtlety or naturalism was the point.
In essence, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, was a fantastical journey and a delightfully grotesque theatrical experience that words really can’t convey – you just had to be there.