Suddenly, it’s the Theatre of the Absurd all over again: Eugene Ionesco and Max Frisch at the Royal Court, Jean Genet at Stratford East and now Fernando Arrabal at the Gate.
It’s almost a case of “Have you heard the one about the Romanian, the Swiss German, the Frenchman and the Spaniard?” They all prospered in the European avant-garde theatre of fifty years ago. And Charles Marowitz once did a beautiful production of Arrabal’s And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers (that title says it all) at the Open Space.
Arrabal, who lives in Paris, is now seventy-five, and still writing and making films. But The Car Cemetery, probably his best known play, a sadomasochistic re-write of the passion of Christ set in a car dump that is a bordello for misfits, has not, as far as I know, been seen here before.
His strange, stilted extravaganza The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria was somewhat dutifully presented in the early days of the National starring Anthony Hopkins. But we’ve never really caught the full blast of his ecstatic, blasphemous, subversive originality.
Natalie Abrahami’s production at the Gate, using the standard translation by Barbara Wright, though willing and imaginative, is a little too coy for discomfort. The theatre is swagged like a magic cave, supervised by a crackpot concierge (Alexi Kaye Campbell). Actors crawl and cackle among us like exotic remnants from a touring production of Cats.
The Christ-like hero, the musician Emanou (David Ricardo-Pearce), whose father was a carpenter, “wants to be good.” So too, in effect, does the Mary Magdalen-style prostitute Dila (Dolya Gavanski), and she sets about her task by sleeping with all the clients in their car boots – you might say she was a car boot herself -- and entertaining Emanou to his sexual initiation (something she does most nights) inside her voluminous raincoat.
A pair of athletes, one a young man, the other an old woman (Jack Gordon and Anna Barry), flit through the environment before succumbing to its tawdry charms and revealing themselves to be undercover policeman. Emanou, needless to say, is betrayed by one of his two fellow musicians with a kiss, and then it is a short step to Calvary on a coat stand.
It really is like Genet crossed with Almodovar – a scent here of the out-door brothel for transsexuals in All About My Mother -- and the cast do their utmost to drag us down to their level. The battered old car and the costumes in Lorna Ritchie’s design are tremendous but the cacophonous rumbling of the distant crowd is more confusing than endemically atmospheric.
- Michael Coveney