The second odd couple this week – following Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri as Richard Bean's loony tunes Mentalists – are a couple of near-naked 4th century monks competing for sadism and sainthood status in an Egyptian desert cave on a dung hill overlooking Alexandria.
These are St Eusebius and St Pior, both of whom actually existed, the latter as a hermit in just such a cave, caught up in the schisms and factions of the Church and, clearly, according to this short 1969 play by Peter Barnes, some of the more extreme practices of its leading figures.
At first, Eusebius (Jordan Mallory-Skinner), is alone on his brick, covered in sores, manacled and chained, quoting the Latin mass, piously repenting and self-flagellating in his thirteenth year of suffering before launching into a blasphemous vaudeville – "it's banal to be anal" – and rehearsing the Temptations of St Anthony, which are projected onto the cave's exterior: money, lust and power.
The images are those of a pile of gold, a naked bimbo and the empurpled Pope, possibly Pius VI, even our current Francis. "What a pong," exclaims the mad monk, "must be the odour of sanctity." The cave, as designed by Christopher Hone, looks like a giant coffee ice-cream; it gleams and steams in the noonday sun and is, in fact, a large toilet throne of shiny excrement. And a replica saint – St Pior (Jake Curran) - now slides down its exterior and stands on his brick.
Their knockabout includes a squabble over who can really claim to hear the Lord's voice, who's suffered the most and – St Pior's coup de grace – who's the best levitator. Curran's saint is more of a whirling dervish than Mallory-Skinner's – though both fine actors are identically clad in soiled loincloth, frazzled beard and ambiguous grime – and he levitates in a sort of hypnosis of body transference.
It's all highly amusing and curiously compelling; Mary Franklin's production for Rough Haired Pointer is a good follow-up for anyone discovering the great Gothic playwright Barnes (who died ten years ago) following James McAvoy in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios.
This piece was first produced, just after The Ruling Class, at Charles Marowitz and Thelma Holt's Open Space at exactly the same time as the King's Head first opened. It came with a companion piece, Leonardo's Last Supper, in which the entranced ghost of da Vinci is berated in a charnel house. If Franklin's production had been speedier (it's not exactly slow but, boy, the King's Head's an uncomfortable sauna on a close, muggy night), she might have fruitfully repeated this pairing of coprophagous slime and satire.
Odd how the fringe is now eating itself forty years on; no bad thing, necessarily, given the paucity of a Barnes-like extravagant, vaudevillian writing today. You'd go a long way to find a play of such vigour, daring, erudition and sheer salacious bravura. Barnes went on to write two major large-scale epics for the RSC – The Bewitched and Red Noses – both controversial masterpieces. These lesser, smaller plays are preparatory outlines and, as Franklin proves, well worth reviving.
Noonday Demons runs at the King's Head, Upper Street until 1 August 2015. Click here for more information and to book tickets.