Once in a while as a critic, you see a piece of work that completely stops you in your tracks and makes you sit slack-jawed at the extraordinary level of artistry playing in front of you. Ever since seeing the lip-synch artist Dickie Beau deliver his Hamlet show Re-member Me in a tent at Latitude, I have been convinced that Beau is one of our great living artists. His new show iShowmanism!, the last programmed work in Deborah Warner’s first season at the Ustinov, builds on this work and pushes it to a new level of excellence.
In conception, Beau interviews several theatre artists, each an explorative wanderer in their own right, and asks them to strip back what the art form is to its most elemental form. In Ancient Greece, playing in those vast open Amphitheatres of Epidaurus and below the mountains of Olympus, the connection between the texts and the Gods themselves was clear to the citizens whose leaders would pay them a day’s agricultural wage to allow them to attend because they knew the importance. Consistently these actors, academics, and directors talk about theatre and its place in the grand sphere of life, with an almost holy reverence. For a short while theatre and what it stands for, is the most important event in the world. From Shakespeare to Beckett, from the parasitic nature of critics, to whether theatre is even relevant while the world burns around us, it’s an intellectual as well as touching exploration of an art form that sometimes can be dismissed as simply entertainment.
Warner’s first season at the Ustinov has brought with it a renewed sense of what the space can do. Justin Nardella’s design is a memory trove of a theatrical archive, Yorrick’s skull, the gravedigger’s spade, and a patch of land that Winnie stands buried up to her neck in. Meanwhile on video screens we see tape recorders spool as the subject reveals something about themselves through a moment in history. Marty Langthorne provides a hazy, dream-like quality to the lighting, a reconciliation with the theatrical past.
And there at its heart is Beau, the blank canvas at its centre. Pre-show he stands there, his eyes scanning the audience, a slight smile curled on the edge of his lips, unknowable. Yet when he begins to sync his lips to the words; Ian McKellen and Peter Sellers, Fiona Shaw, and that great voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg, there is a complete transformation. His facial muscles shift, his eyes twinkle like Gandalf, and his physicality subtly shifts. There is a lot of discussion about impressionists and the job they do, in caricature-made life. What Beau does is deeper, an artist sketching his subject and then being consumed by them.
It’s a technical achievement beyond words, Each slight stumble, and minor hesitation from the interviewee caught by the interviewer over 95 magical minutes. In a show that explores the magic of theatre, the artistry of the greats, Beau, carefully supported by director Jan Willem Van Den Bosch, has produced a show that matches those beliefs. The word genius can so easily be bandied about, but when you’re in its presence it’s hard not to believe. For 90 minutes I was caught in a dream euphoria and couldn’t leave. It’s mesmerising. A work of genius.