Simon Callow In Tuesday At Tesco’s
Assembly Hall (Venue 35)
4 stars ****
Oedipus By Steven Berkoff
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****
WHEN THE BIG BEASTS of British stage and screen roll out their latest work on the Edinburgh Fringe, two things can be guaranteed. On one hand, there will be huge crowds queueing for a glimpse of celebrity, particularly if the star’s name is there in the title. And on the other, we can be sure there will be mixed responses to the shows, depending on how far the star complies with, or challenges, his or her familiar public image.
Simon Callow therefore takes something of a risk, in appearing in Edinburgh as Pauline, once Paul, the transsexual heroine of Emmanuel Darley’s fine 75-minute monologue Tuesday At Tesco’s, first seen in France in 2009, and now given its British premiere by Callow at Assembly. The experience of not fitting in with socety’s rigid expectations about gender, is one of the pervasive themes of Fringe theatre at the moment; but Darley’s play offers a strikingly intense and precise focus on it, describing in deep detail – often painful, sometimes funny – the events of just one of Pauline’s regular Tuesday visits to her old, recently-widowed Dad. Pauline does housework, washes her Dad’s clothes, and take him on a weekly shopping trip to Tescos’s, running the gauntlet both of a community that once knew her as Paul, and of her father’s brusque and sharp-tongued inability to accept the change she has made – “For pity’s sake, Paul”, is his snarled refrain.
The play’s ending is sensational, unnecessarily so; and Callow’s bravura performance – as ever – is not for those who like their acting naturalistic and understated. For those who accept the bruised drama-queen style, though, there is a profoundly moving performance here, brave, strong, and full of a frustrated sweetness that pierces the heart; as Pauline clings to her dream of a life as a woman, and pays the heaviest possible price for her determination.
Berkoff’s Oedipus, by contrast, defies no expectations, but offers fans of one of the great radical figures in British theatre a 100-minute feast of rich, classical drama, performed in the intensely physical ensemble style for which Berkoff is famous. The great man himself plays not Oedipus but his elderly brother-in-law Creon, the man who steps into Oedipus’s place after his fall; but in a terrific ensemble of 11 actors, there’s no shortage of talent to step into the other leading roles, with both Simon Merrells, as Oedipus, and the gorgeous, sinuous Anita Dobson, as his wife-mother Jocasta, delivering the kind of multi-megawatt performances that make theatre seem like the most thrilling art-form on earth.
What’s striking about Berkoff’s production is the extraordinary balance it strikes between strong narrative drive, and light-touch playfulness; as we watch the Chorus pose and lament and move into the occasional all-male Greek dance – Dobson is the only woman on stage – we feel like capricious gods ourselves, laughing from a camp and cruel distance at the sheer ironic horror of Oedipus’s fate. This show is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those at theatre’s fragmented cutting-edge. For those who like the big, dramatic shared experience, though, this is a richly enjoyable hour or two of live performance at its most vibrant; and it celebrates one of the great founding myths of our civilisation, with a clarity and energy that gladdens the heart.
Until 29 August
pp. 297, 285