Sunday, 25 February 2007

aboard a Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools
I entered the clanging and creaking harbour where the vessel prepared to take me and the rest of a hastily assembled crew on a voyage through time yesterday evening. We were all in Battersea's Theatre 503, which had been reconstructed to resemble a wooden decked craft of the 15th Century. We sat in the ship, not as mere spectators to a play. There was smoke wafting across the deck and the initial chatter soon subsided as first a fool and then the burghers of Basle in 1492 entered the scene.

The allegory of the Ship of Fools is viewed by many as that of not just an apocryphal episode in Swiss History, but as a metaphor of the human condition. So like the original story, we the audience voyaged through the seas of time on a small ship that is representative of humanity.

In this Andrew Bovell play (he also wrote Strictly Ballroom, for example), the leaders of Basle round up the unemployed, the mad and anyone out of kilter with their society and place them on a rudderless and sail-less ship, which is then cast off into the Rhine, like a rubbish barge. The play then juxtaposes scenes from the 15th Century trials and tribulations of the voyage, with the modern-day anguishes of a set of people who are unemployed and sent away on a bus as part of a modern-day government scheme.

Then, using the plotline of the ancient story, and the personal lives of the modern-day people, we see them eat, drink, argue, lust and pursue unattainable goals as they meander aimlessly on their journey.

Back in Basle, Pietro de Convinso (played by Jonathan Oliver), is an investigator sent from Rome to find out what had happened and this part of the story unfolds through interviews with the members of the Council Chamber and also with interviews with witnesses from Basel and from the course of the River Rhine. Shadowing the investigator, is the narrator of the whole piece, in the form of the Fool (played by Andrew Buchan - he of the current BBC2 Series "Party Animals").

Each of this strong cast play multiple parts, both in the medieval Basle and 21st century Britain. Lucy Briers (daughter of Richard Briars) plays Monsier Schulze, a scheming and politically astute trader in Basle, determined to take the next role as Mayor of Basle. She also plays Rachel Stein an alienated woman with a past too horrible to be fully described in the story.

Maggie O’ Brian plays the The Mayor, with an exceptionally irritible bowel condition and Louise Masters who is a disenchanted housewife trying to escape a loveless marriage.

Sarah Corbett is Simone Gautier, also from the Council as well as the ex heroine addict Sunny Cox, whose boyfriend is on a methadone programme.

Jonathan Oliver also plays Monsier la Page, - who writes to the Pope after being ejected from the Council onto the ship, and additionally plays the highly strung bus driver fo the modern day Ship of Fools.

Richard Attlee plays the Bishop of Basel with a cut glass accent and Yugoslavian Marko Mihajolvic (thats with a 'j' and 'no, I don't need a translator')

And in addition to the fool, Andrew Buchan plays Simon Summerhayes, who has been in prison for rape. Most of the cast also play additional roles when Pietro de Convinco is running his inquiry.

The entire cast is strong and linked together well. All lent a continued tension to the piece as it built towards a climax in both the modern day part and the parallel medieval world. These overlaps convincingly and I found the entire performance engrossing.

The fool appears throughout both the 1492 narrative and the 2007 episodes which are cleverly interwoven, and as the play progresses, there are direct links from one series of events to the other.

In some versions of the original story, the ship drifts aimlessly and never reaches the harbour. In this version, the ship moves out into the sea. There is the question of whether things travel full circle. The story deals with profound questions of the human condition. How much of humanity is exempt from the discomfort of human folly? Can eccentricity, creativity and genius survive in a world where a type of normality is preferred?

There are moments of genuine laughter whilst watching this play, but there is also a sad laugh linking the Ship of Fools of others with the realisation that the play is about everyone, and we have indeed been sitting on the ship throughout the evening.

Like most of the obviously engrossed audience (which included a couple of celebs), I enjoyed this well-produced and crisply acted play and found myself thinking about the philosophical points afterwards. Must be a good sign!

Live in London? its worth a visit! A couple of other reviewer/bloggers were also at Saturday's show - I'll link to them when I find their posts -(Nathalie). Also friend Christina, who reviewed it Thursday, I give it 4 stars!

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