The Stage


Michel de Ghelderode was part of that extraordinary explosion of European playwrights who blended wit, emotion and absurdity to make sense of the mad interwar years in which they lived. The Belgianís frequently gothic-tinged work is notable more for its quantity than any one classic.

First performed in 1929, this one-acter is typical of his obsessions - the gloomy yet romantic setting of the 16th-century court of the Spanish king Felipe II, pithy period language and characters pitted against each other in a mind-twisting endgame.

As his queen lies dying, the King (Andy McQuade) engages his fool, Folial (Geir Kjelland), in a battle of wits that turns from cerebral to physical, while the Monk (Corin Rhys Jones) attempts to bring an occasional reality to break up their bouts. Theirs is a remarkable performance that never lets up in intensity yet builds to a climax which leaves the onlookers as drained as the actors.

But it is difficult to understand what audience director Victor Sobchak is aiming for. The dense, chivalric language is one obstacle. It is evocative in the original French or possibly in translation in languages such as German and Russian but it comes across as cloyingly artificial in todayís English. The thematic resonances too have little meaning for a modern theatregoer.

There are numerous ways of offsetting this - give the piece an overt political slant by drawing parallels, for example, with Blair and Brown, or play it with the dark humour de Ghelderode always strove for, or, since it is a near perfect vehicle for the style, why not create a purely physical piece?

This production attempts none of the above. However, as the chance to see a well-known play by an under-performed writer, it comes recommended.

Nick Awde