[Review:] SCARAMOUCHE JONES (online).
Written by Justin Butcher and directed by Ian Talbot, Scaramouche Jones is…simply awful. In fact, it is hugely problematic, riddled with cultural, racial and historical insensitivity. I fail to see how creatives, fellow reviewers and critics of the past and present are overlooking the social implications, orientalism, lack of cultural sensitivity and downright racism that this performance gives way to. This dramatic text should be an error of the recent past, not one revived for a modern stage.
Described as ‘international’, its content presents stereotype, cliché and caricature. Racial and cultural profiles are exaggerated, dramatised and unrealistic and become a means of entertainment to the detriment of the races and cultures with which they deal. When we have organised events like this in place, where a celebrity is making money off of such work, along with an entire team, where audiences are funding the work, watching the work, celebrating the work, where critics and television presenters are blindly commending the work, this becomes what is termed systemic racism. An entire infrastructure now surrounds a [perhaps unintentionally but still inexcusably] orientalist work. This is unethical.
Arabian snake charmers riding camels; people of colour, or “swarthy Ethiopes” or men with faces “as “brown and shrivelled as a walnut”, as referred to in the text, eroticised or obsessed with mangoes; foreign gypsies actioning child weddings, enabling paedopilic practices and able to identify one other through songs… These are all incredibly damaging, inimical, regressive and unfavourable caricaturisations serving only to satisfy the gaze of the self-esteeming and hedonistic “Western World”. Take, for instance, the scene describing the angered cobra, after Richie’s insanely racist chanting at 39:35. ‘Ramool’ by Manzoor Khan Langa, Dhodhe Khan and Pathan Khan is played to ‘set the scene’, as it were. This is Indian music, not Senegalese, and shallow research reveals that the artists have another album entitled ‘Discovery of India: Snake Charmer’. It is clear that the creatives simply searched for snake charmer music, and after flicking through the artists’ work, ‘Ramool’ is what they finally decided upon. So, now we have a Senegalese snake charmer using Indian music in Dakar to enchant his audience. This conflation of cultures and music, used nonchalantly to create an entertaining, exotic and otherworldly [i.e. orientalist] atmosphere is the exact lack of education and care towards culture and cultural specificity of which I am writing. And this is without mentioning the lack of research demonstrated in the text: a cobra does not have a “poison sack” but a venomous gland; it would not shed only six times in the space of twenty-five years, for, on average, a snake sheds between four and twelve times annually…
It is one thing to tell these orientalist tales, but it is an entirely different thing to have an actor melodramatise them, perform races and cultures, and exaggerate aspects of stereotyped identities. With no evidence of vocal and accent training, Shane Richie’s caricaturisations are not only awkward and uncomfortable but, again, incredibly insensitive — put even more bluntly, racist, making a mockery of cultural ‘identities’. No work has been done to represent these profiles well, and there has been no refinement where his accents, particularly Jamaican, are concerned, meaning that his evocations remain simple dérisions with no serious thought or critical thinking. Really, it parallels a racist telling a joke in a pub and acting out his ‘funny’ versions of non-white individuals. Repeated exaggerative gestures and an increase in volume combine to represent the Other as animalistic, primal, uncivilised and ruthless, and this is a direct manifestation of the dramatic text which places intense focus on licentiousness, violence, brutality and paedophilia within a foreign context, all whilst representing the Englishman as regal and principled, white skin as precious and beautiful, and English culture as civilised, moral and supportive and with an established judicial system, unlike all other countries detailed in the text.
The writing of the dramatic text itself is overly verbose and bombastic, demanding an intense concentration — and also allowing it to get away with those many fleeting orientalist remarks, and misinformations, with its content more likely to fly over the audience’s head. Furthermore, Richie’s lack of transformativity is no visual aid to help the text lift from the page. I will admit that caricatures are distinguished well and energised — but then, the caricatures should not exist in the first place! — but Richie’s characterisation of the clown is incredibly lacking. I do not see a clown; I see Shane Richie playing a clown. This is disappointing. The voice he chooses for the clown falters regularly, and hearing a halfway point between Richie’s ‘real’ voice and that which he has chosen for the clown is a constant issue. Physicality and gesticulations also remain limited, unaided by a lack of use of space.
This lack of use of space becomes one of the many repetitive hallmarks of the illness and fallibility of this performance’s structure. At the end of each ‘chapter’, Richie pops a balloon, he is then almost always seen next seated at his dressing table, gazing into the mirror or drinking from a flask of tea. The rest of the performance simply entails him walking pretty much on the spot and lifting his arms in a weak display of performativity. Visually, then, in terms of Richie’s performance, there is really not that much. That is besides the few props Richie uses and the odd shifts in perspective that happen every now and then, such as him lying on the floor in the drowning/swimming scene or staring out into the void in the Nazi grave-digging scene…and here we find the next huge display of insensitivity.
Described by the British judge as restoring humanity, Scaramouche, working as a gravedigger for the Nazis, attempts to make the children in the adjacent concentration camp laugh and feel more ‘at ease’ moments before their death. Scaramouche describes his making fun of the guards, pulling funny faces, and, most significantly, reenacting the executions — the same executions that the children will see in their own fates — through comedic mime. This is presented extremely superficially, in that there is no doubt or question of this act and no further examination or deeper thinking about its effectiveness or effects. But let’s think about it ourselves for a moment… You’re a child in a Nazi concentration camp who is traumatised from being wrenched from your home, family and friends, and you’re being led — if not dragged — by Nazi soldiers to what you know will be your death, and you’re watching men and women and other children be shot and hanged to death next to you. Now, let us put a clown in that setting who is reenacting the deaths you can see before you in a comedic mime. Would this give you relief? Especially given that you are a child? Of course, it would not! In fact, it would do the opposite: you would be terrified that a strange man in your periphery is practically teasing your fate, making a light mockery of the terrors and sheer carnage before you. It would be a surreal and extremely perturbing display.
So, now that we know that this is not at all a realistic, and, in fact, an incredibly evil, thing to do, the superficial compassion and feeling this scene offers is completely removed, and we are left with a clown making a mockery of Holocaust victims, those which are referred to as ‘clowns’ — and the mere fact that their faces are covered in lime does not constitute the right to label them thusly. Accompanied by ‘Cold’, a melancholic strings and piano composition by Jorge Mendez — which makes me question the copyright issues involved in potentially having snapped up a composition by an unknowing musician — an intense tragic mood for this scene seems to come out of nowhere after blazing ‘comedy’. And just when we have really settled in the [misused] tragedy of the Nazi regime, the shot quickly changes, and Richie is having another swig of tea, ready to continue his comedy. This lack of consideration towards mood management and timing completely subverts any emotion and sensitivity — if any, indeed, existed. Again, deplorably unthinking and, ultimately, heartless.
I mentioned the issue of space use, and this also combines with another: audience perspective. Sometimes, the camera placement (production design by Andrew Exeter) allows us to feel as though we are looking over Richie’s shoulder into the mirror; other times, we are shown footage shot from above with an overlay suggestive of CCTV or a hidden spy camera; sometimes, we view Richie ‘through the video camera he has set up’; and, lastly, other times, we are presented an ordinary eye-level view of Richie without this aforementioned overlay. All of this makes it incredibly difficult to discern our function as spectators (are we spying voyeurs? Distanced spectators? Active witnesses?), and there is nothing to unite these very disparate vantage points, especially given that the overlays suggest two different cameras are being used, with the timestamps, and footage and battery information being presented differently between the high-angle camera and the video camera Richie sets up. There is simply no thought behind this at all. And this is without mentioning Richie’s terribly awkward close-ups wherein he approaches the camera intrusively close for no reason at all other than to quirkily interact with the audience — again, for what reason and to what effect? What does this say about our function as spectators?
Set, however, was very attractive and well organised. In fact, it was almost perfect [but then, what salvation is this, considering the rest of the performance’s success?], barring two main issues. The first is the television displaying a green screen throughout, having absolutely no purpose in the text and only standing in as a completely jarring eyesore against the contrasting red set. This should have been either switched off or, at least, set to show only white noise, which I believe would have been nearly equally as distracting but, at least, would have worked in terms of the set design’s palette. The second is the grass on the floor… Why is there grass in the basement of a theatre? Honestly, I have nothing else to add on this point; it speaks for itself. Bizarre.
I admit that most of the issues I have mentioned refer to the dramatic text in itself, but the problem lies in the mere idea of a revival of this text. To use this text in education, in racial and cultural studies, in anthropological studies or in literary criticism is a very different thing from bringing it to its feet in a completely unthinking way and, as I said in the early paragraphs of this performance, to provide, albeit perhaps blindly, an infrastructure for the continuation of detrimental racial profiling and, of course, the resulting misinformations and prejudices. This is a huge problem. This text should remain on the page and is not to be performed; the very act of doing so is rather revolting.
All of this being said, I shall now quickly focus on the final theatrical constituents of this production itself, starting with sound. The voiceover audios are an odd decision. Sometimes Richie delivers the line; other times, an extra delivers it through the speakers. This is inconsistent. Volume often fluctuates, making for an unsteady listening, and the audio itself is far too plain and deliberate. Their use becomes too repetitive, structured and forced, and unnecessary and literal at times where audience imagination could be permitted to flourish, instead. We do not need to hear the gunshots, for example, or the little exclaiming, ‘Mama?!’ after Scaramouche himself has just already said, ‘My ‘mother is dead’. I should mention here as well the inconsistency of the beginning ambient sounds of the public upstairs. The sound of the public fades completely with their applause and is suddenly revived when they are leaving the building. Either they are constantly there at the beginning, or they leave indefinitely early on. Decide which one, and stick with it.
The inclusion of the balloons becomes negligible, as they lead up to nothing. If they had to be included, for whatever reason, I would have perhaps done the opposite and blown up them at the end of each ‘chapter’, making for a surreal and powerful final image when Scaramouche sits dead as New-Year celebrations roar from the TV. The celebratory balloons would have intensified his ‘saddening’ — although, I would say, “Relieving!” — death in this way, through juxtaposition. However, as it stands, they served no purpose, other than to signal the end of a scene. The use of props or set elements was too minimal; Richie could have done with a lot more to aid his overall lack of physicality. And moments like the magic lights trick were lacking, primarily, in this instance, because the colour grading applied post-production (editing by Stream.Theatre) oversaturated the red of the set and the red of the balls, and the filter blurred the scene, meaning the trick was difficult to see clearly and thus appreciate. Nevertheless, it was a fallible idea from the very beginning, as, other than his bald clown wig and costume — which was certainly fitting and wonderfully designed — there was very little actual clownery present in this performance. It seemed out of touch with the otherwise unresourceful character we are presented with.
Overall, ignoring, if I can, the sociopolitical implications of this performance, Richie’s performance was simply very lacking. Ignoring the disturbing mood change in the gravedigging scenes, this play is monotonous and dull, and the overarching characterisation of the clown — or lack thereof — is simply pitiful. Relationships with the audience are confused, and technical elements are inconsistent. A devastatingly regressive insult of a watch masquerading as ‘comedy’.
“A revival…better labelled ‘Do Not Resuscitate’!”
Photography credit: Bonnie Britain