June 3rd, 2015


Fat Man

Stage right a fat man in a crumpled suit slept in a pool of light beside a small table bearing a carafe, a glass, and a donut box. He slept on as the audience took their seats and only awoke when we were settled. He seemed disoriented then suprised and angry as he realised that he, Orpheus, was going to have to retell his tragic story to an audience of gods for their entertainment and his punishment. He addressed some of the gods individually. A fat bearded middle-aged man on the front row became Zeus. A couple on the other side were Hades and Persephone. Behind them sat Cupid and the Fates were at the back of the New Wolsey Studio for this Pulse Festival performance.

His story is set in modern London. He meets Eurydice on a bus. The greatest of musicians fronts a rock band. He tells the classical story with panache and personal commitment. We believe in his love, in his arrogance, and in his grief. There is knowing artifice here. The format is stand-up comedy. Martin Bonger, the writer/performer, reacts to audience responses with the spontenaity of a comedian and parts of the show are very funny for all of its awfully sad narrative. Not all the artifice seems necessary, however. Why would an actor born in Bramfield, Suffolk, affect an American accent to play the Greek bard on Mount Olympus?

We are never told why Orpheus might be forced endlessly to recount his tale. A passing allusion to Prometheus might be a hint but it is well-hidden among a broader list of things that stopped when living Orpheus sang. Now, however, he is dead and mourning the terrible loss of Eurydice; comforting himself with overeating and drunkeness. The carafe proves to be an inexhaustible bottle delivering just a single shot of spirits at a time. Like Rosencrantz's straight run of 92 heads when flipping a coin, the magical bottle tells us that we are outside our normal reality but it is real to Orpheus and hecomes steadily intoxicated as he drinks a shot at the beginning of each segment. This is a man falling apart as he recalls his own decline. His wordplay and witty allusions to the Greek legends within which he lived comfort him no more than his over-consumption. Eating a donut becomes a metaphor for grieving and later he demonstrates the power of inevitability by licking sugary lips.

As a child I was deeply affected by my mother's large painting of the moment that Orpheus loses Eurydice by breaking Hades' injunction not to look back. That melancholy image was about Orpheus and his loss; Eurydice was merely a shade. The Orpheus legend has attracted creators for millennia but it was only in the twentieth century that Eurydice became more than a minor supporting character. I read texts telling the story from Eurydice's perspective and thought more about its effects upon her and on Hades. Here Bonger continues that exploration of her personality and her attitudes as Orpheus recounts their life together and tells stories about her. He does not merely say that loved her or even that he loved her deeply; he shows us why he felt that love.

At the end of an hour Orpheus has lost his life, his love, his figure, his sobriety, and his dignity but he has gained the affection and respect of his audience. I last saw Bonger five years ago in his ingenious play Keepers. This show is much simpler than that but it continues to address themes of mortality, loss, and resilience. I look forward to seeing what he does next.