Tag Archives: Daniel Goldman

“When You Pass Over My Tomb” at the Arcola Theatre

Sergio Blanco’s play is a challenge. There’s the subject matter – assisted suicide and necrophilia – alongside the technique of ‘autofiction’. Plenty of people have little time for any of this, but ‘death and desire’ are the building blocks of theatre. Being proudly, even defiantly, contrary earns the play and the production respect.

Several levels of narration are constructed, though Blanco would prefer the term ‘engineered’ (we know this… because he tells us). The actors present themselves as their own ghosts. One also takes the part of a writer called Sergio. They work through the script with the air of a rehearsal, commenting as they go. Theatricality is exposed and played with, and everyone acknowledges we can’t trust anything that’s going on. In fact, they make quite a big deal about that.

It is all very funny. Securing the humour is to the credit of Blanco’s translator and director Daniel Goldman, whose work is commendable. Creating an air of spontaneity, with plenty of silly touches, yet admitting how contrived the whole thing is, makes for quite the juggling act. As with the writing, the direction has rigour but also a lightness. That’s a tough call with a backdrop of big – and distasteful – questions. When should you be allowed to take your own life? And can you really say what happens to your body afterwards? Have you guessed ‘the ick’ yet?

None of this can be easy for the performers, who all do a superb job. Al Nedjari takes the lead, performing as the ‘ghost of Al’ and ‘Sergio’. He pretends to direct the action with lots of expert audience engagement. Danny Scheinmann plays a doctor in a Swiss clinic who reads out ‘case studies’ of necrophilia and never questions Sergio’s wish to end his life (nobody mentions illness). Charlie MacGechan takes the role of Khalid, a necrophiliac (imprisoned, conveniently, next to a graveyard) who agrees to – wait for it – have sex with Sergio’s corpse. The performances veer between relaxed and taut, suggesting comedy and trauma; they are always riveting.

There are intimations the play will become darker. Because it’s not just the subject matter that is unsettling – our grip on reality, truth and lies is questioned incessantly. As the stories develop, they become more serious, politics is introduced, we hear a lot about the loss of loved ones. The cast have deeply emotive scenes. But a sense of freedom, even fun, is fought for. It returns in an odd epilogue that sums up the mind-boggling yet memorable nature of the whole show.

The script is crammed with references, including to Blanco’s own work (which could easily try the patience). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starts to dominate. Suggesting this is the key would be dangerous. But maybe the play, like the monster, is made up of many elements? Which makes Blanco… Frankenstein? Yet Nedjari takes pains to make his character endearing, even romantic, and, in the end, very moving. Is it Sergio’s unexplained death wish or hubris that brings a tear to the eye? The play shows a misguided omnipotence – it is only the world Sergio creates that he can control, and even that power is an open question.

Until 2 March 2024


Photo by Alex Brenner

“The Rage of Narcissus” at the Pleasance Theatre

Sergio Blanco’s play is described as auto-fiction. It features events and conversation that may or may not be true. The author is presented as a character – an invention – and the actor introduces himself, thereby highlighting a second fiction. The result is a mind-bending piece that’s heavy with theory but gripping nonetheless – a very special combination of erudition and theatre that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

The strategy, relentlessly playing with the line between fiction and fact – what Blanco may have done and what he has certainly made up – is complicated and not to all tastes. It’s stimulating, puzzling and profound all at once, but it isn’t easy. It’s down to director and translator Daniel Goldman and the sole performer, Sam Crane, to aid comprehension – which they do brilliantly.

Sam Crane in 'The Rage of Narcissus' by Sergio Blanco at the Pleasance Theatre

Yet, in keeping with the play’s remit, Goldman and Crane never miss a chance to enforce theatre’s artificiality: designer Natalie Johnson’s set is mirrored, and the lighting by Richard Williamson takes a dominant role. The audience is destabilised and left continually questioning.

Things only get tougher when it comes to the ideas in the play. At its centre is a lecture about Narcissus that takes us to big questions about ‘art’ with blunt directness. Blanco’s is not a reading list I could keep up with, Derrida and Heidegger are thrown in casually. I wonder if André Gide would be a good one to mention: his treatise on Narcissus includes the idea that gazing at one’s reflection means losing oneself as a result. Which is, maybe, what happens next.

The Rage of Narcissus is more than a metaphysical mystery story, though. Inspired by bloodspots on a hotel room carpet, and a casual sexual partner who becomes obsessed, we get a ‘real’ murder story, too, that’s also of startling originality. It’s not just storytelling that Blanco wants dissecting. Alongside all the theory there are proper goosebumps.

The text has a forensic quality. Crane coldly narrates horrific events and then passionate encounters. A question arises as to the humour that follows. Crane slips into a cheekiness, accompanied by distinctly British giggles from the audience, that jar with Blanco’s frankness. For in tandem with the precision of the writing there’s a visceral quality that engages with all those cerebral concerns. If you think myth and murder is a potent combination, throw in sex and danger, too.

Blanco’s self-reflexive writing is likened to a Möbius strip or Escher drawing on stage. Fair enough, and helpful. But the description of a sex party attended towards the play’s finale struck me more forcefully: “The idea was to keep things moving. To try new things. To mix and combine…”. That could be a description of both the script’s virtues and its excesses. It’s to Goldman and Crane’s credit that all of this is brought out so vividly. Blanco has written an orgy of a text and this production knows better than to try and tame it.

Until 8 March 2020


Photos by Ali Wright

“Thebes Land” at the Arcola Theatre

Warning: this blog may contain hyphens. Lots of them. Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco’s acclaimed piece returns as part of its director-translator Daniel Goldman’s CASA Latin American Theatre Festival. Ostensibly an exploration of patricide, we watch a dramatist’s encounters with a murderer in prison. But we also watch the construction – writing and rehearsals – of the very play we are watching. Confused? Don’t be. Described as a multiple-reality drama, Thebes Land uses its novel approach to fantastic results.

Blanco sets up layers within his play marvellously; unravelling the motives behind a brutal murder, while commenting on the process of any play coming to the stage. The playwright, performed by Trevor White, greets us and makes what’s going on transparent… and then not so. But Blanco and Goldman wear their learning lightly. Deflating any pretentiousness only adds to the cleverness and the humour – White is excellent here – and it’s a lot of fun.

Take meeting our convicted killer Martin – first as a ‘real’ criminal, then as the actor called Freddie who plays him. Alex Austin makes both roles convincing, switching with skill and reflecting the text’s magnificent dynamism. Austin is more than good – he is Daniel-Day-Lewis-in-1985-good. The play gets funnier, as our RADA grad questions the motivations of a character whose life is so far removed from his own. Suddenly this whole theatre thing starts to look silly!

There’s drama in Thebes Land, too. Austin makes his literally caged character bristle with violence. There are a good few jumps as tension is heightened by Goldman’s direction. As for unexpected twists, Blanco urges we don’t read the play before we see it, and he’s worth listening to. I was genuinely shocked at one revelation here, and by the way the metatheatricality develops.

Ultimately, of course, making theatre is serious stuff. The elision between art and life gains power from Blanco’s approach. Randomness in the creative process is examined brilliantly – with a little help from Whitney Houston. While the link to myth and Oedipus Rex (predictably a red rag for our over-earnest writer) is broadened to explore the darkness that is within us all. There’s a connection and responsibility between artists, audience and subject that’s not to be laughed at.

Emotions blossom from the play displaying artifice so blatantly. We feel an insight into our writer (yet more credit to White) and affinity with the actor whose work we see progress. As for Martin – there’s respect for the serious investigation into his crime and punishment. The fictional status of all three becomes mind-bogglingly blurred, likewise their relationships. An unbearably touching moment of filial affection is followed by erotic tension. Having both in the same play, without being creepy, is an indication of how complex this text is: an intellectual-comedy-thriller-satire-tragedy like no other.

Until 7 October 2017


Photo by Alex Brenner