Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Fabrication (Affabulazione), translated by Gillian Hannah and adapted by Jamie McKendrick, has never before been performed in the UK – and it launches The Print Room, the new not-for-profit Notting Hill theatre that is the brainchild of director Lucy Bailey and designer Anda Winters. As a declaration of intent for the new venue, this play is a strong choice.
Fabrication, which relocates the Oedipus story to twentieth-century Italy and shifts the focus from child to father, approaches the world warily, warning of the siren-like appeal of language, of reason, as the route to self-knowledge. And it does so by contrasting the mediums of poetry and theatre: to paraphrase Sophocles, who turns up in the play as a ghost or a trick of the mind, a play is not a poem. True understanding lies as much in seeing and experiencing as it does in words.
Milanese factory owner Father (Jasper Britton) wakes in a sweat from a portentous dream, which he cannot explain to Mother (Geraldine Alexander) but which leads him to fixate on the carelessly beautiful Son (Max Bennett), whose unselfconscious virility shakes him to his core. Even contriving to be caught by him having sex with Mother is not a satisfying solution; Father must possess the body, the “cock like a Sphinx”, that he has come to find so threatening, with fateful consequences.
Fabrication has its roots in the Latin fabula, meaning fable or story, and throughout the play Father endlessly creates narratives to try to explain his obsession with his son, filling out the conventions of Greek tragedy with the language of psychoanalysis.
But Father’s real tragedy is that he has confused his terms. His son, as Sophocles (Martin Turner) points out during a fever-induced vision, is not – in contrast to the enigma of the Sphinx – a riddle to be solved. Rather, he is a ‘mystery’ in the original sense of the word, to be revealed or shown but never entirely understood. He and the effect he has cannot be logically explained or conclusive interpreted – to attempt to do so is (as Father does) to descend into madness, endlessly rehearsing stories that grow increasingly meaningless with each re-telling.
The heightened tenor of McKendrick’s verse translation takes some getting used to – this is not a play populated with characters fond of brief exchanges or speeches. But it doesn’t take too long to adjust; and apart from some seemingly unintentionally funny moments early on, the script’s grandiloquent extremes serve only to give shape to the prison of words that Father constructs.
A simple set which consists of a single chair standing alone in the middle of a cramped rectangular stage, hemmed in on all sides by the audience, throws into stark relief Father’s growing mania. Britton and Bennett pace around this space with the erratic and staccato movements of animals trapped together in a cage. Pitilessly bright lights and plastic grass that sticks to hands and arms further contribute to a clammy atmosphere of claustrophobia, unease and desperation.
Britton is excellent as Father, emanating a combination of frustration, helplessness and sexual menace that is as tangible as the sweat that exudes from him as his character’s psychosis reaches fever pitch in the oppressive heat of the Italian countryside. Bennett, meanwhile, does well to bring emotional integrity to a character constrained by the need to be both blank slate and a repository for his father’s neuroses and illicit desires. Janet Fullerlove’s sardonic necromancer contributes some welcome levity, using her crystal ball like a telephone directory to find street names and numbers.
In Fabrication, Pasolini teases the audience. He waves in front of us possible explanations of what Son represents, tempting us to seek out definitive interpretations in the metaphors and analogies strewn throughout the play. But there is no single meaning to be found here, and if we insist on looking, we miss the point as surely as Father does.
Theatre exists in the experience, in the hairs prickling on the back of your neck, and it is this that Bailey captures so well with this production (even though the raising and lowering of the stage screen was distractingly noisy on the night I saw it). Strong performances combined with effective lighting and dissonant sound effects unsettle and engage; the words tell only half the story.
The Print Room aims to be a welcoming space for experimental theatre, music, dance and visual art. If it can build on Fabrication’s strong foundations, it deserves to succeed.
(At The Print Room, 10 November-4 December 2010)
Reviewed for musicOMH