Les Justes

CAITLIN DOHERTY is back with a vengeance.

albert camus Caitlin Doherty charlie merriman Corpus Playroom fred ward georgia wagstaff les justes Matt Clayton max thoma robbie haylett Theatre TPJ

Corpus Playroom, 21st-25th February, 7pm, £5-6

Directed by Fred Ward

[rating: 2/5]

In the opening pages of The Fall, Camus’ protagonist tries to predict what historians of the future will think of the sticky, tumescent humanity of today.

Paraphrased into fewer words, but with an equal lack of historiographical optimism, ‘they read newspapers and fucked each other’ is the essence of his conclusion.

Had Camus been witness to last night’s production of Les Justes at the Corpus Playroom, he might well have been tempted to amend this to: ‘they read my plays and fucked them up.’

The production struggled from the beginning in one fundamental way: there was no vocal distinction between lines of dialogue, and lines of overwrought justification for acts of revolutionary violence.

No matter how weak some of the performances were, or how disjointed Camus’ absurdist interpretation of terrorist action seems (at least when performed in the naturalistic manner of last night’s production), it’s the director’s role to bring out these variations in speech. Fred Ward messed this up.

As a result, the central performances given by Max Thoma (Stepan) and Charlie Merriman (Ivan) grated more than their characters’ annoying quirks were presumably intended to, which got in the way of those empathetic bonds between character and audience that theatre’s supposedly meant to make happen.

Nonetheless, Merriman showed range in his performance – moments between him and Georgia Wagstaff (Dora) had a touching sincerity at points. This was unfortunately detracted from by traces of narcissism in the long—pauses—-to——signify—-emotion that crept in whenever else he was on stage. Less of this business and he’d obviously be an excellent character actor.

In contrast to Ivan The Terrible Romantic, was shouty-shouty-red-faced-angry-revolutionary Stepan. When he wasn’t fist-pumping the air to show lots of hate for the bourgeoisie, Thoma’s gaze remained constantly and perplexingly fixed on the middle distance (look up and center to visualize Great Achievement!) – meaning he had to squint into the stage lights quite a lot.

But there are two stars at the top of this review! ‘Surely that’s got to mean SOMETHING,’ screams the TPJ of my mind.

‘IT MEANS NOTHING! NONE OF THIS MEANS ANYTHING AT ALL!’ I sob back, but still feel compelled to write the following justification: the set, costume and lighting design were consistently brilliant; dark wooden desks and chairs that gave a clean and functional structure to the stage space along with brightly lit interiors that made handsome silhouettes from the sharp grey costumes, with only a cursory hint at Slavonic peasant garb.

Like when the RSC does a Chekhov, only (thankfully) without all the fucking accordions.  According to the programme, the director’s mum drove all the props to Cambridge from Somerset – something for everyone to be grateful for.

Matt Clayton’s performance as Skouratov and Robbie Haylett’s appearance as Folka redeemed a production that had been lagging up to the interval. Haylett’s physicality as a wearied prisoner was inconsistent, but his slow and deliberate movement was one of the few aspects of the show to genuinely disturb. He looked incredibly weird. Clayton gets the honour of being the only actor in the production to not fall into a labored naturalism, and instead hum, tick and gurn out a much more interesting performance that suited the work’s original aim of absurdism.

Les Justes is a technically competent show; it uses sound clips (apart from the dreadful ‘horses’ SFX) better than anything I’ve ever seen in Cambridge and it looks pretty stylish. The acting’s clunky at points, but it’s not completely awful.

However, the general execution (hur hur) of the play in this production bored the sans-culottes off me. I care quite a lot about the big ‘issues’ of this work, I’m also a complete sucker for personal-and-political-conflict costume drama. But this show never gave me the chance to invest emotionally or politically in any of its theatrical arguments. No pardon granted, just let it hang.