Review: Sweeney Agonistes

Sweeney was a very creative idea that almost worked. Saunders’ vision was a mostly well-developed one with lots of eccentricities and energy provided by his cast. It is just a shame that Eliot’s text, and this is a very personal opinion, wasn’t more compelling.


 

The concept of Sweeney Agonistes was an innovative one. Taking T.S. Eliot’s recently discovered drafts and combining them with the previously published two scenes and excerpts from literary reviews, and putting the whole performance on in Bibi’s Café, required a lot of imagination and enthusiasm. It is clear that this performance was a product of great passion on director Tristram Saunders’ part, and it mostly paid off.

From the moment I picked up my reviewer ticket for Sweeney, I knew that it was going to be a theatre experience unlike any that I had experienced in St Andrews.  I was sent on a mini scavenger hunt and received letter from T.S. Eliot himself with instructions. This kind of attention to detail, immersion, and creativity was evident in the performance itself. Saunders should be praised above all for his originality and ability to create an experience beyond a mere performance.

The audience filed into Bibi’s, which had been rearranged to make space for one long table in the center of the café. Right away, we were enveloped into the world in which Saunders was telling his story with several preset characters interacting with members of the audience. I was immediately taken with the Clown character, played by Magda Michalska, whose energy, enthusiasm, and commitment remained constant throughout.  The characters who were sat near my table deftly engaged the audience while setting the tone that the fourth wall would effectively not be erected for this show. It was apparent that the audience was to be very much included in the weaving of these two stories, both the one being told by Eliot and the one being told about him.

The performance began on a high note with a musical entrance, effectively demonstrating how music would be used deftly as a tool to accompany the storytelling. The live music, for me, was the highlight of show. The jazz band played beautifully, with Hamish Docherty deserving praise for his drumming skills – an important part of the verse driven script. Special mention should also be given to Will Costello who supplied not only a melodic voice, but also a commanding and energetic stage presence from the get go. The other actors performed admirably as well. Hannah Cox and Catriona Scott (playing Eliot’s protagonists) worked well with what they were given by Eliot’s limited script, bringing the high energy and enthusiasm that seemed to characterize the experience as a whole.

You’ll notice that much of this review focuses on the ambience and the aesthetic created by Saunders. This is because the actual performance itself, of both Eliot’s actual written words and of reviews written by others, was only fifty minutes, and I was ultimately left wishing there was more, though arguably, this is due to the lack of written material. Additionally, while the space was used creatively and for the most part well, the set up was such that at certain times different tables would not have been able to see key bits of action, most importantly the climax of the initial cliff-hanger ending.

Ultimately, Sweeney was a very creative idea that almost worked. Saunders’ vision was a mostly well-developed one with lots of eccentricities and energy provided by his cast. It is just a shame that Eliot’s text, and this is a very personal opinion, wasn’t more compelling. However, if you enjoy live jazz music, zany performances, and are curious about Eliot’s unfinished work, then this unique (albeit somewhat brief) experience should not be missed.