[The following contains spoilers.]
Saturninus: Go fetch them hither to us presently.
Titus Andronicus: Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
Why do Fringe audiences usually titter their way through Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, in which a mother unsuspectingly feasts upon her own sons, whilst the audience at Bill Gallagher’s “Darkle” is visibly distressed by the sight of a pensioner being served his dog as a Sunday roast? I’ve never seen a Fringe audience so close to the point of mutiny. The lady sitting next to me whimpered and appealed to her friend to make the play stop. The front row sat hunched and staring, their eyes bright with the injustice of it all.
But I was in heaven, transported back to the magical, mouth-watering world of Beijing. When I visited Beijing in 2010 I soon gave up on the knackered old tourist attractions and my holiday became an itinerary of restaurants, with one vast, luxurious banquet following another. To compare Beijing’s cuisine to that of the UK is like comparing the Mona Lisa to a tin of paint. One afternoon, I was eating in some silken bower, in a room in which every waiter’s footfall was as soft as a petal landing, when I stopped to puzzle over the meat in front of me. It was tough and compact, swimming with peppers in a sizzling orange broth. “Dog,” my companion told me solemnly. And what a glorious thing! Dogs are always ardently devoted to their masters, and now this one had made the ultimate sacrifice, to attain the final stage of dog enlightenment.
Max (Paka), the dog in “Darkle,” was led out at the beginning of the play (which is showing at the Surgeons’ Hall). He nosed about the stage and looked unfazed by the audience. His owner, the landlord Mr Stringer (David Hayman) was plaguing his tenants (Lorna Heap, Lucy Mangan and Michael Clarke from the UEA), appearing at their door every day and seemingly desperate for company. With varying degrees of seriousness, they hatch a plan to kidnap and eat his dog. The ghastly dinner scene holds the same place in this play as the unveiling of the pie in “Titus Andronicus.”
Unlike the boys in TA, Max is innocent of any wrong and so there is, on this superficial level, a reason why his death inspires such exaggerated revulsion in the audience. Max is shaken, stamped on, carved up, gobbled down, and finally retched out and splattered across the stage as a sort of stringy brown puree.
At first I thought that this would be a play about dementia, with the tenants’ freakish antics turning out to somehow reflect the encroaching senility of the landlord. This is not discredited as an interpretation of the play, but neither is it really encouraged. “Darkle” is set in the eighties (it was first performed at the National Student Drama Festival in 1988), and this now accords it an extra distance from its chosen themes. Nihilistic youngsters today take MDMA and live on benefits, rather than eating flowers and working in the local shops as this lot do. The play is obviously influenced by Ben Elton’s sitcom The Young Ones, but it absorbs more of the absurdism than the politics.
“Darkle” is so exhilarating because it never settles on anything moral or political and it always floats above all seriousness, as a sort of absurdist rhapsody. Some of the initial absurdism comes across as harmless prattling, in having a first-thing-that-came-into-my-head whimsicality, but this preliminary lightness gives the later slide into nightmarishness a greater force and slickness. A female-led flatshare possibly leaves the anarchy seeming less dangerous, but “Darkle” has decided to make do without the glamour of surrealism and there is zero sex-appeal. The tenants are vulnerable figures, depraved in the same hopeless, automatic vein as child-soldiers. This all comes together and makes sense in the final, awesome tableau.
Despite being written in 1988, “Darkle” is one of the freshest things that I have seen at this year’s Fringe. It makes me feel peckish, however, and if there’s nothing in the fridge when I get home, then maybe the dog should make itself scarce.