Christopher Birks, Dan Coleman, Dan Nicholson, Dawn State, Edinburgh Fringe, Frontier Warfare, Going Native, Imperialism, Liberal Interventionism, Pleasance Zoo, Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King, Theatre Review
I want to play devil’s advocate with this new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 novella The Man Who Would Be King, if only for the sake of variety. This production, which is brought to the Fringe by Dawn State and written by Dan Coleman, already has two five-star reviews and it is currently playing to full houses at the Pleasance Zoo. It is exhilarating to watch actors as electric as Christopher Birks and Dan Nicholson in action and they together deliver an enjoyable and accomplished drama. The play’s success reassures us that all the infrastructure of the Fringe is functioning properly. But I am interested in what the story means and what it has to say, and so how smoothly do we roll across this higher plane?
If I feel slightly disconnected from “The Man Who Would Be King,” it is because I am repulsed by one-man plays. “The Man Who Would Be King” is performed by two actors, but its story of derring-do is so epic that the action on stage somehow feels just as cramped and frantic as that of a solo show. This is, of course, a description rather than a criticism and it is, in terms of my favourite metaphor for one-man shows, rather like criticising a one-legged athlete who has just run a marathon for having only one leg.
The pulped remains of Peachy Callahan (Nicholson) have returned from the Afghan frontier, along with a wild tale of how he and his comrade Daniel Dravot (Birks) became kings of Kafiristan. We – that is we in the audience – have been collectively assigned the role of a mysterious, possibly special-ops “colonel.” We observe as our inferior officer (Birks) interrogates Callahan, until this pair end up donning costumes to perform an impromptu re-enactment of the original adventure for us. As a premise, this is decidedly quaint and not really in the full spirit of extraordinary rendition. Once we have agreed to the terms and conditions of this play, however, then it all races along. A word for Nicholson’s gory make-up, which is riveting down to the smallest toenail; and another for the intervals of spooky singing which give a sort of space to the performance and elicit a similarly lurid atmosphere to that of The Wicker Man.
But I distrust Kipling’s politics and it is always unclear where his story is taking us. At first “The Man Who Would Be King” appears to deliver the traditional medieval warning against the middle class, or about spivvish adventurers who will not keep to their station. Dravot and Peachy’s faraway kingdom resembles the British Empire in microcosm, with bossy white men ordering around ignorant natives, but these two are actually renegade imperialists. Their crime is to try to “go native.”
Rather than reorganising the native society from outside, they have infiltrated its culture, albeit by using superior technology (their firearms) and their megalomaniacal self-confidence to overwhelm the natives. It seems that we are supposed to criticise them for not mastering all of the details, rather than for anything necessarily more immoral. If Dravot had not been so fatally uninformed about native beliefs, then his regime would presumably still retain legitimacy. This play does not condemn interventionism, it merely cautions about just how committed you need to be for it to succeed. Dravot is ultimately indicted for rather petty things such as carelessness or impatience. His character (and this is Kipling’s fault) never really hangs together, although the story is spiced up by the lively and ironic ways in which he and Peachy get their comeuppance.
“Israel – this is happening in Israel!” There is some excitement during the applause, with a buffoonish attempt from the audience to make a political statement or to shoehorn this complex play into a slogan. This is a repeated annoyance at this year’s Fringe – I will happily hear any news from Palestine, but the theatre should remain a sacrosanct space, where people handing out flyers fear to tread.