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115

Saki is rather like dynamite and so I went to C on Chambers Street this afternoon to see whether he can be profitably deployed in the theatre. The play is “Life According to Saki” by Katherine Rundell. Alas, an insufficient quantity of Saki was used. There were a few spectacular moments and the odd thrill, but the ceiling didn’t come down. I didn’t leave with my glasses askew and my hair disarranged.

We meet Saki, or the fiendish short story writer Hector Hugh Munro, in the trenches, where he is played with suitable suaveness by David Paisley. WW1 is enormously topical at the moment, with a new centenary every few days, but the trenches here seem to be just as-good-as-any-other scenery. The play does not realistically account for why Saki, then forty-five, chose to fight in the trenches. To venture down this path would be to possibly risk encountering his reactionary morality and politics, and so a crucial twist in the story is left unexplained. A man who on an aesthetic plane rejoiced in mischief and frivolity could somehow blandly dedicate himself to pursuing nationalistic mass-murder. Curiously Evelyn Waugh, who came close to Saki in his humour, stylistic finesse, and lack of sentimentality, also volunteered to fight the Germans when he was tipping into middle age. Rundell’s play is not feeling exploratory or even confident on this terrain and so a significant layer of Saki’s personality is allowed to slip away out of the theatre.

In the trenches, Saki’s soldiers dance their way through re-enactments of his short stories, whilst the man himself compères. There is all of the attention to detail that comes naturally with puppetry and a good delivery of some choice lines. “Sredni Vashtar” feels like a crescendo, with the mounting mystical fervour effectively conveying the under-stimulated urchin’s awe at observing and possessing a pet ferret. Unfortunately, “Life According to Saki” does not try its hand at Saki’s downright funniest tale “Tobermory” or the reincarnation farce “Laura.” The puppetry is so evocative that you are left wanting to see how the production would have interpreted these challenges.

A battleground for this play’s ultimate credibility is afforded when it unwisely choses to narrate “The Unrest-Cure.” The play is soon retreating ingloriously from the field. In the original “The Unrest-Cure,” Saki’s thrusting hero Clovis tricks a housebound clergyman into thinking that his bishop is orchestrating a massacre of the local Jews. Rundell chickens out of this, replacing “Jews” with “men with moustaches,” and achieving that most regrettable of all possible outcomes: a safe-space Saki. In being written years before widespread pogroms across Russia, “The Unrest-Cure” certainly looks complacent, but the story was nonetheless part of Saki’s time and it gives us an important handle upon his humour.

Rundell no doubt emasculates this story in order to avoid causing offence, but it is hard to imagine the man himself nodding along to her alteration, as he is depicted doing on stage. Indeed, the show becomes increasingly estranged from the contempt for sentimentality which was Saki’s metallic life blood. At the end of the play, Saki delivers a powerful speech about the need to live life “hugely,” to squash miserable aunts and “unleash your inner ferret.” It is practically Spielbergian and the story has collapsed into hagiography. Rather than being merely named after a monkey, this Saki is pompously a life-affirming cupbearer from a mystical poem. I can hear a voice issuing from the grave: put that bloody play out!

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