A Midsummer Night's Dream, Agnieszka Turek, Carl Bentley, Edinburgh Fringe, Frankie Regalia, Jacquelyn Greenspan, Lisa Dierick, Mowgli, Nicola Palomba, Postmodernism, Puck, Pucqui Collaborative, Robin Ian HallSmith, Rudyard Kipling, Sari Chreiteh, Spaces on North Bridge, Taylor Jackson, The Jungle Book, Theatre Review, Tom Nguyen, William Shakespeare
[The following contains spoilers.]
Edinburgh during the Fringe is the venue for an infinity of possible encounters. The children of a Saudi Arabian emir might be taught to cha-cha-chá like a Cuban by a Korean au pair. The same au pair might hook up with a Brazilian milkman on Tinder. The same milkman’s van might run over the Norwegian Elkhound of an Irish dentist, leading to a death feud.
So it is quite normal, or at least thoroughly in the spirit of our city, that Mowgli from Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894) would meet Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596). They meet in Pucqui Collaborative’s play “Changelings” at the Space on North Bridge. Quite by coincidence, I caught “Changelings” on the same day that I saw “Macbeth Kills the Duchess” at the Space on Niddry Street. In the latter, Macbeth and Hamlet’s friend Horatio end up sharing a stage, largely as the result of some farcical confusion. The effect produced by “Changelings” is altogether deeper and it comes from the exhilaration of rules being exploratively broken, of two characters being unfettered from their native books and impossibly meeting. Yet “Changelings” is, beneath this apparent free-association, a neat and well-crafted story. Puck and Mowgli do not cross paths randomly – their meeting instead emerges from a fertile area of literary overlap. Both Puck and an “Indian boy” had appeared together in Shakespeare’s story, and separately in Kipling’s fictions Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and The Jungle Book.
The device of characters becoming independent from the original intentions of their authors is quintessential to postmodernism. In Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), for example, an author’s characters – including, incidentally, a Pooka – conspire to overthrow him. These rebellious characters are really a metaphor for the author’s powerlessness to ever control the meaning of his story.
As a modernist, I can easily grow tired of the cheap tricks and stunts that are on show in postmodernity’s circus. “Changelings” concludes with the two characters resolving to author their own story. They then become the actors again and bow. So we have seen their story end at its very moment of inspiration and genesis, the point at which it decides to tell itself. When the actors bow, it all loops back to the beginning and the “replay” button.
Considering how trite postmodernism is, almost as a default setting, “Changelings” is elegantly told. It also avoids some of the artificiality or plastic wonder of magic realism. This is, I think, because the play is sincerely affectionate towards the sources that it is messing about with. Mowgli (Nicola Palomba) is scowling, distrustful, and a lot more authentic than the Disney urchin. He looks like he has been dragged through a jungle backwards and he is caked in tiny, brilliantly intricate, flesh wounds. Puck (Robin Ian HallSmith) is fresher and more fabulous, but he is improbably a sensitive figure. He is very much an older brother, with the same melancholy sense of responsibility. The pair cautiously become friends and it is enjoyable to watch them goofing about together.
Crucially, there is no attempt to pull us away from the glamour of Kipling’s jungle. A dense, wet, luscious jungle soundtrack plays from start to finish. The night throbs like a great heart and weird birds cackle.