Chalk Line Theatre, Christianity, Daniel Leadbitter, David Angland, Edinburgh Fringe, Hannah Benson, Jensen Gray, Jesus Christ, Nick Young, Sam Edmunds, Theatre Review, William Shackleton, Zoo Charteris
I must go to the Pleasance Zoo. We are twelve days into the Fringe and I have yet to visit one of my favourite venues. They have randomly renamed it “Zoo Charteris” this year. It sounds poncy but it would have been far worse if they had kept the “Pleasance” as part of a double-barrelled surname. What sort of a character would Zoo Charteris-Pleasance be? I don’t know whether they would be male or female, but I can somehow picture them wearing a butterfly-print suit and playing polo.
Nature is bludgeoning the Fringe today. As I walk over the Meadows to the Zoo, it is raining, horizontally and vertically, and millions of pounds are being probably stripped from the city’s economy. With the street performers, the milling crowds, and the cocktail plazas all talking flight, the soft flesh of the Fringe is being cut away and only the bone is left: its theatres.
“Testament” is written by Sam Edmunds and staged by Luton’s Chalk Line Theatre. It observes the woozy aftermath of a major trauma, the kind of state in which reality seems uneasily hallucinogenic and you would not be surprised were your ostensible hospital revealed to be actually hell. Max (Nick Young) has survived a car crash whilst his girlfriend Tess (Hannah Benson) has not. The crash has left Max with hydrocephalus, or an accumulation of cerebral fluid, and his doctor (Jensen Gray) needs to literally drain the brain. She briefs Max’s brother (William Shackleton) that it would be medically preferable if they could pretend that Tess was still alive for a while. Over these choppy waters lightly steps the hallucination – at least, presumably – of Jesus Christ (David Angland). He has come to help. Contractually, the Devil (Daniel Leadbitter) is obliged to appear as well.
In a delicate achievement, the ensemble’s performances are each attuned to subtly different rhythms, some of them hallucinogenic and others matter-of-fact. Gray supplies some crucial realism as the worried, fair-minded medic. It is Young’s Max, however, who is the taut central knot that all of the strain is pulling on.
His eyes are hugely stark – his mouth sensual – whilst his halo of hair resembles the lone cloud over a harvest field. His hospital gown could be a burial shroud and he looks a lot more like Christ at the tomb door than the lounge-lizard Messiah who has come to serenade him. He could be an unduly boyish King Lear, as he is dazed and chased by appalled attendants. He is, though, as a presence and a performer, built more I think for comedy than for sincere drama. During the drama, fewer of his powers are used. During the comic scenes, he sometimes reminded me (and I write this admiringly) of Wile E Coyote, in his tendency to freeze aghast and then whip back around into the story. He has the same rangy body. Watch him and you will see what I mean.
“Testament” is ultimately far more physical than it is theological. Any solemn reverberation of church organ notes is drowned in the industrial-trance soundtrack; like many of the old churches in Edinburgh, this one is far happier being a nightclub. The scenes in which the cast replicate a lads’ night out are by far the best in the show. All of the dance and physicality are rough and blunt and very slightly frightening. There is something authentically tribal or out-of-control once these bodies are marauding around each other and crashing together. Some superb dramatic lighting, encased in beacons that are gigantic fragments of crashed car, adds to the menace. By contrast, Jesus is lightweight, smirking, and inexplicable. He is possibly the water that has to be drained from Max’s brain.
We are also menaced by the artwork. Two side-panels appear to depict hands that are poised like those of an orchestral conductor’s over the mayhem. When they are finally brought together, they create a sinister shape that is at once a gnarled tree and a goat’s head. A proper God.