Oh, I get it. This is a highly political play that is uber-contemporary, steeped in the moment, a metaphor for Jeremy Corbyn losing his shadow cabinet. The devil is clearly Tony Blair and the woman who spurns him can be none other than Angela Eagle. Or Maria Eagle. Or Lucy Powell. Or Harriet Harman. Or maybe a composite of all those ladies representing the evil feminine hand of poor old Jezz’s destruction. Or self-destruction. Or something.
No? Well, you’re probably right. N16 Theatre hosts A Mountview Post Graduate Directors Season show which would have been in development long before the Labour Party leadership debacle so it’s probably nothing to do with it after all. Which means therefore that Peter Schlemiel, “Adelbert von Chamisso’s classic 19th century novella, itself based on a popular German folk tale” is just an exceedingly silly story about a man (spoiler alert) who loses his shadow. Or actually sells his shadow. That’s it really. Though divesting oneself of one’s shadow apparently attracts the world’s opprobrium not to mention that you look just plain stupid without it. Apparently. Because everyone notices. Apparently. So how on earth can you bring such a silly yarn – and just because the words “German”, “dark”, “folk tale” and “classic” appear in the publicity doesn’t preclude it from being silly – to a satisfactory conclusion? Easy. It’s a gothically dark Germanic folk tale. So let’s dragoon Faust into it. Having sold his shadow to someone who turns out to be Lucifer, that same Lucifer, would you believe it, tries to sell it back to him. “Ah!”, I hear you cry. “The shadow is a metaphor for his soul”. No such luck. Lucifer tries to exchange Peter’s shadow for his soul. Why on earth couldn’t he just have bought Peter’s soul in the first place? Why couldn’t Peter nip down to Shadow Mart and buy a new one? Why couldn’t N16 Theatre just put on Doctor Faustus? These are the kind FAQs that tug at the brain throughout the show – particularly in its frequent, elongated, voice-over- enhanced, exposition sequences – or boring bits to give them their technical name.
Matthew Bosley’s adaptation is far too reliant on the voice-over which becomes increasingly irritating as the play moves from full-scale umbra into the Twilight Zone. He might do well to have a look at one or two of the plays of that pre-Germanic folk tale dramatist Shakespeare and note his use of the monologue and the aside. Shakespeare (and others, of course) employed these devices because the tape recorder had not been invented. But just because it’s been invented doesn’t mean to say it has to be used so prodigally – unless of course you’re doing an advert for shadowless Bratwurst.
Bosley also directs which seems to give licence for all manner of drama school devices to be arbitrarily bolted-on to evidently satisfy the need for dramaturgical range and invention and it’s a significant clue that there is not enough script to go round. Chief amongst these is the meta theatre sequence where this cast of luvvies (whose authenticity I can vouch for as I heard them in the foyer pre-show) imitate a bunch of pretend-luvvies. There is no more hideous sight as off-stage luvvies mimicking on-stage luvvies and the mwah-mwah-count would have Tom Conti desperately trying to hide from his own shadow.
Bosley, as director, has taken no notice of he fact that N16 having been “thrown out” (their word) of Stoke Newington and transported themselves to this gateway to the south (aka Balham) at the magnificent Bedford pub (which does a mean scampi and chips by the way) he is now working in a studio theatre sans rake: i.e. if you put masses of action on the floor only those lucky punters in the front row can see it. I was in the back row. It’s basic, dear boy, isn’t it? Basic sight lines? Take heed – I have it on good authority that the Richardsons rubbed out a fair few recalcitrant shadows in this manor for far lesser crimes.
Alex Marlow as Peter is not very convincing: not gritty enough, too gauche. He has a good voice but must have found it difficult to create a character when so much of his dialogue is pre-recorded. Billy Irving needs to learn, in his multi-role capacity, that just changing your hat is not enough to change your character. Georgina Terry and Philippa Rose, in their various guises, lend solid support and do their best to bring life to a tedious script: I can vouch for the fact there is an audience limit to the amount of times you can express regret at losing your shadow.
Key to presenting a character who lacks a shadow, of course, is lighting. Given that Lighting Designer Edvardas Bazys is presented with a poisoned chalice, nonetheless the lighting is all over the place. Facial lighting is patchy and poor, for a show that claims to be “atmospherically striking” it isn’t and the central character walking around complete with shadow after losing it is indeed a seminal moment in the piece.
There’s a kind of underlying feeling that this is Kafkaesque without the esque and lacking a convincing K: dramatic techniques, a bit of movement, some physical theatre, and other theatrical devices are no substitute for a strong script, effectively-directed and well-performed. We are asked here to not look beyond those superficials which puts in mind another much-loved folk tale – the Emperor’s New Shadow.
Review by Peter Yates
Peter Schlemiel is the arresting and haunting story of an ordinary man who foolishly exchanges his shadow for endless fortune and fame, and must face the bitter consequences. This brand new adaptation by Matthew Bosley is a physical, robust and darkly humorous reimagining of Adelbert von Chamisso’s classic 19th century novella, itself based on a popular German folk tale thought to have inspired the story of Peter Pan. Visually and aurally striking, the show plunges you into Peter’s extraordinary world of shadows, forests and existential dread, and confronts resonating issues today of status anxiety, the race for success, and social isolation.
Directed by Matthew Bosley
Produced by Tim Chittenden
Set/Sound Design by Robert Hill
Lighting Design by Edvardas Bazys
Costume Design by Keely Hawkins
Cast: Alex Marlow, Georgina Terry, Billy Irving, Philippa Rose