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The Gift of the Gorgon

What’s On In London, 30th December 1992, Caroline Rees

Once again, Peter Shaffer breathes fire into the theatre with a dynamic new play in which he relishes the complex conflict between reason and revenge, teasing the topic through every strand of the story. The ancient Greeks, whose mythology is crucial to his text, favoured revenge to justice, ‘bloodshed for bloodshed.’ The modern liberal tends towards reason and forgiveness, even though it makes for a constant inner struggle.

The combatants here are playwright Edward Damson and his wife/muse Helen; the play opens with the former’s coffin being carried from their Greek villa. His son Philip (the abandoned product of a two-week fling) turns up and persuades his stepmother to feed him the material for a biography of the dead dramatist. She agrees, but warns he will hate what he hears.

Their turbulent life together is enacted as Helen recalls it, with Philip scribbling furiously in the background. Initially they exist on a diet of sex and Shakespeare, but eventually a completed script is required to pay the rent. The legend of Perseus is evoked to illustrate Edward’s reliance on Helen to temper his dramatic excesses – protecting him from petrification by the gorgon, as it were. The resultant work is lauded, and his ego balloons. But then he turns, accusing Helen of paralysing his creativity. He writes frighteningly uncompromising blood-and-guts play, which is critically panned. They flee to Greece; he drinks, flaunting young back-packers in Helen’s face. He’s blown it. She can no longer forgive him … or can she?

On one level, the play works as a mystery: how did Edward die? What was he really like? On another, sprinkled into a beautifully crafted whole with a few dry one-liners, are discourses on theatrical responsibility, the ‘obliqueness’ of the English, the Americanisation (and therefore cheapening) of culture, and bloody acts of terrorism. (How can one be ‘fair’ about the Remembrance Day massacre at Enniskillen, Edward demands of Helen. “We have to be bigger than they were, or what is the point.” she replies)

The acting is first rate and draining. As Edward, an impulsive, dogmatic, extravagant ‘wastrel’, Michael Pennington is variously splattered in blood, water and red wine. He hollers, pleads and dances, but for all the exasperating characteristics of the role, Pennington is compulsive viewing. Helen is another of Judi Dench’s sensible women trying to stay in control, and she mixes it with hurt and stony fury impeccably. Jeremy Northam is suitably on-edge as Philip, shifting from one foot to the other with nervous anticipation. There’s also an eccentric cameo from Michael Poole as Edward’s racist Russian father, chattering away about the “real McCoy-ski” and the “nigg-skis” upstairs.

Peter Hall directs this meaty RSC production like a dog shaking a squeaky toy, enticing every ounce of energy out of the actors and the stark space of The Pit. Whether Shaffer is arguing that revenge or reason is right, or whether he’s not so sure that it’s a black-and-white choice, the audience was hotly philosophising all the way out. And that has to be success enough.

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