Review Beautiful Evil Things – Ad Infinitum – Theatr Clwyd – Friday 8th March

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Beautiful Evil Things is performed over seventy-five minutes by Deborah Pugh on her own. She performs in a simple costume on a minimal set, mainly consisting of microphones on stands, but the lighting and sound effects backing up her performance are complex and continuous (including surtitles ). Pugh’s performance shows everything has been carefully considered – every sentence in the monologue weighed, every movement across the stage planned. All the people mentioned in the handout programme make their absence felt.

Hard work is also one thing you think of, watching and listening. You can’t help but wonder how taxing Pugh’s delivery must be on her voice. Her seventy-five minutes are a tour de force. I wasn’t worried she would be unable to sustain her energy level, but I did think she might have vocal problems if she ever had to perform six days running.

This led me on to consider how her material, drawn mainly from The Iliad, might have been delivered originally. The epic must have been declaimed and sung over an extended period because it is so long. Could a single poet have managed it?

– Which might seem a sideways consideration in a review but Beautiful Evil Things is intended to make audiences think. It reworks a small selection of stories from The Iliad to tell them from a female perspective. The narrator – Pugh’s main character – is the severed head of Medusa, the gorgon who would turn you to stone if you looked into her eyes. Medusa was there throughout the Trojan war, her head strapped to the shield of Athene. She comments on what took place, like a BBC front line reporter.

Pugh also incarnates a slew of other female characters including Athene, Hecuba, Cassandra, Penthesilea (the Amazon queen) and Clytemnestra. She does cameos of Achilles and Perseus and mimics the voices of Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo. She narrates, declaims, explains, wisecracks, mimes, gesticulates, poses, glares, smiles, laughs and cries. She takes her audience on a roller coaster ride and if she makes any slips or takes any wrong turnings, they are not noticeable. Like Medusa she becomes mesmerising. Her body is so essential I was not surprised to find out both she and her two co-artistic directors are graduates of Jacques Lecoq’s École Internationale.

Although Homer provided Western civilisation with one of its cornerstone narratives, we are not obliged to use the mythic material in the way he chose to do. Pugh and Ad Infinitum are free to present the interconnected stories as they want, although they run the risk of being overshadowed. Homer organised his material with a clear artistic purpose. He wanted to illustrate the beautiful tragedy of the warrior hero and the end of the era he personified. Hence, The Iliad is a macho story par excellence. Women are not irrelevant – the Trojan war is fought over a woman – but it was left to Racine, well over two thousand years later – to show them as tragic figures in their own right.

Ad Infinitum want their audience to think and cross reference like this. I wondered how interesting Beautiful Evil Things might be for those who had never read any Greek myths, for whom the background of the capricious gods and the wide range of historic characters had no resonance.

This is one problem the piece encounters. A second one is connected to it. To ensure that no-one is left wondering who a character might be, Pugh is obliged to step out of character to explain. This slows the imaginative momentum of the piece down, especially as the explanations have to be accompanied by modernistic reductio ad absurdums – ‘Life of Brian’ style.

And Pugh’s Medusa with snakes instead of hair, is scary but only in the way a pantomime villain is. So when Cassandra becomes increasingly important in the narrative, I was unsure if she was meant to be a pathetic, a bit funny in the head – or someone whose communication barrier anyone and everyone can identify with. The show’s purpose might have been better served if either Cassandra or Clytemnestra had been the focus – if the company had adopted Racine’s approach.

The overall impact, the success of the piece, is determined by the use of the varied material. Watching it being demonstrated and thinking about what it all means becomes a bit demanding. After an hour and a quarter, I felt I had been harangued, startled, prodded and amused but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable. Perhaps this was because there were no relaxed moments, no variation in the tempo. Pugh is fast and furious throughout her monologue and the semi happy ending simply finishes everything off. It’s not a very satisfying conclusion.

There could have been some softening, some stillness. Another dimension would have provided the show with more contrast and impact. This variation could have been provided by music and/or singing, i.e. in the way the original epic was delivered. More poetry, for want of a better word, and less rhetoric might have alleviated the strain of paying so much attention throughout.

Pugh does deserve the five-star accolades that she has been receiving for the effort she puts in, and the company also deserves congratulations for so carefully assembling a thought-provoking piece of theatre. I’d just prefer to see a play entirely of their own devising, with performances that didn’t require any running commentary for the audience’s benefit; a performance where an audience could be more confident of what their response to the work should be.

Theatr Clwyd also deserves recognition for programming Beautiful Evil Things. It was something different and well worth experiencing. Despite it being a cold windy Friday March night in North Wales, a good-sized audience was present on the night, filling over three quarters of the house. I’m sure they, like me, would be glad to see more work by Ad Infinitum in the future.

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