Review: His Greatness, Finborough *****

His Greatness, written by Daniel MacIvor and directed by Ché Walker, is set in 1980 on the day and the morning after the Canadian premier of a work, undoubtedly The Red Devil Battery Sign, by Tennessee Williams, here known simply as “The Playwright”.

Beginning with the Assistant awakening his indisposed patron after yet another drunken night, the Playwright and his devotee jump into reprimanding each other with bitter recollections of times long gone. After the Assistant selects a rather dim rent boy, The Young Man, who knows almost nothing about plays to accompany the Playwright to his premier, The Young Man becomes both muse and inspiration. The second half of the play delves deeper into the central themes of failure, transience and desire.

The play’s reviews are bad, the drugs run out, and as the sun rises the dreams of the dark are left in tatters. The mocking titular phrase “his greatness” is applied to each of the characters in turn in varying degrees of sarcasm. The Playwright’s spat-out epigram, “Happy endings are an evil fiction,” makes it clear that there will be no such ending here. However, the audience are inclined to agree with the Assistant’s closing proclamation that every ending has some hope as all endings bear witness to the powers of theatre.

The blasé, self-assured Young Man forces his way into this partnership between the Playwright and Assistant crotch first. Toby Wharton gives a strong performance intermingling both sexual aggression and naivety as the Playwright’s “gorgeous” young gentleman.  Russell Bentley as the Assistant plays a character stuck within his own perpetual denouement; always on the brink of leaving the Playwright, while the Playwright remains convinced he will always come back. Marsh and Bentley have an extraordinary onstage chemistry; at once quarrelsome and catty while still candidly close.

In Marsh and Bentley we have two powerhouse performances from two remarkable actors.

Matthew Marsh makes a striking impression as the Playwright. It is worth noting that Marsh stepped in only two weeks prior to the production’s opening, illness having prevented the original actor from appearing. Marsh’s performance shows no signs of this, however. He has created a droll, sprightly and yet ailing man. Inherent in Marsh’s Playwright is a painful sense of longing for what was, incomprehension of the present, and a feeling of being lost in ones own skin. It is a haunting, complex, and precisely executed performance.  In Marsh and Bentley we have two powerhouse performances from two remarkable actors.

The three personalities – the inhibited, zealous Assistant, the reckless Young Man and the desperately lost Playwright – are intertwined with such a discernable aura of absolute togetherness that it is tempting to see them as fragments of one broken man; that is, Williams himself.

His Greatness has all the hallmarks of a play that is well travelled. MacIvor’s impeccable script is on the whole realistic, with a structure that seems almost defiantly traditional. It is written with subtlety, tenderness and a sparkling sense of humour. The appropriate naturalistic set design by Jean-Marc Puissant makes incredible use of the small space, setting the play in traverse. The intimacy of the space is embraced as the audience become voyeurs, watching the events unfold. Both the lighting and sound designs are subtle and suitable theatrical.

Ché Walker has directed a flawless  production in His Greatness. This is a great production of a great work, about a man who was, once, great.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 19th May
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