During a performance of the Tempest in which he was playing Prospero, Ian McKellen suddenly panicked that he was about to “dry”. The script he had cunningly inserted inside Prospero’s “book” was for some reason not there; the prompt manager was at the back of the auditorium, out of reach. Existential terror set in. “I didn’t know what, where I was, in the world,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
The performer Dickie Beau recounts this anecdote near the beginning of this startling genre-smashing solo show, which in its simplest form comprises a series of conversations with actors, directors and ethnobotanists on the transcendent possibilities (and failures) of performance and recounted by Beau using a mix of synchronised recordings and his own voice. No one is introduced by name; rather, magpie snippets of fact, thought and observation on theatre as both an oral and congregational art form combine in a soundscape of voices that glitter like diamonds in the dark.
An ancient Greek amphitheatre is described as “a giant ear cut into the mountain” that allows one person to stand in front of 5,000 and be perfectly heard. Oberammergau’s 10-yearly Passion Play is referenced as the most obvious example of theatre as a form of worship – a running theme. A vocal coach observes that Henry Kissinger voice is located so far back in his throat its almost impossible to replicate; psychologically, it’s where “he holds” all his secrets. Someone else mentions how much they like the way a theatre is also known as a “house”.
I’ve never seen – or perhaps heard is the more appropriate verb here – anything like this show, which at times resembles the sort of magic whisperings you might find inside the conch Beau sometimes uses as a telephone (it’s that sort of surreal piece). It’s just him on stage, sometimes in his underpants (he has very nice underpants, McKellen tells him) channelling these shadowy figures, often alongside a dryly witty commentary of his own, on a square stage surrounded by props: a space helmet, Yorick’s skull, a wheelbarrow full of earth from which sprouts an orange tree. Light and music are their own gorgeous atmospheric presences.
It’s often unexpectedly funny. There is the strong sense of Beau himself as a Prospero or Ariel figure (he played Ariel earlier in Deborah Warner’s season at this theatre); the show its own spellbinding insubstantial pageant.
There’s a strong sense, too, of each practitioner’s tortured relationship with their respective art form, as though the theatre is a spirit within them as well as something they do: amusingly, the Telegraph’s former opera critic Rupert Christiansen, the production’s dramaturg, crops up, cutting a deeply depressed figure as he bleakly dismisses the value of critics (thanks Rupert). Not every element works, yet a year in which decent new work has been thin on the ground, this curious piece feels special indeed.
Until Dec 1. Tickets: 01225 448844; theatreroyal.org.uk