Nicola Simonetti reviews ‘Sweeney
Staging Sweeney Agonistes, considered one of the most important pieces in English poetry and drama, is not an easy task, especially if one takes into consideration the subtlety of Eliot’s language and his frequent allusions. Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot’s first attempt at writing a verse drama (the author himself referred to it as ‘Aristophanic melodrama’), was never finished, thereby making it hard for scholars to classify it either as a poem or a play. Although Sweeney Agonistes appeared in Eliot’s final collection in the “unfinished poems” section, its similarity to a drama and its satisfaction of the basic requirements of a drama is undeniable, perhaps making us perceive the work as a hybrid whose literary position is difficult to locate. In virtue of its complexity, and despite the major importance that the play’s own structure —and the role of jazz music in particular—might have in the understanding of Eliot’s other works, just a few amateur productions of Sweeney Agonistes have seen the light of day. Mr T. S. Eliot himself produced detailed notes and a type-written plot synopsis of Sweeney Agonistes, however its incompleteness has always made staging seem unworthy of any effort.
Sweeney Agonistes is a play about the importance of life and death, whose characters (two women and four men) seem to be taking part in a family reunion in a flat that is more or less a brothel. Eliot manages to put on quite a linear plot. The first scene opens with Dusty (Catriona Scott) and Doris (Hannah Philippa Raymond-Cox) discussing Pereira, an unpleasant pimp who “at least pays the rent”. Everyone is concerned with a game of destiny cards, which makes the issue of being alive or dead a major theme in the play (can we ever know?). Waiting for clients, the ladies are finally joined by their American friends (played by Nico Sanji-Swan, Jason Isbit and Luke Womack), while the audience has to wait a bit longer for the protagonist to hit the stage. Sweeney himself (Mr. Will Costello) finally joins the other characters, suggesting, in the second —and last —fragment of the melodrama, to leave for a cannibal island where there is only “birth, and copulation, and death”. Songs about life on the said island are sung, and Sweeney tells of the murder of a young woman. Perhaps recalling Macbeth, the original fragment ends with the flatmates listening to a nine-fold knocking at the door.
Having this said, Tristram Fane-Saunders’ production is not only praiseworthy for the risk taken in staging such a sensitive play, but it is also revolutionary in its own form. Following some theatrical innovations from the twentieth century, Fane-Saunders’s work— like Pirandello in his well-known Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) —aims to break the fourth wall between actors and audience, going as far as putting on an interactive and improvised mime show before the beginning of the play itself (hats off to Magda Michalska and Fane-Saunders’ performances). The choice of the venue, but in particular the absence of an above-ground stage and the presence of a live band (Ed Martin and Hamish Docherty), increases the audience’s sense of empathy, although the atypicality of the work itself prevents the viewers from a too deep personification. As stated in the playbill, Sweeney Agonistes’s new production is “something in between the play Eliot almost wrote, the play he chose not to write, and a play about how/why he did/didn’t write it”. On the one hand, the several additions to the original text altered the intended performance, on the other hand they smooth the plot and make it easy to follow. Running for three nights, Sweeney Agonistes finally gains its worthiness of being staged, even if the new form of the play makes us wonder whether, through such changes, Eliot’s original method stays the same.
Fane-Saunders’ production does not request a previous knowledge of the show for the audience to enjoy it, on the contrary it works in a way to let the audience share in Eliot’s notes, ideas and deleted scenes. If most of the show is faithfully based on Eliot’s original script, the choice to add bits of late critical essays about it (read by Rebecca Alessandra and Tristram Fane-Saunders in his only cameo) contributes to make the audience aware of its general reception. As an unfinished play, Sweeney Agonistes lacks a proper conclusion, however it does not end abruptly. Through bringing on the stage a temporal gap of over nine years, the new ending —a reading of director Haillie Flanagan’s letter to Eliot asking for advice about staging Sweeney Agonistes, and Eliot’s subsequent reply —almost turns into a “play within a play”, with a fictional T. S. Eliot (Eliot Beeby) reading to the audience how he intended to stage his own work himself. Although such a closing gives a very specific interpretation (the author’s) of the said melodrama, its final position does not stop the audience from coming up with their very own interpretation throughout the play, while enjoying its singularity at the same time.
Despite the physical closeness between characters and audience, the actors manage to take good advantage of the café’s space, their voices loud and clear, and cunningly involving each and every viewer by never turning their backs to anyone. Among the good performances, I would like to point out to everyone’s attention Raymond-Cox and Scott’s opening, whose incredible smoothness drags you into a world in which words are music and music is words. Remarkable is Costello’s performance as well, which never gets tedious and lives up to the audience’s expectations, whereas Jackie Ashkin’s costume for the Time, attempting to look like “an old gentleman”, as Eliot described time, is daring, and overall successful.
Whoever expects Sweeney Agonistes to be a typical melodrama will probably be disappointed, as its own plot —or at least its fragments — proves the play’s uniqueness among all the others ever written before. Nonetheless, the commitment of the actors, and their confidence with the text is evident; their effort to perform a challenging, singular script paid off! The result is an amusing, captivating, groundbreaking production, which, despite its radical arrangements, I strongly believe Mr. T. S. Eliot himself would have liked.
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