by Fran Allfrey
It’s always a bit more exciting going to see a play you’ve never seen or even heard of before. And the King’s Players’ production of Jean Genet’s The Balcony does not ease you in slowly either.
The lights dim without warning and the audience are immediately thrown into a surreal, shadowy underworld of a brothel of ‘mirrors and chandeliers’, where the characters’ talk is dense with poetic flourishes, and scenes flip between the real time of the play (London 2021, where the summer riots of 2011 never stopped), and the simulated fantasy worlds of the brothel’s clientele. I admit, it took me a while to orientate myself.
The audience watch as three key clients find their own ways to become the men of their dreams – a judge, a bishop, and a general. A stand out performance comes from Jordan Theis as the desperate, gibbering boy-man who fantasises himself into the role of the stern-voiced bishop, and longs to transform himself from the ‘symbolic head [of the church] to the actual head’. He most convincingly reveals how in a world disintegrating into rioting, where the established laws mean nothing any more, the egomaniacs and power-hungry are left an open space in which they can write new rules and systems to create their own new world order. Further mention must go to Emma Pritchard, who maintains the slightly unhinged yet ethereal presence of a whore with the tongue of Shakespeare, trapped in a world which is at once make believe, yet her reality.
The play continually questions the fragility of the real world, most explicitly when the sweating Judge wrings his hands as Regina, the star prostitute (performed with playful menace by Olivia Steatham) half-refuses to fulfil her ‘function’ as a criminal, and so he cries out ‘if you stop being a thief I cease to be a judge!’. The audience are asked again and again to question these masculine roles of authority and how they are constructed through convention, and society’s compliance. ‘What would happen if we chose to not recognise those roles?’, the audience ask, as footage of the 2011 riots, a not-so-subtle reminder of potential, rolls in the background.
Credit must be given to the production team for emphasising the trope of real/unreal throughout the play, as the audience is left with a sense of the stage world and reality blurring: onstage mirrors reflect fragments of audiences feet, elbows, and tops of heads, and a finishing flourish – and a witty use of technology by director Bhagchandani – turns the audiences’ gaze fully back onto ourselves.
But don’t be put off by the philosophical bent of the piece, there is also plenty of dark humour (especially from Louise Bastock’s housemistress, Irma) and spectacle to carry the heavy prose along, making The Balcony a great example of excellent fringe theatre.
Tickets are £8 for students, and beers are only £3 from the house bar. Not a bad price for a great night out.