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Theatre in Review: Life According to Saki (Atticist/4th Street Theatre)

Caitlin Thorburn, Tom Machell. Photo: Monica Simoes

Saki, as you may know, is the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro, the Edwardian satirist, who found enduring fame with short stories that quietly chopped away at the manners and mores of stately England in its late afternoon of empire. Part of a closeted cadre of humorists -- including E. F. Benson and Ronald Firbank -- who came of age in the wake of Oscar Wilde's arrest and exile, he frequently got away with literary murder. Many of his stories, especially those featuring the lavender-tinged agent provocateur, Reginald, gloried in tearing little rips in the social fabric; Reginald's encounters with polite society tend to leave behind a trail of pursed lips and disapproving looks. Other stories are overtly savage, ending in death and dismemberment; in "Sredni Vashtar," for example, a young boy, sick of his permanently disapproving aunt, imagines that his polecat-ferret is really an avenging deity; praying to his own personal god, he brings about his aunt's destruction. By the end of the story, the only thing left of her is her hat.

Life According to Saki is an attempt to frame a collection of these tales in a theatrical setting, a task that proves harder than one might imagine. Taking note of the fact that Saki died in World War I (he refused a commission, enlisted as a common soldier, and ended up a lance sergeant) and also something of an enigma (his sister, perhaps fearing a gay scandal, destroyed his papers), the writer Katherine Rundell imagines a trench in France on the day in 1916 when Saki and most of his men were killed. David Paisley, who plays Saki, speaks directly to us and narrates his stories; the rest of the soldiers act them out, using a number of simple story-theatre techniques. This is a rather awkward conceit; for one thing, it requires that several soldiers be played by actresses, in order to have someone for the female roles.

The stories also resist being dramatized. Many of them are remarkably brief -- little more than anecdotes fitted out with O. Henry twists -- and several end before they get going. Among the more amusing are "The Unrest-Cure," in which a bizarre young man invades the home of a middle-class businessman suffering from a touch of ennui, terrorizing him with an invented scenario involving a bishop, mass murder, and a hostage situation. "Sredni Vashtar," which ends with the young boy greeting the news of his aunt's destruction by coolly remarking, "Now there can be jam for tea, forever." "Esmé" the tale of a child-devouring hyena, strains to shock, at least as presented here.

Under the direction of Jessica Lazar, the company is adept at popping in and out of various characters. There are a few felicitous staging moments, for example, when an embrace between two characters is accompanied by fireworks (performed by the rest of the cast) that are quickly overridden by the sound of bombs on the sound system. But in general, Life According to Saki works its framing device rather too relentlessly, repeatedly drawing a contrast between Saki's little black comedies and the wholesale slaughter on the Western Front. You may find yourself leaving the theatre further strengthened in the conviction that Saki's humor is best enjoyed on the page.

If Paisley makes a solid master of ceremonies, the rest of the obviously talented cast often seem to strain when trying to embody the maliciously drawn cartoons Rundell makes of Saki's characters. That their work usually feels more effortful than amusing may have more to do with the intractability of the theatre than any deficiencies in their performances. Still, Life According to Saki produces far fewer moments of amusement than one has a right to expect.

Anna Lewis' set, depicting a trench filled with gunny sacks, certainly fits the bill, and I assume that she also provided the projections, which trade in silhouettes, often looking like the images proffered by the theatre troupe Manual Cinema. The costumes consist mostly of soldiers' uniforms; in "The Unrest-Cure," the young Clovis, who causes all the trouble, pretends to be a Polish prince, donning a costume that makes him look like a hotel bellboy -- which seems like a rather odd choice. David Doyle's lighting and sound are perfectly acceptable.

It's typical on occasions like these to praise the production, saying it will drive more readers to Saki's stories. I wonder if that will be the case here. It certainly demonstrates that the pleasures of Saki are entirely literary -- and one translates them to the stage at one's peril. -- David Barbour

(15 February 2017)

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