Merlin Betts Previews the Peter Shaffer double-bill

Directed here by Leigh Shine, to be performed at the Stables Theatre

Now, the word “farce” doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. Apart from having long roots, possibly tracing back to late medieval religious theatre, it’s not about things going wrong. It’s about overexaggerated, absurdly funny performance. It takes skill and preparation to be that outrageous. So, for example, our current political situation shouldn’t be farcical to most people – the actors are all terrible and the exaggeration too ordinary. It’s silly, but it’s not good enough to be a proper farce. But White Liars and, in particular, Black Comedy, are farcical in all the right ways. 

PICTURE: Peter Mould

White Liars was a troublesome starting project for the playwright Peter Shaffer: he rewrote it three times to get it to where it is now – tempered by performances and the author’s repeated discomfort. It’s a one-act piece following a struggling fortune teller, who resides in a seaside resort that’s seen better days. Maybe there’s something more for us there than its rude original billing as a “curtain-raiser” for Black Comedy, at least in its connection to seaside strangeness and vanished empires. 

Black Comedy on the other hand is classic, and has even been hailed as “[One of] the funniest and most brilliant short plays in the language”. Shaffer’s core idea with it was to use inverse lighting to do a farce. In other words, large parts of the play happen ‘in the dark’ (during a power cut) but it’s during these sections that the theatre lights are up; and when the characters have light returned to them, the theatre lights go down. They act blind in the light and all-seeingin the dark. This is because what happens in the dark can be hilarious, but we never get to see it – it’s dark. Not so with this production.

In my opinion, Shaffer’s instincts were entirely right here: farce and ‘complete darkness’ work really well together. Sadly I wasn’t there to see exactly how Leigh Shine’s production will manage the play’s sometimes precise lighting changes, as the preview I attended was still early days – the cast’s second time rehearsing on stage, their first time rehearsing with large parts of the set present. This wasn’t immediately evident however. Even rehearsing late on a weeknight, most of the actors’ enthusiasm and grasp of the script seemed strong, and their early interactions with the set (vital for a comedy based on dark acting) showed a good perception of…well, imperception, and how funny it can be when carefully timed. Clearly they benefitted from Leigh’s decision to hold some rehearsals blindfolded. 

Talking about the rehearsal process of a different and earlier production of Black Comedy, Kenneth Tynan said “this was farce rehearsed in farce conditions”. Regardless of whether he meant that as a compliment, I think with this kind of play it must be a positive. There’s something about a good farce that can’t fail to bring out its actors’ natural sense of silliness and fun, and as the evening of my preview went on I was reassured to find everyone shifting into their roles and mirroring their characters’ peculiarities, even in breaks. I expect this’ll be an excellent running of a very well-conceived piece of theatre.

• White Liars and Black Comedy will be showing at the Stables Theatre in the Old Town from 5th to 13th April, usually beginning at 19.30.

• For more information on Leigh Shine’s previous work, Price on Application, look up our preview here and review here

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