The hardest thing to capture in a revival of any "controversial" play is its initial shock value. From The Playboy of the Western World to Look Back in Anger, subsequent generations have acknowledged the well-recorded uproar intellectually, while perhaps feeling shortchanged by the absence of any heightened emotional feeling at the curtain call. Snoo Wilson's Pignight is such a play.
When the play first appeared, in 1971, questions were asked in the House of Commons about funding for such a depraved piece. Hardened Martin McDonagh veterans (or, indeed, even those familiar with the victuals of Dr Hannibal Lecter) may well wonder what all the fuss is about as Wilson's characters tuck into a bucket of bloody offal or have their own livers fried in a bout of really rather tastefully staged butchery.
In fairness, it is the humanity of Wilson's humour that keeps the outrage at bay, rather than the passage of time. The intellectual boxes of frogs that are his plays hook an audience first and foremost with their coarse and black laughs. (I am still smiling at his "Christ on a bike" gag - James Nesbitt as Jesus, riding a racing bicycle - from Darwin's Flood 10 years ago.)
In Pignight, Smitty, a mentally disturbed farm worker (Gary Kemp) returns to the farm where he had been fostered only to find his step-parents have emigrated to Australia. The farm is now in the hands of Bravington (Kemp doubling up) a madly unethical intensive farmer and his psychotic hoodlum Ray (played by the writer). Haunted by the voices of the pigs and their desire to rise up and take over the world, he is driven to unspeakable acts.
Anthony Banks's fast-moving 60-minute production (rewrites have shaved 30 minutes off the original) sustains Wilson's firework display beautifully. Wilson, naturally, knows how to wring the best out of his own dialogue, and Kemp plays Smitty with an affecting bewilderment. Paul Freeman (reprising his roles from the original production) is hilarious dragged up as Jasmine. But the key to the success of such a revival is its continued relevance. And although Pignight is a wee bit dated, its theme - the dangerously unscrupulous practice of factory farming - is as Millennial an issue as they come.
The new company Cactus Productions has set out its stall to revive works of interest once considered ahead of their time but now fallen out of the repertoire. It's a bold move: their success is very much out of the company's hands, in that it can stand only in a climate where new writing that is, in its turn, ahead of these times has room to flourish.
It has, however, done well to give us another look at this dynamic ideas play, and in such a good production, too. Wilson once wrote that he'd often considered restaging Pignight when "in his cups". Perhaps Cactus could buy him a pint and talk about Darwin's Flood.
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