Theatre Sarrasine Lyric, Hammersmith
Friday 20 September 1996
Such are the bare bones of Balzac's powerful short story. Neil Bartlett and Nicolas Bloomfield, respectively the author / director and composer of this glorious, haunting and witty stage treatment of the piece, have surrounded this central narrative with a much more elaborate frame than you get in the original.
In a conceit that reminds one a little of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, it imagines La Zambinella having survived for two and a half centuries. The show focuses on a midnight assignation in a ruined Parisian theatre between this egregious creature, who appears in triplicate as his youthful, middle- aged and ancient selves, and Mme de Rochefide (excellent Sara Kestelman). As a young woman back in the 1950s, she had heard La Zambinella's last concert and since then, though she has engaged in casual affairs, the ideal represented by the perfection of that voice has held her in thrall. No other person could live up to it. The point is, can Zambinella?
As the story of Sarrasine is re-enacted for this demanding worshipper, with pastiches of the operas in which the eunuch-diva starred and with Kestelman conscripted into the title role, you realise that Mme de Rochefide is both a second Sarrasine, a hoodwinked victim of illusion, and a distorted image of Zambinella "herself", in that her life too has been neutered in the service of an ideal. The tricky power relations between artist and fan - which can mirror those of prostitution or of malign sorcery - are arrestingly teased out here in a play that resembles a string of glittering conceits reflected in a hall of mirrors.
This is a show that likes to strike an operatic pose and then ram a louche tongue in its cheek, lunging from bel canto to music hall, Maria Callas to Marie Lloyd in the swish of an ostrich feather fan and the flick of a pink light. The three performers who portray the diva handle these tonal shifts with a wonderfully defiant bravura: the androgynously stunning Francois Testory slithers around a range that encompasses falsetto and tenor; Beverley Klein is the feisty Piaf-ish midlifer; and Bette Bourne is in triumphant form as Zambinella at 260, showing you not just the mocking wrecked-drag-queen regality of this knowing old pro, but the fear and the inner desert.
The show is full of thought-provoking ideas, like the counterpointing of Klein as Bellini's Norma, knife raised over her sleeping children, with Bourne recollecting the brutal surgery that enabled him to play such parts. Never mind if this is a bit shaky as opera history, the picture it presents of reality sacrificed so as to concoct the double illusion of a man playing a fictively empowered woman is a potent one. Paste, as somebody says, looks better under theatre lights than genuine diamonds.
n To 12 October. Booking: 0181-741 2311
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stephen Fry ‘criticises Operation Yewtree in dinner party rant’ calling for tougher laws to deter false sex abuse allegations
- 2 Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
- 3 Israel-Gaza conflict: ‘Sderot cinema’ image shows Israelis with popcorn and chairs 'cheering as missiles strike Palestinian targets'
- 4 War is war: Why I stand with Israel
- 5 Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
War is war: Why I stand with Israel
7/7 memorial defaced on anniversary of 2005 attacks with ‘Blair lied thousands died’ graffiti
Australia facing international condemnation after turning around Sri Lankans at sea
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
Socialist Worker called to apologise over ‘vile’ article saying Eton schoolboy Horatio Chapple's death is ‘reason to save the polar bears’