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
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 2 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 3 Dakota Johnson's 'It's only Isis' Saturday Night Live sketch sparks controversy
- 4 Robert Mugabe eats a zoo for 'obscene' 91st birthday party
- 5 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
EastEnders may bring transgender character to Albert Square to challenge 'traditional' viewers
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'