There are some theatre performances that stay in the mind long after you have experienced them, and one of mine is the 2001 premiere of Justin Butcher’s play Scaramouche Jones.
It was directed by Rupert Goold, and in it he late Pete Postlethwaite gave one of his best portrayals as the tragi-comic clown, a hundred years old, with seven white masks on his face. I only saw it once, in Leeds, but have never forgotten it, although, of course, time obscures the more specific details.
Here, Shane Richie assumes the role of Jones in a digital revival, directed by Ian Talbot. Without an audience, he conveys intimacy by speaking directly into camera at key points, at close range, and by having his final eighty minutes on this earth, just as the year 1999 gives way to 2000, recorded by a security camera stamped with time and date.
Performing this role is a huge undertaking: it is a solo piece of deeply complex prose (referring to the text from the production twenty years ago I can see some words and sections have been excised or moved, but the meat of the script remains).
Born to a gypsy whore in Trinidad, 1899, begat by one of her many customers – possibly an English visitor – young Scaramouche grows and develops through many trials in his first few years and into his first half-century.
However, instead of developing a thick skin in adversity he instead assumes visible white masks which layer upon each other as he goes on his travels. Whether weatherbeaten, scorched, or frozen, each mask tells its story and shapes the character.
Some of his experiences are definitely on the comic spectrum, although there is always a conclusion whereby some great calamity consumes him. Even the small details get noticed and commented upon to take us into each scene.
One comment I would make is that the music within this piece is often pitched too loud: in particular, a scene of shattering poignancy is partly lost as the speech is drowned out, and that is something of a shame, and perhaps a case of less is more.
Scaramouche Jones proves the exception to the rule of ‘show, not tell’, as this is nothing more than one man, in one place, describing the events of his life – but it is a tribute to the writing of Butcher, the direction of Talbot, and the playing of Richie, that it works, and that the pictures being described are so artfully constructed we feel we are transported to each place the clown finds himself.
The ‘tears of a clown’ is an often overused short-cut to move into serious topics with a light touch. Here, Richie’s performance in the major part of the play is that of a vaudeville performer, punctuating his speeches with guttural hums and has, grunts and grimaces.
He conveys perfectly the tired body of an old man, with a mind sharp enough but dulled by harsh treatment and disturbing memories, yet where events do become serious, even horrific, they are recounted in a matter of fact way which is extremely effective.
I missed the stage ending, with the candle blown out and the festivities of New York fireworks and chimes of Big Ben heard in the darkness, but the alternative here is appropriate to the medium of digital and done very well.
We feel we have been privileged to spend time in this man’s company, and honored to hear his story: and, as in the theatre, it comes across very much as a one to one, conspiratorial confession, as quiet as can be and as devastating as the glare of the white mask under a stage lamp.
This is a triumphant revival, and I welcome this play back with open arms. It will not dispel the memory of seeing it live on stage – and perhaps it shouldn’t – but this is a superior piece of drama bursting with frank observations and honest delivery which I definitely recommend you watch.
Scaramouche Jones streams until 11 April and tickets can be purchased at stream.theatre.
Image credit: Bonnie Britain
LouReviews received complimentary access to review Scaramouche Jones.