By Brian Lipson and Sir Francis Galton
Sometimes you leave a theatre really grateful that you were able to spend a fleeting portion of your life engaged by a brilliant performance. You feel a shift in your thought processes, you feel challenged by a production, and it is exhilarating and fulfilling. As the applause died down after Brian Lipson’s one-man show, the man next to me breathed ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before’, and there were similar comments from others nearby. Lipson’s performance had enthralled the audience and we shuffled out of the theatre in a state of awe. Indeed, I felt panicked at the prospect of having to write about this play, which had consumed me to such an extent that I felt muddled and overwhelmed afterwards.
A Large Attendance in the Antechamber is about Sir Francis Galton (1822 – 1911). Google this man and you will see the enormous volume of work he produced in the fields of anthropology, geography, meteorology, genetics, and psychology, among others. The cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was a child prodigy who could read by the age of two and made remarkable contributions throughout his life, but he is now remembered mainly as the pioneer of eugenics (the science of improving a race through selective breeding). The principles of eugenics have since been used most notably by Hitler during the Holocaust, and also to justify other atrocities—ethnic cleansing projects, KKK activity, and the removal of ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children from their parents, to name a few. Galton’s ideas arguably sprung from an idealistic impulse to perfect and strengthen the human race, but are now regarded as responsible for some of the most appalling acts of the modern world.
So, why see a play about him?
Primarily, because he is insanely interesting as a figure of destructive genius. And also because the eugenic legacy lives on—both in the residual trauma of past eugenic projects and in the fierce debate that rages still over questions of genetic engineering. Having expected a play about history, I was instead confronted with a show that, in fact, has as much to do with slippery present issues as it has to do with the past (stay alert for a momentary but pointed reference to 9/11).
This past/present duality is skilfully woven into the play’s writing. Lipson doesn’t just take on Galton’s character and ask the audience to suspend disbelief—he plays Galton being channelled through the body of Lipson from beyond the grave. Galton thus scoffs at, and gradually removes, Lipson’s costume. He draws attention to the inadequacy of the actor and the theatrical mode as a whole. And, ultimately, the show works towards a frenzy in which Lipson and Galton do battle in the same body, blurring the lines between one another as they try to outwit and undermine each other’s message. A truly bizarre spectacle, matched only by the eccentric character of Galton himself, who works furiously, constantly, obsessively at various whimsical inventions throughout the show.
Worthy of mention also are the props and set. As well as performing it, Brian Lipson wrote and designed the play, and this unity of purpose is evident at every turn. The stage is reduced to a cramped little cube from which Galton hauls object after object, constructing apparatus for demonstrating his theories. It is a claustrophobic puppet box of sorts, coffin-like, but also designed to play on notions of puppetry (at one point a white screen transforms it into a modified Punch and Judy shadow-puppet show) and control. Is Lipson controlling Galton, or is it the other way around? And is the notion of play-acting a real historical figure in a theatre any more than a puppet-show spectacle anyway?
From time to time an animated Galton climbs out of his box to interact with the audience. While audience involvement often runs the risk of falling flat or being cheesy, the audience in this case was delighted. Lipson really is a top-class actor and he excels in the improvisational moments that the script demands. His performance is inspired and deserving of the critical acclaim that it has garnered on tour.
A Large Attendance in the Antechamber hurls many questions into the ether. One could write essays on the scientific and philosophical conundrums it poses. Aside from its intellectual challenge though, it is seriously FUN. It has the quality of a sort of magic show—unpredictable, furiously paced, hilarious, ridiculous—and yet, haunted particularly by a projected composite photograph of Jewish boys, it simultaneously holds immense power to chill and disturb.
Directors: Lucy Bailey, Phelim McDermott, Susie Dee
Playing until 9 September 2007: Tues – Sat 8pm, Sun 9 September 6pm
Running time: 90 mins