Expert Ease

7 November, 2010 at 1:35 pm (performance)

I listened to Roy Smiles’ play Pythonesque on BBC Listen Again a number of weeks back, and I just couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t just the uncomfortable dissonance between the voices of the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus that live in my aural memory and the impressions that were being done for the Radio 4 performance. No, I’d like to think that I can give actors a pass for not totally resembling a real-life person, and when I caught both Eric Idle’s Greedy Bastard Tour many years ago and the more recent An Evening Without Monty Python I found that listening to other people do the lines of established skits didn’t bother me. Their timing, on occasion, sure — the same way that any cover or live version of a song can mess with your internal metronome — but not the voices.

What I believe it reminded me of, more than anything, was my still-smoldering hatred for The Tao of Pooh, which remains, yea these seventeen years after I read it for philosophy class and threw it across my living room in a clichéd but honest fit of pure revulsion, my least favorite text in the English language, beating out the writings of both Dan Brown and Akiva Goldsman. The conversations in Pythonesque were staged in such a way that they felt robotic, both in that they were constructed in ways in which no people had ever talked to one another, and also in that they were jammed full of little notes and lines and references from the show and from the films. This was an attempt to win the audience over, to show that the writer knew the subject matter and to warm the cockles of our nostalgia. Instead, it made it feel to me like a Frankensteinian patchwork of words enjambed together in unnatural ways, with the halting, twitchy cadence of Werner Brandes’ security lapse.

Soon thereafter I had a chance to listen to Good Evening a play featuring a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch as Dudley Moore and three other actors as his comedic contemporaries. Despite having heard most of their names, I have never plumbed the depths of the work of Peter Cook, Moore, and the like; they are regularly namechecked as comedy establishment luminaries, but my instinct has always been that since I was so much a fan of the madcap subversion — by those like the Python troupe — that came after, that I might find them clever… but a little staid. However, I was enjoying the radio play, and it wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that I was suddenly struck by the suspicion that it was by the same author. I was running around in my head how interesting it was that the comedian characters were expressing their personal problems in the style of the style of the sketches they had written when the link suddenly became clear. But while Smiles’ Good Evening pulled this off, it was because it employed structure as artifice. There would be scenes of the characters together, as people, and then it would switch into a sketch narrative that served to illustrate the issues mentioned previously, with the characters playing the roles they’d made famous, but with a heaping dollop of subtext. The Guardian theatre critic says that Pythonesque was written “‘in the style of’ the troupe’s comedy”, which seems to translate into Smiles having the characters constantly whooping, chirping, and dropping references as if they never stopped inhabiting their roles from the television series. And while this might service the fantasies of some Python superfans, it simply doesn’t ring true.

It seems Smiles goes to this well with some regularity… back in 2004 a play of his was produced called Ying Tong that featured the character of Spike Milligan and the various characters he’d played in The Goon Show, with the characters existing within the drama as manifestations of Milligan’s real-life bouts with mental illness. But again, the dramatic conceit here gives license to giving the fans the characters they loved while maintaining the humanity of the actual people behind them. I probably wouldn’t have minded Ying Tong, much in the same way I didn’t mind Good Evening. But my familiarity with The Goons is close to that of my familiarity with Python. I hope to see or hear Smiles’ Milligan play some day, as it might give me better insight as to whether my dislike for Pythonesque is born out of my proximity to the subject matter, or my analysis that while in his other works he constructs theatrical devices to allow for writers and their fictions to coexist.

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1 Comment

  1. Benjamin Russell said,

    What with my familiarity with Python running roughshod over my enjoyment of a dramatization of their lives, I find myself nevertheless intrigued by an announcement of another adaptation, one that plans on recreating the religious-political uproar surrounding the filming and release of Life of Brian. I am hopeful about some of the cast — particularly Steve Punt — who are both good impressionists and good comedians, but worried that I still won’t be able to stop myself from falling into the uncanny valley between still-living icons and imitations thereof.

    More here, including a cast list: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jun/21/bbc-monty-python-life-of-brian

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