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Death of Long Pig

Nigel Planer
JQ Productions in association with Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Death of Long Pig parallels the last day of Scots writer Robert Louis Stevenson on the Pacific island of Samoa with the almost concurrent suicide attempt of French painter Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia.

Author Nigel Planer has wisely chosen to omit the minutiae of the artists' early lives. He plunges in when death is close at hand including what is necessary by way of background to understand the context without risking the decelerating effects of chronological detail.

This is no boring history lesson, then, but an opportunity to observe the artist, facing death, battle–scarred by the compulsion to create against reason.

Stevenson is portrayed as an eccentric who, having travelled extensively for pleasure, for reasons of ill-health has settled for self-exile in the "cloying sensual heat" of Samoa. With a doughty approach to the illness he knows will take him away, he has settled into a community he respects and defends and which reveres him in return.

However, whilst he would finish his days gardening, writing about local anthropology and rehearsing his funeral arrangements, his wife is concerned that his energy be preserved for the "world of the imagination and the inkwell". Their wealth has gone and their genteel lifestyle needs funding with another blockbuster.

By contrast Gauguin went abroad in pursuit of a theosophical ideal but was disappointed and disillusioned with what he found. Planer has him tormented like a caged animal: the environment which he needs in order to paint is also that of a society he despises and whose mores he controverts. To escape this largely self-made trap, having painted his best work, he resolves to commit suicide to the indifference of his young native companion.

Although it is common knowledge that Gauguin suffered depression and was disenchanted with life, Planer has rendered Gauguin's anger and disgust rather unrelenting. In venting his angst on a mixture of absinthe, rum and claret with an arsenic chaser, his argument comes across as the ranting indignation of an alcoholic when it could have provided some elucidation of what this play is really about.

Sean Murray plays the artists. He balances the apparently light–weight dotty Stevenson enjoying disport with a banana pudding with a bitter edged unkindness when required. As the pithier haranguing Gauguin he is suitably unsympathetic, verging on the degenerate.

Amanda Boxer is up to the mark as Stevenson's unhappy American wife, cosseting him whilst also nagging him to write something commercial and suffering his undermining and distasteful flirtations with the maid. In the second act she plays Gauguin's mother–in–law, a surreal sage whose presence textually fails to justify itself.

The Stevenson's maid, Java, is played with due deference by Nicole Dayes who rustles up some terse loathing as the wife of parasitic Gauguin in the second act. She is so spunky, in fact, that one is left wondering why she doesn’t leave the syphilitic wreck. Anthony Ofoegbu is an engaging servant and then neighbour, and both of these characters reveal much about colonisation.

Alex Marker's set transforms effectively from the Stevenson's respectable ex–pat home to Gauguin's squalid penurious hovel supported by evocative sound and lighting design by Andy Evans and James Smith.

Alexander Summers directs this wordy piece. The pace sometimes slackens but, more significantly, less movement might have helped illuminate the path to the essence of this tract.

"Death of Long Pig" plays until 1 August 2009 with evening performances Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm, Sunday matinees at 3.00pm and Saturday matinees at 3.00pm from 18 July

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti