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Noonday Demons

Peter Barnes
Rough Haired Pointer
Kings Head Theatre

Noonday Demons

Would you know the voice of God if you heard it? Or the voice of the Devil? Religious fanatics feel certain. These days we still tragically know what that can lead to, but it has been the same down the centuries.

Peter Barnes’s Noonday Demons takes us back to the fourth century and a cave in the Egyptian desert with a great pile of petrified shit a prominent feature. It has been produced by a holy hermit, one Eusebius, who is destined for sainthood.

The early Church produced several St Eusebius from bishops to a Syrian hermit like this one who is standing waiting in near-naked penance, his wrists manacled and chains round his festering body. He has been here for thirteen years living on a diet of muddy water and a ration of seven black olives daily.

That doesn’t sound much fun but Barnes himself said his plays aimed to “create a comic theatre of contrasting moods and opposites, where everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous.” And, you know, in that he succeeded.

This isn’t so much laugh-out-loud funny as a bubbling amusement (though the press night did get some raucous reactions) and an appreciation of cleverness as you wonder what will come next from this intriguing character.

Between Latin prayers and metal-chain flagellation, Eusebius can converse in the strange, squeaky language of angels. Like his famous forerunner St Anthony, he is tempted by the Devil with visions (projected onto his dung pile). Satan speaks in a strange, strangled cockney through Eusebius’s own mouth as he offers him wealth, lust satisfied and power in an apparition of papacy.

It is a bravura performance by Jordan Mallory-Skinner as St Eusebius: a forty-minute solo turn before another almost identical hermit turns up.

The new arrival with the same tattered skirt, filthy body, matted beard and penitential chains says it is now his cave. This is St Pior—and there was a real hermit of that name, a disciple of St Anthony who lived n a cave in Egypt’s Baid Desert.

Jake Curran delivers another compelling performance as this new recluse, a former tutor to the Emperor Theodosius. The two challenge each other for the right to remain there, contending in suffering, levitation skills and holiness. When it comes to the crunch, who will be prepared to kill for Christ?

Fight director Henry Devas has devised a dangerous struggle fought out in a mist cut though by Seth Rook Williams’s lighting, an explosion of violence in Mary Franklin’s carefully modulated production which pares things down to essentials in Christopher Hone’s setting and Balbina Garcia’s minimal costumes.

It runs ninety minutes, all bizarrely compelling. When first staged at Charles Marowitz and Thelma Holt’s Open Space in 1969, it was paired with Barnes’s Leonardo's Last Supper; people perhaps had a bigger theatrical appetite 45 years ago, but this presentation doesn’t leave you feeling short-changed.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton