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'The Greatest Play Of All Time' Review: A Blistering Love-Letter To Theatre and Greatness

"A 75-minute long blistering take-down of theatre culture in the UK."


I remember reading Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author way back in high school. Yes, I read it. Did not perform it, or see it being performed. But the act of reading a play this psychologically absurd was something that left an indelible mark on my subsequent academic career as a student of literature. For a long time, I have thought of the textual slippages that get lost in reading the play as a text, as opposed to a piece that is meant to be performed. While watching Claddagh Productions’ The Greatest Play Of All Time, I kept thinking of that first experience of reading Pirandello’s masterpiece - primarily for two reasons.

Martin Coates and Lorne Macnaughton in 'The Greatest Play of All Time'. Image by Dark Room Productions.

First, the a very obvious similarity between the two plays. If Pirandello's play had the characters of an unfinished play turning up at the doorstep of a production team, asking for a narrative absolution, this play written by Robin Hughes follows the story of two characters (1 & 2) inside the head of a Writer (whom we never meet) as they ponder their narrative fates and outcomes. Beyond this narrative strain, there was also the constant bugging thought of the sheer fun of an exercise that would be dissecting this play line-by-line, not as a performance piece but as a text – meant to be written and analyzed. This is a testament to the richness of the writing by Hughes who is the real star of this 75-minute long blistering take-down of theatre culture in the UK.

 

Starring Martin Coates and Lorne MacNaughton, the play unfolds against the backdrop of a bare white space, with a single table and two chairs for company. 1 & 2, two men presented to us in mandarin-collared, cream-coloured shirts and black belted pants tell us that they are unformed characters/ideas in the heads of a Writer. The Writer, we learn, is attempting to write a play about two estranged brothers, reunited again over questions of their mother’s suicide and their father’s inheritance. There are multiple hints towards a past act of sexual assault, but the writing leaves enough ambiguity to keep us guessing till the very end as to whether what transpired between the two brothers was an act of passion or violence. As the Writer, in the world beyond the immediate stage, contemplates the fate of these two “characters” before us, we see multiple enactments of a singular plot line that takes the shape of a wide range of performance styles - from Shakespearean theatrics to kitchen-sink naturalism.


Lorne Macnaughton in 'The Greatest Play of All Time.' Image by Dark Room Productions.

But beyond the stylistic experimentation of narrative possibilities (performed with deadpan hilarity by the actors) TGPOAT soon takes the shape of an extended commentary on the very nature of theatre culture in the modern world. In a day and age where fascist regimes and wars are sweeping the lives of people across the globe, there is an unsaid expectation of our artists to say something. It is an almost visceral bid to make us, the consumers of their art, believe that these artists stand for something and that the often debated frivolity of their art does not divorce them from the relevance of actual, real events of life and death. But when does this need to say something or do something of relevance, turn into a gimmick? Does making a play on intersectional queer lives warrant critical adulation? Or does a satire on neo-colonial violence warrant immortality in the public memory? TGPOAT leaves no stone unturned in provoking its viewers into engaging with these - often deeply unsettling - questions.


Even as the play veers into questions of thematic choices and merit, it never misses a beat to question the current state of its form and genre. Questions about the run of productions like Wicked are brazenly thrown around - as the characters reduce to bare rubble the sensational musical hit. And just as it leaves you pondering over the implications of such a tongue-in-cheek moment, the characters on stage veer the conversation towards something even darker. Thoughts from the deepest, darkest recesses of creative minds are given shape as 1 and 2 begin discussing which of them is more dear to their Writer, and if they have any agency for their fate to begin with. Eventually, the viewer realises that this play is little more than an hour-long fever dream, deliberately designed to disorient the viewers.

Claiming to be the greatest of all time, annoys you into contemplating the very construct of greatness.

If you feel yourself losing track of the winding conversations, or even being thrown off by the biting homoeroticism between the leads (further exacerbated by the box-like claustrophobia of the room at hand) then hang on. That is exactly what this play is trying to do. Claiming to be the greatest of all time, annoys you into contemplating the very construct of greatness. Is it possible to be born great? Is it possible to achieve greatness alone? Can greatness ever be thrust upon someone? But, like the very Shakespeare that it tries to parody, the play itself is never often an easy answer.


Even in its most violent moments, there is great tenderness at the heart of this production by Callum Sharp and it is this tender depth that lingers with you long after the actors take their last bow. TGPOAT will unfortunately, true to its scathing satire, not be seen by many. But if you read this review, let me urge you to go watch this hour-long shocker. It is one of the most scathing, and eventually devastating, love letters I have come across to a performance form that is as old as civilization itself.



 

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor

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