Rude, ribald and risqué

2011-04-22 08:26

What is the relevance of a play that explores the self-indulgent lives of an upper crust English couple and their blue-collar counterparts to ­contemporary South Africa?

Quite a lot, unsurprisingly.

Consider the sex and money scandals that continue to fill our news ­pages as politicians and business folk consume conspicuously – ­everything from sexual partners, cash from the state coffers to body-warmed sushi.

Decadence, written by Steven Berkoff and first performed in the early 1980s, is unashamedly ribald and risque, exploring the sexual habits of the two disparate classes.

Their sexual proclivities are a ­clever (and memorable) way for the writer to illuminate his ­characters’ prejudices, mindsets and immoral compasses too.

Just short of a decade ago two of South Africa’s finest actors – Michael Richard and Fiona Ramsay – brought Decadence to our stage.

Their performances were so spectacular and shockingly funny that I was somewhat reticent to see a new version of this saucy tale, which is told throughout in ­rhyming couplets.

The new-generation cast, Emily Child and Scott Sparrow, almost fill the killer stilettos and leather thongs that went before, bringing a different energy to the piece thanks to their youth.

The action follows the intimate conversations and sexual shenanigans of two couples – Helen and Steve are the idle rich, she a signed up member of the mink-and-manure set, he an impoverished upper class toff.

They are having an affair, which threatens Steve’s income stream provided by his nouveau riche wife Sybil.

Sybil meanwhile hires a dubious fellow, whom she calls her ­Desperate Dan, to get proof of ­Steve’s infidelity and whom she takes as an ­obedient lover into the bargain.

The play calls for tremendous dexterity from the pair of actors.

They have to flip from being a posh couple in a Mayfair flat, to a ­working class couple in a suburban house.

The only prop is a tatty ­two-seater sofa and the location and character changes are effected with a burst of music, a lowering of the lights and the two actors moving in slow motion into a new pose.

Child – decked out in a tight black velvet dress, thigh-high black stockings and a string of pearls – effortlessly slips from the rounded vowels of the aristocracy to the flattened ones of the working classes.

She gets the perfect ­balance, capturing the essence of both female characters.

Sparrow is a little less steady, his Steve outstrips his ill-bred opposite number. He seems more comfortable adjusting his tuxedo and quaffing cocktails.

However, in fairness to Sparrow the play’s most memorable scene – in which Helen acts out the sweaty, almost sexual, ­satisfaction of a fox hunt while mounted on ­Steve’s willing ­back – belongs to the female actor of the piece.

British theatre critic, Aleks ­Sierz, author of In Yer Face Theatre, explains Berkoff’s dramatic style perfectly: “The language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each another, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly ­violent.

“At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: ­either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen, and want all their friends to see it too.”

Decadence is the eternal battle of the classes – and the sexes – made wanton flesh, and Berkoff’s ­incredibly clever, rudely blue rhyming prose demands the soul of any actor who attempts to ­deliver it.

On balance, Sparrow and Child have the balls required to pull off this delightful debauchery. ­

Perhaps our very own dissolute classes will recognise themselves in the characters and be suitably ashamed, but don’t bet your tax ­rebate on it.

» Decadence is on at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square in Sandton until Saturday.

011 883 8606 to book

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