views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Demetrius Unchained
Etcetera Theatre
22nd August 2014


Publicity image for Demetrius Unchained

Photography supplied by Gulliver Bell

While we're waiting for Demetrius Unchained to start, we observe a man sitting on stage wearing a bow tie, which as all Matt Smith aficionados know, makes him a) a Doctor and b) eccentric. It turns out we're spot on with our suppositions, and this is Doctor Goodfellow (Martin Stewart), an expert in the science of human brains. He's come here today to tell us about one of his more unusual cases - yes, it's show and tell time.

The plot unravels with the strictest of patient confidentiality, with the good doctor carefully anonymising all the people he talks about. However, just as his tie tipped us off as to his identity, the letters he uses give us a clue as to the story. Shakespeare's Demetrius, if you recall, abandoned Helena in favour of Hermia and then after a bit of fairy dust and all that, ended up going back to Helena. As Patient D (Joao Diogo) talks about leaving his girlfriend H in the woods to chase after H2 instead, we get a sense of where the company are going with the storyline. This is a quirky little piece, but it does draw inspiration from a rather more traditional source.

The way in which the action switches from real time to flashback and how it inconsistently breaks the fourth ball gives rise to confusion, not helped by a weird examination of the patient by the doctor wearing an odd beak-like mask. The tone is uneven, but the company are pitching for an overall surreal theatrical experience and they do achieve that - in spades. With only two actors billed, Diogo lifts up the floor and uses planks of food to represent the two Hs in his life. To his credit, the actor plays against literally wooden counterparts very well, not letting the lack of reaction put him off.

Demetrius Unchained is a very overblown and largely comedic play, but some of the humour doesn't quite land. Doctor Goodfellow seemingly talks about experiments just so Patient D can utter the line "I am a man, not a mouse." However, despite the preparation, the joke doesn't get the laughs. When Patient D explains how he got in a fight, he proclaims, "I am an actor, I know how to say one thing and mean something else." Again, it instinctively feels like we should be laughing, but the overwhelming reaction thoughout is bafflement. Never mind Patient D, at times we feel like we're the ones who have been drugged.

With that said, there are some nice touches in this largely devised piece. Initially it seems like Doctor Strangefellow just likes the sound of his own voice, but chatting about three other patients so when he comes to talk about a fourth we're onto D - for Demetrius - is clever. A Midsummer Night's Dream is more ethereal than surreal, but it certainly takes you out of the ordinary and so does this play. The links between the two are clear to anyone who knows Shakespeare's work, and yet Demetrius Unchained does stand on its own. It admittedly makes more sense with the background, but you can absolutely watch it without.

At the very end of the show, we briefly look at some of the issues facing Patient D and indeed Demetrius, but it's all very late and there isn't enough time left to properly delve into these. This is a bizarre and imaginative new work from Gulliver Bell which may or may not make you contemplate consent in the Bard's classic fairytale, but it is guaranteed to make sure you never see Ribena in quite the same light again. It may openly borrow from another work, but it feels original and fresh.

Demetrius Unchained opened on 21st August and runs until 24th August 2014 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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