Continuing West of West’s coverage of Uno Fest, we are turning our sites on Julian Cervello’s award-winning, Pick of the Fringe production Canterbury Cocktails. For those unfamiliar with Uno Fest in general, it focuses entirely on one-person shows – performances that create an intimate connection between the audience and the actor alone on that big, empty stage. Over the course of this next week and a half West of West’s intrepid reviewers will be taking a closer look at a number of shows that we thought looked particularly promising.

 

 

The Minstrel Comes to Town

 

I once had a director tell me that only 20% of communication comes from the lines an actor says on stage. For the most part, ideas are communicated to the audience through tone, action, context, emotion, facial expression, etc. I’m not entirely certain how precise that statistic is but this idea is often embraced in Shakespearean theatre where the words, idioms, and style are all rather alien to the audience. Julian Cervello’s play Canterbury Cocktails is an absolute extreme experiment on this idea. Julian is not content to play with Shakespearean language. No, he has chosen to go much, much further back. Canterbury Cocktails is performed entirely in Middle English. And having seen the show, I can confidently call this experiment a success.

Canterbury Cocktails is an adaptation of Chaucer’s “General Prologue” from his Canterbury Cocktails, a section of the poem that many of us will recognize from 12th Grade English Lit or first year classes. For those who need a quick recap, in the prologue, Chaucer introduces each of the characters who are traveling with him on a pilgrimage through England. Being the brilliant satirist that he was, Chaucer cunningly lampoons his fellow travelers, revealing each of their individual idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies one by one. This production then is really a series of character sketches based off cultural stereotypes that Chaucer’s original audience would have immediately recognized.

When you enter the theatre to find a seat, listen closely. When I went for the first performance – last night – it took me a few moments to place that slightly bombastic music. It’s actually the soundtrack to Dr. Who, a particularly sly reference to the time warp in which this play is stuck. The production really does take you back in time, as opposed to simply giving you a window on the past. Julian is a clever performer and slowly draws you into the pace and accent of the time until, by the end, the audience really seemed to have an excellent grasp of everything that he said without much guesswork or illustration.

And Julian is very good with these illustrations. He uses every trick in the book in order to get his meaning across to the audience, from broad physical comedy to a bit of puppetry. There is a style of acting often seen in Shakespearean comedy in which an actor physically acts out every last image in the lines in order to ram home the meaning. Julian employs this style but where it is overkill in Shakespeare it is quite welcome in Chaucer, allowing us to follow his meaning through language that can at times be rather opaque. Julian is also wise enough to know that this style of acting can be quite distracting and so as the play progresses, once the audience gets into the swing of things, he moves away from it into more traditional character acting and storytelling. Julian’s physical acting is actually incredibly helpful in infusing the play with some really entertaining moments. Occasionally Chaucer’s original comedy – hilarious if you have the footnotes – does not really carry nowadays. The medieval cultural references are many centuries out of date and so Julian covers over these parts with quite impressive performances.

Julian’s talent for acting out the various characters (of both sexes) is very strong. He clearly delineates each of these without sacrificing any entertainment value. With so many characters in this play it is difficult to pick a stand-out but certainly The Prioress, and The Summoner were ones to watch out for along with The Wife of Bath – a character Julian will be reprising in the upcoming Fringe show The Wyf of Bathe. He cleverly moves between Chaucer’s ironic portraits of the characters and the characters’ own voices adding fascinating layers to the piece. He also adeptly uses his own body as a canvas on which to depict the characters, skilfully using a basic costume to depict each character uniquely.

Ultimately this is a fascinating project and a remarkable, uncommon piece of theatre. The fact that it is technically in a different language will put off some. Don’t let it. Middle English, when it is spoken aloud, quickly betrays how close it is to modern English. By the end of the play, Julian simply sounds like a man with an accent. He has also created a great brochure that gives a bit of background and glosses some of the words, giving the audience immediate access to the piece. Julian has clearly done a vast amount of research and work on this project and has created a intriguing and unique piece of theatre that really ought to be seen to be believed.

 

- Thomas Stuart