The outstanding final night of Tom Morris’ The Grinning Man (GM) at Bristol Old Vic left the crowd upstanding. It is a three-hour epic that at every moment foregrounds its own relationship to an industry of theatre stretching back and beyond Shakespeare. GM, a masterpiece devised, revised and perfected over a five-year creative process, has made its entrance boldly onto the English stage.
The play is topologically powerful. Flung out to the West of England, Bristol Old Vic becomes the venue of a political and artistic devolution away from the capital, London. With actors stolen from the theatrical hubs of Stratford and the Southbank, GM plays a political melody that has for its harmonic ground a strong consciousness of the city’s historical, commercial and maritime past.
This is the first of two remarkably well-executed forms of temporal play. With vestiture and verbal verisimilitude to a mediæval past, GM disavows its own modernity to treat itself, humorously, as an old play with present pertinence. Stokes Croft, Bristol’s Bartholomew Fair, home to the crippled and deformed, is swept away at the play’s end: the ragged victim of a new Queen’s urban development programme. It’s mediæval mockery of modern gentrification.
The fervour with which the play makes reference to its own theatrical status also reflects a Bristolian energy for artistic recognition. The audience watch play within play, recalling Sly from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and the Citizen in Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. But GM seeks to surpass these sister plays. At times, we witness four layers of dramatical play, as the actors act out their pasts using mesmerising puppets that themselves wield puppets. Emphasising spectacle in this way only puts greater emphasis and importance on the Bristolian audience. These aren’t Londoners seeing theatre taken to new levels of complexity. Dramatical virtuosity and layering is kudos reflected back on this city’s audience.
The second form of temporal playing at which GM excels is its execution of the flashback. The narrative itself occupies two times: that which follows the death of King Clarence and a series of events unfolding on one night 20 years prior. GM manages to achieve on stage what few directors have achieved cinematically. The events of this portentous night, central to Grinpayne’s (the grinning man himself) sense of identity are played out in front of the audience as a repeated flashback, the details of which gradually emerge and develop. The meticulous actors phantasmically drift into positions onstage, consistent each and every time, and chart the central character’s recollection. The grace and clarity of these flashbacks, characterised by ease of execution and effortless blending, make Morris’ direction well-deserving of praise.
The play is not without its set-backs. Despite its importance to the opted-for denouement, we could happily lose the rhetoric of self-discovery to which Grinpayne is so partial. It feels too Disneyfied. Indeed, his character would benefit more generally from more grit and less gallantry. It is unfortunate that GM is, ultimately, another play that has at its core yet another young male actor, with pop-ish voice and good looks (despite, of course, the horrendous facial scars), and whose bildungsroman, framed in a picaresque of catchy musical numbers, culminates in his walking arm-in-arm next to his diminutive, supportive (and supporting) princess through a sea (literally: the audience) towards some imagined sunset.
This begins to get at the greater disappointment, that this ‘macabre new musical’ doesn’t have the balls to really challenge traditional narrative rules at all, even if it does challenge and develop other theatrical tropes. That the disfigured hero, Beast if-you-will, marries his Beauty, whilst his adversaries live, forgiven, seems to go across the grain of the rest of the play, which is refreshingly punctuated with sharp colloquialisms such as ‘Fuck me!’ and ‘No Shit’. It ends a little like Hamlet would end if the Prince wasn’t poisoned, Horatio’s mortal wound proved otherwise, and Gertrude had a crisis of conscience and decided to institute a constitutional monarchy. Likewise, the clown’s prologue, which promises a dystopia in which laughter at others is ‘the only medicine’, seems to be forgotten by the play’s end, which ends in happy, PG-rated conclusive smiles. GM would have stood out if it had persisted with a socially dystopic narrative that didn’t give Jack his Jill.
Ultimately, GM excelled in its musicality and puppetry; its more Shakespearean moments of dialogue and acting were somewhat weaker. It ought to have been for its narrative and theatrical originality, rather than for well-orchestrated musical hits that left the audience in rapturous applause, that the play earned its warm praise.
Nevertheless, The Grinning Man is assured a future of national success. But it’s almost a shame that when it moves away from Bristol, the power the play draws on from the relationship between city and script will necessarily be reduced.