By BRUCE DENNILL
Bohemian Rhapsody / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Studio, Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Queen’s greatest single musical legacy, Bohemian Rhapsody – the song – remains at or near the top of annual “Best Songs Of All Time, Ever!” lists. This is partly because of it’s pop culture connections (among other things, the headbanging-in-the-car scene in Wayne’s World), partly because of it’s many hooks (there are several parts of it that are impossible to get out of your head) and partly – mostly, perhaps – because of the strange, disconnected, exotic story it tells via its lyrics.
It’s that last facet that forms the basis of Robert Fridjhon’s new one-man show, which the actor and comedian also wrote. And it’s that last-mentioned part of his work on the piece that is monumentally impressive. His imagining of the narrative that formed the basis for the lyric is as intelligent and inventive as his script is layered and textured, requiring focused attention from audience members who want to ensure that they pick up all the cues, clues and references in the text.
The play’s nameless protagonist is an artist, forced to live by his wits when it becomes clear that a reliance on his considerable talent is, sadly, not enough. His focus on his enduring passion – painting – sees him needing to compromise in order to survive. He begins by copying the masters, using his extensive knowledge of art and art history to give his versions an authenticity that makes them popular in informal markets. His success there, however, attracts the attention of an insalubrious sort named Tony, a small-time gangster with a bit of a Renaissance masterpiece fetish.
Throw in a relationship that may be more risky than romantic and Tony’s cyborg-esque henchman Lazarus (so named because he’s impossible to kill) and Fridjhon’s character’s permanent paranoia is understandable.
It would have been easier – and more accessible, should he have wanted to appeal on only a superficial level – for Fridjhon to make his references to the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody obvious and ordered in more or less the sequence they appear in the song.
It would also have been boring.
Instead, by cleverly combining real-time action, flash-backs to the same event (subtly altered each time, allowing for Tony to emerge as a brutally entertaining character, a la Alan Ford’s Brick Top in the Guy Ritchie film Snatch) and the ongoing narration of a letter to the protagonist’s mother, Fridjhon creates a believable, complicated – in the way that the work of Steven Berkoff or Aaron Sorkin is complicated – scenario that compels its audience to lean ever further forward as they try to figure out how the various story threads will be tied up (which they are, in a surprising, satisfying denouement.
There are also a host of art-related references in the set, including to a famous work by Rene Magritte and to one by Tracey Emin (plus the beautiful Turner-tinged sunset visible through a window).
Fridjhon is deservedly highly regarded for his work as a comedy actor, with a succession of farces being among his biggest triumphs to date. But with Bohemian Rhapsody, he announces himself as a formidable writer (the play is not the first he’s written, but it is the best) who, on this evidence, could take South African straight theatre in an exciting new direction that is sure to catch the attention of international producers.