By RELIC BLEDNUN
The Mystery Of Irma Vep / Directed by Elizma Badenhorst / Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
The Mystery Of Irma Vep is, by design, a ridiculous piece of theatre. It’s written for two actors of the same gender, who must play eight characters of various genders – and, occasionally, species. Cross-dressing is a feature and a requirement, as are accents, quick costume changes and a considerable level of fitness. The piece is structured in the style of a Victorian penny dreadful story, and affectionately parodies a number of traditions and genres, from ancient folklore to Hitchcock horror films.
Fitting all of these styles and references into a two-hander is, not surprisingly, a challenge. The actors are assisted by a pair of dressers behind the set, but must otherwise handle all of the many complex interactions with both each other and the props in real time, and fully exposed to the audience.
Jonathan Roxmouth (as Jane Twisden, Lord Edgar and a couple of other minor characters) and Weslee Swain Lauder (as Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid, Alcazar, Pev Amri and one or two others) have an easy chemistry, both look striking in a frock, and have both created separate sets of mannerisms for each character that help to distinguish the protagonists as clearly as their costumes or dialogue.
The pacing of the piece, though, is a consistent problem. Many of the gags feel stretched – initially sharp, and then curiously drawn out to a point where the nub of the joke has expired. A case in point is a scene in which Jane and Enid indulge in a dulcimer duet. Just that concept – two strapping men dressed in Victorian women’s clothing, plucking ungainly instruments while pulling out falsetto harmonies – is hilarious, and to begin with, Roxmouth and Lauder milk the scenario beautifully for all of its absurd humour. But then an appropriate moment to end the piece comes and goes, and the extra couple of minutes’s worth of essentially the same punchline serve a decidedly dubious purpose.
That sort of indulgence is odd. Elsewhere, the stringing out of a segment makes more practical sense in the moments where one actor is required to hold the stage and keep the narrative flowing while the other steps out to change before reappearing elsewhere, so staggered setpieces are less of an issue. Regardless, the resultant pattern – long, relatively static periods punctuated by moments of madcap activity – is vexing, making it difficult to build the sort of momentum that truly carries an audience along with it.
Still, there’s plenty to look at – lush outfits, elaborate wigs and whiskers, ancient Egyptian tombs and more – and Roxmoth and Lauder commit with commendable wholeheartedness to their farcical task.