The Irish Giant tackles the age-old rivalry between science and religion, focusing upon the question of whether or not man has a soul: a mighty problem for this little cast. This is explored through the devised story of an eight foot tall man, stalked by a body-snatcher (a capable Alex Murdoch) waiting for the giant’s looming death on the behalf of Doctor Hunter (played with personality by Brian Logan), who’s determined to dissect his anomalous form. In contrast, the Irish Giant of course is determined his body remains in one piece so that his soul can ascend to heaven. Sitting in the cold, darkened vault of the Southwark Playhouse as students, not an audience, this beginning promises enlightenment – but we’re left grappling in the dark throughout.
I wanted so much to like The Irish Giant. The company members of Cartoon De Salvo are undeniably charismatic, and there is something so honest about this production. But stripping back the show is a dangerous move, exposing holes in the delivery. Early entrances and the setting of props in your peripheral vision, the occasionally forced acting: all the little constraints upon staging and the limited cast add up to make this 15-year-old company seem more amateurish than they are.
The staging reflects that this devised piece is stylistically Brechtian, which is most obvious in Cartoon De Salvo’s use of music. Daniel Marcus Clark’s folky compositions are catchy and performed well by the company (a miniature piano beside a giant is a visual stroke of genius), but as a theatrical device has little purpose other than filling the gaps in the story. The music is a mere accompaniment to Rebecca Hurst’s witty animations which illustrate the said gaps, and occasionally have more to say than the actors themselves. The animation captures the tone of The Irish Giant, which looks lightly at the issues it addresses. Herein lies the problem with Brecht’s influence; Brecht reminded the audience they were watching a play so that they could look beneath the surface. I struggled to find anything lingering there but the reiteration of a point made by countless books and plays, dating back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and beyond.
Cartoon De Salvo’s mission to “mess with the live theatre experience” is outdated in this respect, but carried by Jean Chan’s design which highlights the uniquely surrealist direction of the company. In particular, the eclectic assortment of bits and bobs stored in jars, which include the drunken giant’s (a melodramatic performance from Neil Haigh) drinking friends (played by a jar of pickled eggs with smiley faces drawn on them). The simplistically rustic set works with Paul Murray’s illusions so that the giant’s height is achieved through the humble magic of silhouettes against a backdrop. Smaller illusions come sporadically – a floating note, the puppetry hand of death appearing on Hunter’s shoulder – as if they’re party tricks. The comedic elements of this play contradict the tone of its controversial subject matter. Therefore the several scenes structured towards a sense of bathos, make the eventual push for pathos hard work for an audience.
At the end of The Irish Giant, the actors ironically ask “Any questions?” Of course there are, because the play answers none. Cartoon De Salvo prefers the flexibility and humour of abstract images played to an atmospheric soundtrack. This lack of a general direction from Alex Murdoch, leads The Irish Giant to sadly suffer. Laughing at mortality and the futility of spiritual enquiries isn’t enough to achieve an effect like that of produced by the theatre of the absurd. The Irish Giant can only scrabble beneath the skin-deep production for the organs needed to breathe life into its more shapely form.
The Irish Giant plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 9 June. For more information and tickets see the Southwark Playhouse website.