Paradise in The Vault is located in the basement of Augustine United Church, and its austere, cell-like intimacy affords an irreproachably apt setting to Rémy, a one-woman show written and acted by Claire Gaydon. The action of the piece nominally unfolds in the sparsely-appointed room where Rémy, an erstwhile member of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, is confined. But Rémy occupies his time with telling stories, the most fantastical stories in the world, and everything in the cell – from the plant he nourishes to the bare wooden bench – is subordinated to the needs of this galloping imagination.
The year is 1825, and Rémy distantly remembers the events that inaugurated the great European tumult in which he was to play a tiny role. In 1789, when the French Revolution began, he was a little child living in the south of France – living a sleepy rural life, worlds away from the frantic Parisian crowds who, catching their thirst for freedom from the orators of the Palais-Royal, stormed the Bastille and thereby changed their nation. Rémy’s special gift, however, is an imagination so powerful that he can conjure up events at which he was not present: “Paris didn’t sleep – or if it did, it woke up sweating and screaming of Revolution”. He re-enacts the blood-soaked regicide of 1793, his bench an impromptu guillotine, then leaps forward in time to Napoleon, the absent hero-villain of this ambivalent and complex piece.
Gaydon’s script is alive to the comic possibilities of the Napoleon legend – notably, Rémy’s time as the General’s dedicated chicken-strangler is both hilarious and excruciating to watch – but above all, the play is a meditation on how deeply we can love and hate our heroes, how the annulment of worship cuts to the heart of man. Rémy is full of twists and turns, some of which would have benefited from clearer articulation: at times the plot is too obscure. Yet this is nevertheless a very successful production, and Gaydon’s new theatre company, Everything I Own, deserves considerable credit for delivering such strong inaugural work. Gaydon herself is a delightful performer who holds the audience in the palm of her hand as she moves through various moods – from captivating whimsy, to pathos, to distraught grief.
Rémy serves as an enquiry into an era, reflecting the ideological astonishment and the sheer cultural shock that the 1790s – which saw the death of a king and the collapse of the Revolution that killed him – created among French citizens. To evoke this atmosphere with such thorough dramatic force in the space of thirty minutes is no mean achievement, and Gaydon does so with a skill and comic touch that suggest her future work, as both performer and playwright, will also be deserving of ample praise.
**** – 4/5 Stars
Rémy is playing at Paradise in The Vault until 27 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.