Jericho is an ancient city where walls and agriculture began, Chris Jericho is a professional wrestler, and Jericho is a play about neither. The play is a hot and often angry exploration of arena culture (from the beginning of civic society to today) and positions the overwhelming wealth of information available in the digital age as the latest coliseum in the sequence. In Jericho, data obfuscates as much as it informs, facts fail to be facts, and words are untrustworthy. It is steered by a sterling performance from Maeve O’Mahony, who plays an unnamed journalist asked by her editors to write a feature on wrestling and entertainment. As her wingman, lighting and AV designer, John Gunning has a desk on stage (and does some solid acting, too).
Jericho is highly stylised, and the rules of the play are essentially whatever Director Claire O’Reilly and O’Mahony are prepared to catapult at the audience next. This is never ostentatious, and the chaotic vibrancy of the show does not replace structured storytelling. Emotional hooks, key to O’Mahony’s character, occur at the right times in the script and provide the play with a personal pace.
As seems to be a hallmark of Malaprop’s style, this work, devised with Writer Dylan Coburn Gray, tackles an expansive scope, which could alienate audiences, and yet somehow delivers the package with intimacy. Jericho never feels polemical, and although references to humanity’s first walled city, the superficial world of professional wrestling, and online flame wars, could seem disparate, Malaprop tether images to the audience with a textile touch.
Although the impossibility of accurate information is a running gag throughout the play, Jericho is a trustworthy account of the themes it builds a story around. The reference points in the play are diverse. It is the only play I’ve ever seen that aggressively riffs on semiotician Roland Barthes, and in doing so provides a hilarious moment of graphic intertextual vandalism, which Barthes himself would probably have to concede as being the spurious offspring of his own theories of linguistic appropriation and political belonging. Similarly, O’Mahony delivers an overview of the extinction of the Giant Ground Sloth; as a former employee of the Natural History Museum, where we have a Giant Ground Sloth, I can confirm that this short history is correct.
The rhythm of the play works and its subject matter is a pleasure to watch, even though it probably shouldn’t be. Jericho is concerned more about cultural imagery than character-based storytelling – this is reflected in Molly O’Cathain’s set design. A lasting image in the play is one of lips: three close-ups of O’Mahony’s editorial board overshadow her. As she attempts to defend her writing, they twist in puckered and mocking suppuration. If anything, these are the ‘villains’ of the play, reminiscent of the cruelty of the three Furies of Greek mythology: taunting, daunting, and loaded with nemesis. Here, the articulation of meaning is framed as a kind of oral grotesque, which really works.
Jericho is a wrestling match, where O’Mahony tries to suplex all the hypocrisies of civilisation. It succeeds. The play presents civil progress and social reform as an infuriating problem of dismantling one enclosure only to build another, and humanity’s first walled city and the plight of the Giant Ground Sloth are the right place to begin in this respect. This is an energetic and colourful piece of theatre, which wrestles with the cultural and the political, and provides comedy throughout.
Jericho is playing at Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button) as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 26 August. For further information and tickets, click here.
Photo: Molly O’Cathain