What goes well with a beautifully crafted, relevant interrogation of the twisted acts that humanity performs in the name of religion? A pile of human waste, crude jokes and a demon with a Cockney twang. In Rough Haired Pointer’s revival of Peter Barnes’s 1969 black comedy Noonday Demons, the tragic and the surreal sit seamlessly alongside each other. But two self-righteous monks – bound in chains, half-naked, and caked in dirt and blood – do not.
In his Egyptian cave, St Eusebius self-flagellates, mutters the Latin mass and battles with his demons in solitary peace, thank you very much. Actor Jordan Mallory-Skinner switches effortlessly between playing the sanctimonious monk and a crass, bent-double, musical demon – so compellingly, in fact, that when St Pior enters (from the top of the dung hill, rather than stage right or left) I worry that the addition of a second character is frivolous.
How wrong I am. Jake Curran matches Mallory-Skinner with his own identically-clothed, hilarious hermit, who possesses an even more nauseatingly delicate voice and is also hell-bent on calling the pongy cave his own. So begins an unholy contest as to who is the holiest – whether that be proved by levitating, hearing God’s voice or determining who has suffered the most. A comical spectacle of the two monks squirting holy water at each other soon gives way to vicious fights, convincingly and absorbingly choreographed by fight director Henry Devas.
An intimate space and playing in-the-round draws the audience into the scuffles, and we wince all the more as a result. It is hard to zone out when the immersive space transports you to Egypt – and not just because of the suffocating heat of the venue. Swirls of dust and sand continually fall from the ceiling, and bright golden lights mean the audience too are blinded by the noonday sun.
It is an engrossing performance, and director Mary Franklin doesn’t let the humour or poignancy of any line go to waste. Though perhaps she should: the play feels overly long. Jokes and themes are elegantly directed, but repetitively so. What is at first gut-achingly funny becomes boring, and the original joke, lost. The production’s slowness cannot be blamed on the original script, as its excess comes in drawn-out fight scenes and physicality. But nor can the cleverness of the movement be attributed to anyone other than Devas, movement director Yarit Dor and those they worked with – if only there was less of it.
Rough Haired Pointer does justice to an inventive, explosive and bold play as chillingly relevant today as to the deserts of historical Egypt, giving the audience a bizarre, fascinating journey into religious fanaticism. Oh, and they certainly manage to get a giggle along the way.
Noonday Demons is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 2 August. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website. Photo by Andreas Grieger.