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May 7, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Review – Constantinople

Devised and performed by Barnie Duncan & Trygve Wakenshaw

BATS Theatre, 2 May, 9.30pm

In 324 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine I founded his capital on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Byzantion, and modestly named the new city after himself. A mere 1688 years later, Barnie Duncan and Trygve Wakenshaw have converted this great drama into a clever, funny, and engagingly surreal little comedy. This is not a history that Eusebius of Caesarea would recognise: Duncan presents Constantine not as a great general and politician, but as a hedonistic pepper-addict with a taste for dance-music and aqueducts. The great St Athanasius of Alexandria does not make an appearance in this story, but there is a blond DJ called St Peaches, and Constantine’s famous conversion to Christianity takes place not at the Milvian Bridge but in a nightclub called Studio LIV. This increasingly-outrageous travesty of the past is smart and witty, but it all really serves only as a pretext for Duncan and Wakenshaw to show off their brand of bizarre and oddly charming humour.

Many of the best scenes in fact do not involve the eponymous Emperor at all. Clasping a pair of horseshoes in his fists, Duncan assumes the role of Trimmingbeard, a horse who has decided to change his name to Kyle (“why did I change it? I can’t say. I just like it better that way!”), while Wakenshaw plays his amorous horse-masseur, Gary. If it feels a little as though this Pythonesque premise has been tacked onto a whole different concept, it hardly matters: what holds the play together is not a plot (it never discovers one), but rather the brilliant timing of the two actors and the perfectly-pitched slapstick of the script. Wakenshaw in particular has some great moments of physical comedy, including a long but strangely-compelling opening mime sequence, and the few props that are introduced are developed to great effect. Nothing goes to waste: even the bed-sheet togas that the actors wear are exploited to their fullest comic potential. The counterpart to the fine timing of the actors is the professionalism of the sound and lighting crew, who never miss a beat. Although the production is obviously – and even ostentatiously – low-budget, sound effects are matched to action with a precision that would be the envy of many plays with much higher production-values.

The promotional material for Constantinople promises that “comedy has never been more Byzantine.” If ‘Byzantine’ is taken to mean ‘involved, convoluted, and labyrinthine,’ this is surely an exaggeration: for all its lack of plot, Constantinople is sweet and simple. Its complexity perhaps lies elsewhere, in the unabashed pleasure it takes in hybridity and anachronism. If it is absurd to end a play ostensibly based on the life of a fourth-century emperor with a Young Turk called Rod Stewart and his ornamental ottoman, then it is perhaps no more incongruous than a pair of New Zealand actors taking to the stage to extol the origins of the second Rome. The flickering image of that golden city retains its enchantment, but Duncan and Wakenshaw refuse to let us take it entirely seriously. The delights of incongruity – the joys of weird and fantastical juxtapositions – are not the least of the many pleasures of this charming show.

Constantinople runs until 5 May, 9:30pm. Tickets cost $20/$14


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