THE GREAT PRETENDERS
Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 12 December, 1991

"This'll make a nice change from panto," I thought. We-ell... On a most unGately set consisting solely of a reversible proscenium arch (well, it's been touring), this 17th-century Spanish story of third-century Roman imperial shenanigans is acted out with AK47-toting legionaries, bebowlered senators and the emperor Diocletian (his four predecessors having been dispatched in the previous 20 minutes) in kilt and sporran. Diocletian is selfless (appointing his legion buddy Maximian co-emperor), but imperfectly so: he murdered to attain the throne, and of course he's not a Christian. Nor is actor Genesius, but once jilted by his beloved he finds the greatest love of all (those very words are used, honest), converts in the middle of a command performance and demands martyrdom, which is speedily granted.

The whole actorly strain, and the original title's implications that life is a hoax, pave the way for a broad swathe of theatrical self-referentiality even the non-actor characters are (to us) actors, as the production style leaves us in no doubt. Hanging on a slight play, however, it comes across less as trenchant and insightful than navel-gazing, and a rather fluffy navel at that. A seasonal romp of sorts, but an odd, unsatisfying close to the Gate's Spanish Golden Age season.

Written for City Limits magazine.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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