400 JOKES WITH THE DEVIL
Lyric Studio Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 31 March, 1999

The film-making career of Sergei Eisenstein, like that of Orson Welles, received a major setback in Latin America. Where Welles's projected third feature It's All True foundered as he shot footage in Brazil, much the same had befallen Eisenstein in Mexico several years earlier: funding problems, unsympathetic management and so forth. But what most unmanned the Russian was the accidental shooting on location of a young Mexican girl, an extra, by her brother with the director's pistol. Daniel Jamieson's 400 Jokes With The Devil (named after the first film Eisenstein could ever remember seeing), as staged by Theatre Alibi, tells the story sensitively, resourcefully with a company of only five and, in something of a coup for a small touring production, punctuates the onstage action with screened extracts from Battleship Potemkin and the abortive Que Viva Mexico itself.

The first half-hour or so has a slightly Tintin-esque quality to it, played in a bright, quickfire style which makes fun of its characters and subjects (Stalin, for instance, is first seen strangling a parrot which he has just taught to swear like a trooper) but does not trivialise them. Once Jamieson, director Nikki Sved and the cast arrive at the story proper, however, this aspect drops away; we still smile at obvious gimmicks such as actors providing vocal sound effects for an electric milk-shake mixer, but such fleeting moments are clearly in keeping with the style and flair which also permits such a small cast to create an entire Day of the Dead fiesta. A daisy-chain of unrequital unravels before us location manager Dolores is attracted to Eisenstein, who nurses a secret love for his assistant director Grigori Alexandrov but this is not allowed to overshadow the financial, spiritual and other ferments with which it coexisted.

Henry Hawkes is a sincere but not overpoweringly intense Eisenstein; Jamieson and Sarah Baxter flank him solidly as Alexandrov and cameraman Édouard Tissé respectively; Derek Frood is the drunken, ebullient line producer and Hannah Young the vibrant location manager Dolores. Alibi offer a object lesson in how much can be achieved, both materially and theatrically, with limited physical and financial resources.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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