A Theatre of Cruelty

Posted in Audio by - February 18, 2024
A Theatre of Cruelty

Released February 2024


Famed French playwright Antonin Artaud has been having bad dreams as he looks to bring his idea for an immersive theatre to life, and the Doctor feels obligated to intercede as those nightmares begin to take form in ‘A Theatre of Cruelty’ by Lisa McMullin.

Artaud quite rightfully is remembered to this day for his innovative ideas that were perhaps ahead of their time, and his notion of a theatrical experience told through a language combining thought and gesture to shatter any semblance of a false reality continues to resonate due to the experiences and stories that can thus be told. However, despite Artaud’s lasting legacy, he was not necessarily one to find immediate success in his own time, and here he continues to find himself haunted by earlier troubled experiences throughout his life. In a way, Artaud and the Doctor are kindred spirits as they both must look to continue on despite the darkness within their past, and though Artaud may- in the Doctor’s own words- continue to feel too deeply and to think too intensely, the empathy and sparks of genius that have resulted unquestionably highlight the strengths and convictions of this figure whom Alexander Vlahos portrays so vividly.

Just as prevalent in Artaud’s mind as bringing to fruition his theatre of cruelty, however, is the horrific and shocking history of sixteenth-century Roman noblewoman Beatrice Cenci whose life he is looking to dramatize next. Her story is about as dark as they come, and the image purported to be of Cenci hanging within the Louvre provides the anchor both for his own conceptions about his next work as well as for an ancient sentient energy looking to gain a foothold in this world again through the darker thoughts Artaud himself harbours. Elisabeth Yorke-Bolognini and Angus Dunican capably provide the two fronts of this nefarious scheme that sees the Astraphi becoming ever more powerful and physical, and although the threat itself is somewhat abstract in nature and doesn’t fully resonate despite evocative and visceral theatrical scenes very much in the vein of Artaud’s ideas, the personal torment of Artaud and the kinship that develops between the Doctor and Artaud help to deliver a powerful and gripping experience.

Truly, in a story filled with strong performances, the chemistry between Christopher Eccleston and Vlahos is magnificent, and their characters’ shared outlooks and experiences make it easy to understand why the Doctor is so keen to help this man on so many levels. In fact, the Astraphi threat is almost a hindrance to the experience as a whole that finds its greatest success when Artaud is directly the focus. The Astraphi understandably provide the conduit through which the Doctor enters Artaud’s life and that allows Artaud to open up, but this story could have been all the more resonant had this been a true historical that fully delved into Artaud’s troubled and brilliant life with the many psychiatrists and drugs that featured in conjunction with the ingenious mind and imagination. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Eccleston has an immense fondness for the theatre and for Artaud’s legacy, and his enthusiasm throughout is infectious and expertly conveys the genuine empathy and resolve of his Doctor who featured so briefly on screen. With a surprising meta reference to current Big Finish writer Lizzie Hopley and a nod to the Ninth Doctor’s resemblance to Artaud, ‘A Theatre of Cruelty’ is a confident and stylish- if predictable while following the template of several other stories already within this range- affair that certainly captures the spirit of its era and that delivers some powerful messages along the way.

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