A man wakes up in a rubbish tip; he’s not quite sure how he got there, but he knows he would do anything to get out. He is befriended by Clé (short for Clémentine), a semi-naked, withering old hag who used to be a ballerina. Clé has lost her legs, and she has lost her cat, but she promises to help the man get out provided he first helps her find the elusive feline and makes a decent cup of tea. They are joined in their quest by another rubbish tip dweller, the Bastard: a pitiable figure, naked and scrawny and hunched over. The Bastard doesn’t speak much ~but his intensely emotive face, the furrowed brow and cavernous eyes say enough.
Loosely based on Boris Vian’s last novel, L’Arrache-coeur, Bastard! reflects the spirit of Vian’s prose ~his anarchic humour, the surreal situations bordering on grotesque, the poignant moments surfacing for a second before being quickly drowned in the clamour of strangeness and reigning confusion. From the opening sequence during which the protagonist dances himself loose of bin bags and other rubbish only to reveal a horse’s head puppet covering his leg – with which he continues to dance and sing as if nothing unusual had happened – Duda Paiva combines puppetry with intense physical theatre and ballet to express the absurdity inherent in the Bastard! story.
The use of multimedia complements the play by accentuating the ominous – often bordering on menacing – atmosphere while adding to the layers of performance. This is achieved in different ways: either by having long, unsettling dreamlike sequences projected on the large sheets that form the background; by using the projections in a cinematic ‘camera panning away’ effect, when the protagonist dives into a rubbish heap and the action that takes place inside the heap is projected on the screen; or by having the screens reflect a distorted version of the onstage going-on, or having them host the leitmotif of the little black wandering cloud, which eventually grows so large it ‘swallows’ the stage with a lights-out.
Paradoxically, if anything holds Bastard! back it is the somewhat self-congratulating mastery with which the various elements of the performance are executed. There is a slight sense of a number of Ta-da! moments having being strewn through the play, as Duda Paiva takes yet another chance and shows off with a flourish how splendidly his gamble paid off. (As, for instance, when the elusive cat is forcibly wrenched out from underneath the Bastard’s chest cavity, followed by an admittedly highly accomplished dance/puppetry sequence; or, in the final few minutes, when Clé declares the man has finally found his way out of ‘this shithole’ – implying, a little self-satisfiedly, that the way out of the rubbish tip is the very search itself, the actual fact of being a performer and playing out the search for a way out in perpetuity). As such, the audience’s attention is on occasion funnelled away from what is being said and towards the genius of how the message is delivered, resulting in a measure of distraction from the content of the play in favour of –rather enjoyable- theatrics.
Nonetheless, Bastard! is ultimately a play that keeps you guessing and eludes your expectations at every turn, only to turn around and beckon you to keep following – which you gladly do, because how many plays manage to juggle shameless audacity alongside substance and genuine entertainment without ever missing a beat?