Fire Exit give concepts of identity and performance a thorough rogering in this tightly concertinaed surrealist exploration of the x-rated life and works of controversial French dramatist Jean Genet.
Before all of that, however, we find ourselves in the last bordello of the title: a desperately decadent huddle of undesirables somewhere in the Gaza strip, whose Lynchian last supper is interrupted by the appearance of nervous teenager Mitri, seeking to lose his virginity in a ritual display of machismo.
Before he can claim his prize, however, he must first participate in an increasingly bizarre succession of parlour games and story-telling, resulting in a unravelling narrative of stories within stories, with concepts of domination, violence, desire, belonging, identity, reality and fantasy all given an explicit and thorough going-over before the party’s through.
In the hands of a less-experienced theatre-maker, The Last Bordello would easily collapse into incomprehension. But David Leddy’s writing is some of the most lyrically and structurally beautiful of Scottish theatre. Coupled with uncompromising direction, he carries the audience through horror after horror with a magnetic artistry.
Equally evocative is the design from Fire Exit stalwarts Becky Minto (sets) and Nich Smith (lighting). The vibe of The Last Bordello is erotic Wonderland; a tantalising landscape of pure snow-white splashed with devilish scarlet, furniture suspended incongruously in mid-air, the entire set-up embedded in a dream-like cotton-wool haze. As Mitri and his obscene companions tumble further and further down the rabbit hole, the stage is flooded with vivid primary colours, a flaming cross taking form in silent judgement beyond the gauzy backcloth.
Given such richness to play in, for the most part the cast are hugely enjoyable, playing their larger-than-life characters without a hint of performance anxiety. In particular, Vary Sylvester is great fun as The Charwoman, Irma, bristling with secrets. Helen McAlpine plays disturbingly against type as hyper-sexualised baby doll and object of Mitri’s lust, Darling. As Mitri himself, David Rankine is convincingly out of his depth, although he struggles a little at times to encompass the subtleties Leddy’s script eventually demands of this deceptively innocent protagonist.
As a theatrical experience, it is compelling, ravishing and uncompromisingly twisted.
Despite all of that however, The Last Bordello left me just a little cold.
Yes, the sexual violence was jarring – but given the context, it isn’t gratuitous. The setting, the 18+ trigger warnings, the themes of abuse, paedophilia – and indeed the incidents themselves – are lifted scene-for-scene from the more shocking episodes of maestro of depravity Jean Genet’s life.
However, it’s the expectation that the audience shares Leddy’s excessive knowledge of and compulsive fascination for Genet that rankles. The Last Bordello, for all its salacious bombast, is an incredibly niche piece of theatre, demanding an awful lot of prior reading to make sense of Leddy’s obsessive preoccupation with rape and murder. By the end, I feel the play barrels straight past challenging and becomes frustratingly smart-arse, rendering the play’s final revelations artistically fascinating but emotionally empty.
The Last Bordello reminds us of David Leddy’s very singular vision and huge theatrical talent. But Leddy makes no attempt to include his audience, preferring to isolate and disconnect. A singular theatrical experience — but definitely not one for the faint-hearted.
The Last Bordello was at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until February 17th, and is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from February 21st until February 24th. For more details, click here.