At the turn of the century, British writer Hector Hugh Munro — better known by the psudeonym Saki — delighted readers with his twisted tales of the British elite. The writer’s oft-horrifying short stories blended witticism with the macabre, putting a spritely edge on an otherwise savage plot.
That same twisted wit is now on display in Life According to Saki, a dramatization of the author’s life and works by Katherine Rundell and the young British theatre company Atticist. Fresh from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where the production took home the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, the six-person production brings several of Saki’s twisted tales to life, from the story of British baronesses who turn a blind eye to a hyena murdering a child, to a boy who escapes an unhappy life by praying to a false idol, only to have his faith affirmed in the bloodiest of fashions. Tying these stories together is Saki himself (David Paisley), who speaks to the audience from the frontlines of World War I, where the writer died in combat.
Though the stories tell an upper class tale and the performers’ characterizations drip with poshness, the production takes a low-budget approach that’s decidedly more in line with its fringe theatre roots. Beautifully crafted puppets are made of burlap, simple shadow puppetry backdrops define the story’s settings and few other props are seen. The production’s success, then, sits squarely on the backs of the hard-working performers, who transfer between roles with ease and keep the production consistently delightful to watch.
The female performers – Phoebe Frances Brown, Ellen Francis, and Caitlin Thorburn – are a particular highlight, with a dry wit and spot-on comic timing. Paisley as Saki, too, is the perfect host to tie the proceedings together, with earnestness and an ingratiating nature that immediately draws us in and a performance that strikes the perfect balance between joyous and despairing, as he marches toward a tragic fate.
Much as with Saki’s stories, a sense of duality pervades the rest of the production as well, reveling in whimsy while blatantly exposing the darkness that lies underneath. As Saki’s situation on the front lines becomes more dire, his stories become a clear escape from reality. At one point, the fireworks at the end of one tale morph into bombs, showing the clear line between the two worlds, while Saki’s direct addresses to the audience and (perhaps overly frequent) platitudes become more and more of a plea to look for light and life in the face of the certain death that will befall us all.
As Saki’s stories offer an escape from the Great War, so too do they offer an escape from our own political realities – a parallel that the production seems eager to make, given references to “the iniquities of journalists” and “small hands.” But by escaping to a world filled with war and regular instances of death for the sake of comedy and a good story, this isn’t your commonplace nostalgic past. Rundell’s adaptation does clean up the play’s turn-of-the-century source material – one story about a mass killing of Jews was conveniently changed to men with mustaches, and the production carefully avoids Saki’s several anti-feminist tales. Nevertheless, this is clearly a flawed past – one in which death is ever-present and the chances of getting mauled by a wild animal feel unusually high.
Walking this elegant tightrope between escapism and ever-present darkness, however, provides a certain comfort in these trying times. Make no mistake – this is an entertaining show, with constant humor and a lightheartedness that puts a cheery face on horrifying events. But by acknowledging our problems – both past and present – as much as trying to present an escape from them, Life According to Saki lets us revel in this entertainment not as a way to forget the world’s problems, but rather alongside them. If we must be exposed to the darkness in the world – and we must – Life According to Saki reminds us to find the light.