Much has been written about the life and death of Marco Pantani; books, biographies, a film… in fact, this is the second play I’ve seen about the bloke in the space of a year.
But Marco isn’t really about the Italian cyclist at all. It’s actually more about Simon Jones – actor, cycle enthusiast and Marco-maniac fan. Jones is travelling between Italy, the Alps and Cuba to trace the peaks and troughs of his ultimate hero, in an effort to learn more and get closer to him. Throughout this journey he attempts to retell and even relive the stories of ‘Il Pirata’ – from winning the Tour de France to the scandalous doping accusations that ultimately ended both his career and life.
The play is scattered with short passages of intensely beautiful movement. Jones describes the journey of the hotel manager who finds Pantani dead, marking out a map on the ground in chalk and tumbling through the scene in frantic and repetitive movements that are reminiscent of the work of Gecko.
Jones – who plays a slightly cartoonish version of himself – is fantastic throughout. He’s engaging and funny, physically powerful and precise, as he moves on from performing the role of slightly erratic and nervous tour-guide to offering personal reflections or becoming completely adsorbed in blissful admiration. He’s an impressive performer who enraptures the audience for a full hour, but ultimately he doesn’t quite convey what the show is supposed to be about. There are a number of different threads which weave their way through Marco: Pantani’s rise and fall as well as Jones’s parallel story – his cycling, his trip, his imminent fatherhood, and a somewhat strained exploration of masculinity.
The whole performance is littered with confusing and conflicting signifiers pointing in different directions. There’s a lot to be said for ambiguity in theatre, but for quite a long portion of the show I actually thought that Jones was in love with Pantani, and was grappling with his sexual identity… This turned out to be a mere figment of my imagination (I think). But without a stronger dramaturgical eye over the structure of the show, Marco runs the risk of alienating its audience and sending them speeding towards dead-ends. What would help the production is a clearer sense of the role of the audience. We’re left in the dark for quite a long time, then suddenly out of nowhere we’re invited to play a ball game. This abrupt shift in our relationship to Jones feels jarring and perplexing, and it’s difficult to tell if the performer is ever addressing us directly.
I will also add (spoilers here, sorry): why, oh why does Jones drag up at the end? This is a genuine question – please, write to me if you know. Is it supposed to be comical, or humiliating or liberating? Is it just the prerogative of any male performer talking about masculinity to put on a flowery dress? I honestly have no idea. Maybe I missed the point entirely. But for me, his drag, his dance and his bad lip-sync felt like a cheap, hollow appropriation of queer culture which came from nowhere and led nowhere.
Jones, however, is a wonderful performer, and this particular work of his has some real potential. It’s still a show in its relative infancy and it will be interesting to see how it progresses, but in its current form Marco feels muddled and somewhat self-absorbed.
For more of The Boat Shed’s programme, click here.