I try not to overuse the phrase “tour de force” because I think that it is typically made commonplace as reviewers rush to use it in the depiction of nearly every single performer show. Yet, George Dillon, a star of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival who has descended upon the Atlantic Fringe Festival this week with four very distinct one man shows, gives me no choice but to herald him a “tour de force” and to mean it from the bottom of my heart.
The first show that Dillon performed at the Neptune Studio Theatre was The Man Who Was Hamlet, a one man Elizabethan history play telling the story of Edward de Vere, a scandalous ex-courtier of Queen Elizabeth whose life is strangely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous Hamlet. It is also suggested that this brilliant adventurer, who killed a servant, travelled abroad, was captured by pirates, fought the Armada and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, who kept two companies of players and was a playwright and a poet, but disappeared from history for fifteen years before his death, just around the time that “William Shakespeare” began penning plays, may be the true author of the great works accredited to the Bard of Stratford on Avon. To read more about this conspiracy theory you can head on over to this page.
The first thing that is so striking about this play is the script, and specifically its language. To construct a character who was so well educated, witty, arrogant and impish and then to suggest that he has the poetic skill to be the mastermind behind such a play as Hamlet, Dillon must be able to capture Shakespeare’s modes of speech, while carving out a specific personality and character that makes de Vere radically different from our typical representations of William Shakespeare. At the same time, since it is obvious by de Vere’s outrageously long list of exploits, debauchery and spirit of roguish frivolity, Dillon must also do him justice in making him richly fascinating, multifaceted and wildly fun to watch. He does all this beautifully. In fact, he is even able to weave Shakespeare’s own text in amongst his own and it never sounds a bit out of place, only more familiar.
It is clear, especially the more George Dillon shows that I see, that he has a distinctive acting style and it is one that is very Brechtian. In this play he manages to play a slew of characters, rooting himself specifically in de Vere, while having these characters narrate the events to us. His mode of acting in this play is always larger than life and in his exuberance he captures both the grandiose Elizabethan world, where duels and murders can spontaneously erupt within moments as well as suggesting the playing style of the actors of the time. It is appropriate that Dillon use this style, for “realism” as we know and understand it, had not yet been invented, and this method of performing creates a mood and ambiance which roots us strongly in the context of this story and this man and his parallels to Shakespeare’s work. Throughout, as in all Dillon’s shows that I have seen so far, I felt as though he was brilliantly paving the way and encouraging the audience to really delve with him into the material and to ruminate and contemplate its significance far beyond the curtain call.
The second show that Dillon performed at the Atlantic Fringe Festival was The Gospel of Matthew (aptly and beautifully at St. Matthew’s United Church) which I found to be absolutely mesmerizing with a power and urgency that truly made me feel like I was witnessing and hearing one of the most well-known stories in the world, the teachings, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, for the very first time.
This was the performance that I found Dillon using his unique acting style in a true alienation effect, keeping the audience’s messy emotions, which are so usually triggered by the telling of this story of Christ, at bay in favour of engaging the mind. For the first time, Dillon forced me to really listen to the words written so plainly in the Gospel of Matthew within their own context of time and of place and to inquire and probe every line for its multitude of possible meanings.
Dillon’s construction of Christ is wildly different from any representation I have ever seen and it changes the nuances of everything that so many of have blindly taken for granted in this chain of events, many for their entire lives. This Jesus is absolutely human and filled with flaws. Actually, my initial reaction to him was that he was a wildly angry elitist asshole. He is filled with contradictions, preaching tolerance and exclusiveness, holding his disciples to an impossible standard of complete and divine perfection, looking upon them as simpleminded morons while judging lawyers and Gentiles and the Occupiers (and really anyone who wasn’t a subservient Jew willing to follow him mindlessly) whilst clearly condemning judgement at all cost and warning of God’s impending wrathful Judgement of the Judgers.
It suddenly becomes stunningly clear why so many wars have been killed in this man’s name, while so many have equally passionate but entirely disparate interpretations of what this Gospel is “really saying.” It is also amazing how much of what is being said, about the corruption of the Priests and the “righteous” by money, for example, is glaringly relevant to our contemporary lives. Yet, so appropriately, even though this Jesus is by no means perfect, when he is so convoluted and impossible to pin down, we cannot write off everything he says as the ramblings of a madman. There is still a prophetic element to his words and he still offers us the simple truths of love, of kindness, peace, charity and humility. Although the words of Matthew seem to condemn knowledge and ask us to accept all we are told without question or doubt, Dillon rejoices in reminding us that even in the most fixed words, their intention is something we superimpose and construct ourselves, like actors choosing their motivations in a monologue.
The third show that George Dillon performed, back at the Neptune Studio Theatre, was Dostoevsky’s Heaven & Berkoff’s Hell. In the beginning of the piece Dillon began sitting sideways on the stage clad only in his underwear, in murky light, as vulnerability personified. This man, one slowly dying of loneliness, is, I think, Dillon’s most haunting character. He speaks with such measured, clear diction, his voice heavy, sensitive and rapt with melancholy that, even when it fleetingly ebbs, hangs like a storm cloud unmoveable from his midst. Berkoff’s words bring us vividly and empathetically into the core of heartbreak and depression, a place that we have all rested upon from time to time and Dillon inhabits it so profoundly and delicately, he withers and crumbles before our very eyes.
In contrast, in Dostoevsky’s The Dream of A Ridiculous Man Dillon truly embraces the ridiculous mixing a dark sense of humour with the tale of the corruption of the innocent, a performance that is reminiscent of his portrayal of Christ, but with an even more unreliable protagonist. I found this piece the most challenging of Dillon’s work (thus far) because his reason for choosing to play his emotions in such an extreme, dramatic, and stylized way was not as apparent to me as with The Gospel of Matthew and The Man Who Was Hamlet. After having connected so ardently with the man in Berkoff’s Hell, it was arresting to be then so removed from Dostoevsky’s Heaven. Yet, it was also interesting to be placed in a position where one relates immediately to the man in Hell, but cannot do the same with the one experiencing Heaven.
George Dillon is a fascinating and intensely smart performer. Truly, I have never seen anyone else perform this kind of one person show and especially with such mastery and singularity. To be treated to four different ones all in a row is a rare and exquisite theatrical treat that I am most grateful to have experienced.
Dillon’s last show in Halifax, Graft- Tales of an Actor, plays tomorrow, September 11th at 7:00pm at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) it is $10.00 and runs 95 minutes. I’d advise you all to be there and to come early before the show sells out.