Scaramouche Jones: Friels compels in clown’s sad tale

Scaramouche Jones: Friels compels in clown’s sad tale


AUGUST 20, 2018

Justin Butcher’s Scaramouche Jones is a play for a single voice, but that voice chews up and spews out more words, ideas and lyrical styles than an open-mic poetry slam. The play begins as Scaramouche Jones Esq — “clown, Englishman” — returns backstage after his final performance. It’s New Year’s Eve, 1999. “Time to die,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Born on the stroke of midnight as 1899 ticked over into 1900, the clown’s 100th birthday coincides with London’s millennial revelry. In this first scene we get a glimpse of the ambition of Butcher’s writing and the intelligent, dauntless talents of Colin Friels.

Ideas scamper over one another like acrobats in a human pyramid, each climax slightly higher than the one that preceded it: “and so, tonight, as champagne bottles pop and ejaculate their foaming incontinence over the jaded revellers of merry England, I shall be 100 years old”. Quite apart from the perfect percussive rhythm of “pop and ejaculate” and “foaming incontinence”, this single rolling sentence takes us from admiration to delight to awe.

But this opener is a warm-up before the “piss and pus” and “sluicing semen” of Scaramouche’s harrowing tale. It begins with his nativity in Trinidad, the child of a “dark-skinned gypsy whore” and an Englishman. Scaramouche’s unusually pale face is the first of the seven white masks he will wear in his life. The last is the grease paint of a clown, 51 years after his birth, when he finally arrives “home” in England.

In between he is orphaned, exiled and enslaved; he’s beaten by strangers and comforted by others; captured by the Ustashe in wartime Croatia, enlisted to shovel quicklime over the dead in mass graves, then imprisoned for his apparent collaboration.

There is no greater test of an actor’s art than a florid monologue on a single set with few props and fewer effects: just voice, body, clothes and a poor, bare, forked actor. Under the direction of Alkinos Tsilimidos, Friels’s performance is a definition of modesty. But he creates a kind of gravity well; he draws us in and holds us. He does something alchemical with language. Friels packs more into words than mere meaning. Thanks to the timbre of his voice and his careful phrasing, images detonate in our minds.

I thought I knew this piece well. I’ve seen Pete Postlethwaite perform it and heard Warren Mitchell’s version. But this was an entirely fresh encounter, wholly deserving of the thunderous ovation it won last Friday night.

Scaramouche Jones by Justin Butcher. Wander Productions and Arts Centre Melbourne. Fairfax Studio, August 17. Tickets: $50-$95. Bookings 1300 183 183 or online. Duration: 1hr 20min, no interval. Until Saturday.