Decadence runs at the Old 505 Theatre from December 4-7 2013. By Steven Berkoff, directed by Serhat Caradee.
Decadence is one of Berkoff’s least performed plays, perhaps because it is hella difficult. Written largely in pseudo-Shakespearean verse, it is an immense undertaking for two actors. On stage the whole time, they must play two different couples: one, a wealthy, upper-class pair of adulterous lovers, and the other, a working class pair with murderous and revolutionary tendencies (or so they say). It is so, so tough – but happily, this production from A Priori Projects is a great one. Searing, scintillating, this is Berkoff done so, so well.
This particular production has a bit of a history. It began life at the Sydney Fringe Festival this year, where it took home an award in the theatre category. (I didn’t see it then, as I was overseas, but if it was as good then as it is now, then that award is well-deserved.) In March, it will tour to the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It’s playing a limited season at the Old 505 now as a fundraiser for that tour. I’m not sure if tickets are still available, but if you can’t get to the Adelaide Fringe, then you should do your absolute best to get to this in its short run. It’s worth it.
Decadence is, like so much of Berkoff’s work, preoccupied with questions of class. It lambasts the wealthy upper classes: Helen and Steve, our rich couple here, have everything. They are so consumed by their ennui all that they can do is consume more and more, grinding the faces of the poor. They tell each other stories of their decadent adventures, whether hunting or fucking or generally exploiting. They are so bored they almost seem to forget they are having a love affair: even the frisson of excitement that comes from their adultery cannot penetrate their boredom. All that is left is for them to suck more and more into their (figurative) gaping maws, as brilliantly literalised by the scene towards the end where they go to a high class restaurant and gorge themselves on food and champagne until they are sick.
Our innate sense of narrative structure makes us feel like they should be punished, but they never are. The working class couple, Les and Sybil, plot Steve’s demise, but they never actually do anything about it. Les is all bark, no bite: he certainly talks a good revolutionary game, and he is full of ideas of how to knock Steve off, from the relatively realistic through to the absolutely ridiculous, but he is nothing more than that – talk. Unlike Helen and Steve, these two fuck – all the time – but it is more out of the excitement over what they plan to do than anything else. When their plans prove to be impotent, so too quickly fades their sex lives. This is not the moral poor common in so many other works, who are exploited and downtrodden by a demonised rich, but a poor who are uncomfortably complicit in their oppression: the rich are useless, and yet the working class don’t do anything about. “I am not yet a desperate man,” Les declaims, making us wonder what a truly desperate man would look like.
This is a scorching satire of capitalism: not just the external trappings, but the internalisation of it. The team behind this production have clearly understood this and have delivered a sharp, incisive production. Serhat Caradee’s direction is deceptively simple and very effective, and Rowan McDonald and Katherine Shearer both deliver outstanding performances. (The only criticism I have is that sometimes when Shearer goes into her upper vocal registers it is hard to understand what she is saying, but this is a relatively easy fix.) This is really biting theatre, deeply political and disquieting. A Priori have put together a great production, and I hope their tour to Adelaide goes swimmingly. Highly recommended.