REVIEW: 55, DeadPoet, Paris Fringe 2020 ★★★★☆

55 is a visual dramatic work inspired by the yellow paintings of Francis Bacon. We find ourselves immediately in a closed and secluded space with few people and strange things happening. This is now brought alive by Marilyn and George, two characters, living in a quarantine condition of total alienation.

55 is not on a stage, but in a cosy little apartment. And by ‘cosy’, I really mean claustrophobic. This seems the most appropriate way to deliver theatre in a time of quarantine – stuck inside, like the rest of us. Putting theatre online is automatically a challenge, but DeadPoet seem comfortable adapting to a video format. Although, ‘comfortable’ is probably the wrong word – as anything inspired by Francis Bacon’s paintings is bound to be bizarre and slightly unnerving. It’s what he would have wanted, really, and Deadpoet pull it off.

Usually, less-than-ideal video quality is the blight of amateur filmmakers, but I think Deadpoet really make the garish colours and undefined features part of the experience. The yellow light of the slightly overexposed camera makes it eerie and a little inhuman, in a clever nod to Bacon’s ‘yellow paintings’. Faces are often obscured – very Bacon-esque – and I appreciated how they played with the camera perspective to create various, sometimes strange, shapes. If there is one thing that 55 nails, it’s atmosphere.

The actors are effectively lifeless – and I do not mean that as a critique of their acting. They are usually unnaturally still, and their mouths literally do not move, as recordings speak over them. The only ‘real’ sound is a hairdryer – which comes through like static, or white-noise. Marilyn – played by Olya Tsoraeva – really dominated the piece, making George (Axel Dhondt) appear secondary. I particularly enjoyed the cameo of a cat, weaving through the occasional shot, and providing some juxtaposing meows in the mechanical soundscape.

Visually, I was impressed, but otherwise I was somewhat lost. The script seems to aim somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard, or even a bit of David Lynch; words fail, are nihilistic, nonsensical, and poetic all at once – although they perhaps lack any profundity. ‘55’ is by no means a stimulating production. Unfortunately, the focus on the atmosphere of the piece seems to be at the expense of pacing, and sometimes interest. Of course, this is reflective of their attempt to portray ‘total alienation’ between two people in a time of quarantine – which is certainly achieved, but is at the risk of alienating the audience as well.

I only question whether this is meant for the theatre. The production really relies on the immersive effects of the light and sound, so I would certainly be interested to see this on stage. The benefit of a camera is the ability to control perspective, which does not work in a theatre unless you only permit one audience member at a time (covid-19 era theatre, perhaps?). Deadpoet really take advantage of the camera perspective, and it would be a shame to lose that.

55 is a weird but interesting production that resonates with the monotony of quarantine life. You can learn more about DeadPoet’s work on their website. 55 is available to watch currently on the Paris Fringe Youtube Channel.