Noun1.Scaramouche - a stock character in commedia dell'arte depicted as a boastful coward
Journey into silence draws standing ovationJune 20 2003
The magic of Pete Postlethwaite's performance is his subtlety.
By Justin Butcher,
directed by Rupert Goold,
Athenaeum Theate until June 29
Review by Helen Thomson
This one-man show comes trailing a reputation for brilliant acting on the part of Pete Postlethwaite, and a script that significantly marked the 2000 millenium, a valedictory survey of the 20th century.
Certainly the acting does not disappoint, although its power lies in Postlethewaite's subtlety rather than any demonstration of larger-than-life dramatic power.
Nor does it survey the 20th century, although it has at its core an episode from Holocaust history that encapsulates the tragic nature of the century.
Justin Butcher's writing is often poetic, and the character owes much to literary and theatrical sources, from the figure of Everyman to the Commedia dell'Arte stock character of Scaramouche, from whom the protagonist takes his name.
His is a classic picaresque adventure, an episodic life-journey taken by an individual who looks back, on his 100th birthday, at a journey that took him 51 years to discover his destiny - that of a clown.
The story is also one that charts, in part, the post-colonial fate of the English, reduced to clowning as the century sees the steady decay of an empire.
Scaramouche knows his mother was a gypsy prostitute, and he clings to her revelation that his father had been an Englishman, whose only inheritance, one that determines his entire life, is the unusually white skin of his face. Eventually this becomes the professional white face of the clown, the last of a series of white masks that Scaramouche has worn.
Orphaned at the age of six in Trinidad, where he was born, sold into slavery, the young Scaramouche actually finds a father in the mixed-race snake charmer who travels Africa with him for more than 20 years.
He imparts to the little white-faced boy every scrap of his own English education, and apprentices him to the trade of vagabond entertainer, of surviving on the laughter and wonder of a street audience.
It is the character's underlying melancholy, along with the laughter the clown evokes, that gives Postlethewaite's solo performance its emotional power. But it is acquired at a terrible cost, for it is not the hardship of his peripatetic youth that imparts it to Scaramouche, but the horrific experience inside a concentration camp, where he survives as a gravedigger, spared because of his white face. There he perfects a clowning routine for the children who are lined up before being killed, a comic depiction of the fate that awaits them.
It is an exquisitely economical and deeply moving little mime that converts the death of the heart into the fluttering free of the soul. It needs no words, and after learning it, Scaramouche becomes the professional clown who never again needs to speak.
It sums up the whole of the century that Scaramouche has lived through, and represents the only wisdom he needs to acquire.
This was a remarkable performance that steadily, over its 90 minutes, drew its audience into sympathy with the character, and elicited a standing ovation.