Damned is the new play by Jack Harrison and it is damned difficult to explain. Its plot is vaguely non-existent and its characters may or may not be human, the dialogue delights in repetition and obscurity and there is absolutely no clear meaning to be found anywhere. However, it is easy to praise, as it is the best piece of new absurdist theatre I have ever had the pleasure to see. Not just in the fringe but anywhere.
The use of language for a start is awe-inspiring. It dazzles the mind and tingles the tip of the spine as it twists and jumps into various unpredictable areas of philosophical thought, indulgent fantasy and meaningless repetition. One particular fantastic scene contrasts the arrogant Halteg (Dave Reeson) reading from his much touted (much touted by himself) book while Etranger (Rik Baker) retreats into his dream world where he commands - with similar arrogance but far less eloquence - the services of an increasingly irate butler (Alec Walker). The contrast of Halteg's supposedly deep musings on the human condition and Etranger’s petulant display of power is terrifically done, both characters trying to dominate a mental landscape that will soon slip from their control.
What gives this play the authentic feel of the absurd is just how ordered it is. Whereas too many absurdist plays view absurdity as the mere collation of random, surreal elements (giraffe on fire, anyone?) and thus appear like the various wet dreams of a madman, Damned never seems gratuitous in its strangeness. Every weird statement or action unfolds with perfect clarity in a world that seems systematic if only you could understand it. It is precisely this tension that marks Damned out as a definite must see.
Yet a great script (and it is a great script) does not a great play make. Damned thankfully has acting to match. There is no weak link here; not even a weak moment. The performances are of such an astonishingly high technical standard that it is genuinely stunning. Reeson and bakers scene together in particular reach virtuoso heights. The timing and chemistry between them must be seen to be believed. Fin Boyter as Ansteg, the man with the plan to shake things up, is also delightful, his silly bodily movements masking a complex of web of ulterior motives. Walker as the butler is able to switch from being the butt of a joke to a chilling force of manipulation in the blink of an eye. These guys are slickness personified.
Absurd and brilliant, Damned is open to interpretation but not to criticism. Go see it.