Trevor Smith’s An Evening with Dementia, which has captivated audiences and critics alike in its three runs, seems set to become one of the valued mainstays of the Edinburgh Fringe. His latest one-man show does not live up to such a standard. The Return of Savonarola is an erratic patchwork of biography and new-age prophecy, both thin and a little dogmatic. Smith’s fine delivery cannot overcome weaknesses inherent in the script.
The reproduction of trite attitudes, however, begins to grate.
The concept is interesting enough. An ageing, drunken comedian totters on to the stage; after passing out, he begins speaking in an odd, deep voice, his body invaded by a spirit or ghost. This is Savonarola, the 15th-century monk and prophet who briefly expelled the Medici from Florence and was executed after disobeying the Pope. He begins his new lease on life by lambasting his host for his indulgence and waste. “He is dead while living,” he says, “and now I am living while dead.”
The show progresses by alternating between narration of Savonarola’s life - focusing on the corruption and inequality in late medieval Italy - and heavy-handed condemnations of today’s society. It contains some provocative ideas about past lives: a little too close to Scientology for comfort, perhaps, but also somewhat self-contradictory. If death makes you instantly conscious of innumerable past lives, why does this spirit return as Savonarola? Indeed, why hasn’t he lived again since his 15th-century death? More successful is a poetic description of sleep as “an estuary in which the dead can nudge you,” an inventive and well-integrated explanation for dreams. Smith’s acting too is a highlight. Some of his most effective movements are steps backwards: hesitant, unguarded — authentic.
The reproduction of trite attitudes, however, begins to grate. All is part of All, we are told; multinationals roam the earth like dinosaurs, destroying the natural wealth of the world. “War can become obsolete if the addictions to religion and nationalism wane.” Smith’s position is a curious mix of environmentalism, pantheism, and anti-corporacy. Even if we accept his final message — that “each human consciousness must open a little more” – this is surely an ineffective way of disseminating it.