Originally written 15th February 2017 for Varsity, but not published
In A Fool to his Folly, the ominous, existential new play by first-year Victor Rees, Charlie Smallways (Ellie Gaunt), a young woman unable to find purpose in life, is rejuvenated by the realisation that, actually, she’s not a real person at all, but a fictional character, the invention of self-styled Renaissance man Max Spikher (Dan Blick). It’s an amusing conceit, and one that’s been explored by absurdist playwrights like Luigi Pirandello in the 20th Century, to indie films like Ruby Sparks in the 21st. Except, Max isn’t actually her creator, and Charlie isn’t actually fictional. Max is, in fact, a conman, a conniving trickster who preys on gullible people to gain money and power – Charlie is just his latest victim.
A Fool to his Folly is full of these kinds of subversions and contradictions. The title itself seems to be a reference to a passage from Proverbs in which one verse instructs the reader to “answer a fool according to his folly”, while the other instructs them not to. At first, the play seems transparent – it’s a farce, using the two conmen, Max and his more straightlaced companion Frankie Ketch (Will Hall), to explore the nature of truth as they smooth-talk Mayor Cherry (Katie Woods) into thinking they can give her immortality. But that assumption is quickly turned on its head as the increasingly megalomaniac Max slowly changes from a slightly daft comic character into a bloodthirsty cult leader, turning the play into an intense drama about the abuse of power.
This change is brilliantly portrayed by Dan Blick, whose skittish, flamboyant charm initially endears him to us over Will Hall’s fantastically stone-faced Frankie, making it even more surprising and unsettling to witness him morph into an abusive autocrat. The rest of the cast is equally strong – Katie Woods’ self-deluding Mrs. Cherry elicited several laughs from the audience, and Ellie Gaunt perfectly captures Charlie’s vulnerability and desperation to search for meaning. Meanwhile, Ania Magliano-Wright and James Coe fielded an impressive variety of different characters, including one with a very convincing West Country accent. The play was also helped by some clever uses of staging – one particularly interesting scene featured two conversations happening in parallel in different corners of the stage, with the shift between them indicated by a change in lighting.
The play isn’t without its flaws. It sometimes feels as if it’s trying to be too smart for its own good, or it’s trying to cram in so many ideas in at once that it just doesn’t have time to examine them all in detail. For example, there are few moments where Frankie himself seems tempted by the idea that he is actually a fictional character. Writer Victor Rees seems to be hinting at some kind of metatheatrical device here, and one of my favourite lines of the play comes about an hour in when Frankie says he feels like he’s only been here 60 minutes, but Rees doesn’t really follow up on this. The play also feels a little unbalanced; it spends so much time dwelling on its farcical aspects in the earlier scenes that, when the gears shift and the play finally reaches fever-pitch, it seems to end a bit too quickly, leaving too many questions unanswered, too many loose ends left untied.
But then, isn’t that what the play wants me to think? I’ve been talking about subversion – couldn’t it be that this imbalance in pacing is part of that subversion too? Have I been thinking I’ve understood this play, only to find that I’ve been duped just as Charlie was by Max? Whatever the case, A Fool to his Folly left my head spinning – it’s a heady, challenging drama that proves Rees should be someone you keep an eye on, and with a cast this good, it’s well worth a watch.