'Let every man be master of his time', Act III, Scene I, Macbeth
Taking me to a musical is like taking an atheist to Church. Taking me to an MTB show -known for their consistently stellar quality- is like taking an atheist to the Sermon on the Mount. Anything less than wondrous, half-drooling rapture annoys people. Musical friends berate me for “not getting it”. So. Rent: MTB’s latest (sell-out) offering to the people of Bristol. What did I “get”? That whoever said “a bad workman blames his tools” is wrong. A circle of struggling artists. New York in the 1980s. The AIDS epidemic. On paper, it’s got all the makings of a cracking show. But then it isn’t, and actually it’s no ones fault. Rent is built on a double-entendre. Ostensibly it’s about a group of tortured Bohemian-types struggling to make ends meet (“pay rent”) in New York under the shadow of AIDS. Narrated by Mark (Alex Stephenson), a wannabe filmmaker, Rent introduces us to depressed singer Roger (Charlie Mitchell) and his self-destructive erotic-dancer girlfriend Mimi (Yasemin Gezer), sensitive philosopher/anarchist Collins (Seun Oyeleye) and his drag-queen boyfriend Angel (Matt Boyle), and nasty ex-roommate-now-landlord Benny (Ben Skingsley). The narrator’s vivacious ex-girlfriend Maureen (Charlie Walker) and her new partner Joanne (Marisa Lopes) round off the principal cast.
Gentrification, homelessness, police brutality: the themes drawn upon are definitely topical. But underneath this subcutaneous layer lies a deeper meaning. “To rent” also means “to tear” and that’s what “Rent” is really about. Alienation. The alienation of rich from poor (seen through Benny’s gentrifying project to evict the homeless from his lot), the alienation of liberals from the state apparatus (seen through multiple confrontations with the police) and the alienation of the friends from each other. The alienation of those with AIDS from society, the alienation of the youth from capitalism and ultimately the alienation of each individual from themselves. Rent is about fragmentation and the ways in which people cope, whether it’s through Mimi’s drug abuse, Roger’s self-imposed isolation, Collins’ desire to escape to Santa Fe, or Maureen’s narcissistic, avant-garde performance-art. Even the lens through which we view the story -the narrator Mark’s camera- reveals his escapist need to psychologically detach. Angel, deliberately named, is the unifying spirit. In life he symbolises unity and only his tragic death is enough to achieve it. If it sounds biblical, that’s because it is. Angel’s death scene, with the entire cast dressed in white dancing around him, could be straight out of “The Passion of the Christ”. Mimi’s final resurrection, complete with her vision of “Angel” telling her “not to go into the white light” felt like being shaken by a screaming Mel Gibson. And that was the problem. The gritty psychological realism was covered with the sickly sweet smell of sentimentality.
One death seemed to overcome the glaringly deep-seated alienation and then the characters miraculously turned their lives around without explanation, and love conquered all. It was trite. And nothing and no one, not the performers’ considerable talent, not the production team’s meticulous attention to detail, not even Julia Zervos’ inspired directorial decisions, were ever going to change that. Yes, the singing had me gawping in wonder. Yes, the choreography was supremely slick. Yes, I do think a year should be measured innn… LOOOVVVVEEE. But there’s a limit to what you can do when budding Oliviers and Hepburns are performing the theatrical equivalent of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. On the flip side, the acting was strong, the singing phenomenal. The set (and especially lighting) had people around me murmuring to each other in awe. The special mentions could take awhile. Seun Oyeleye for his breathtaking voice. Charlie Walker for her hilarious cow-related performance-art. Marisa Lopes for the amusing way she slides down poles. Her acting and singing were also blindingly good but the pole-thing was pretty funny. I was unsure about Alex Stephenson’s “Mark”, until I realised the lack of particularly memorable bits was a testament to the skill with which Stephenson portrayed Mark’s detached character. Well-played sir. Matt Boyle’s “Angel” gets a slow hand clap, just because I don’t have the words to complement him on his nuanced performance of a role where it would be easy to lapse into stereotype. Liam Carty-Howe: yes. Just yes. If I I could praise each cast member, I honestly would. There were no weak links, and each performer pushed the story as far as it could go. Unfortunately, that sometimes wasn’t far enough. Jesus -practically hiding in the wings in this musical-said “hate the sin, love the sinner”. That pretty well sums up my feelings for Rent: Great Players, Bad Game.