Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Musical

Fri 3rd – Wed 15th August 2012

reviews

Leah Eades

at 01:40 on 4th Aug 2012

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I'll be perfectly honest: as a reviewer I'm stumped. I just don't know what to make of this show. I don't know what happened. I don't know how to feel. I don't know how to react.

Upon arrival in this very small venue, I initially thought I was in the wrong place. Clearly this was a stand-up set? One man on a small raised platform in front of a few rows of chairs in a small side room off a bar - hardly the stuff of musicals! Everyone knows that when something is followed by those two magic words "The Musical" we are about to witness a hilariously camp take on a serious subject... right?

Wrong.

The performance soon transpired to be a one-man show. In terms of living up to what the title suggested, it certainly subverted expectations as it a) did not touch much at all upon the Tibetan Book of the Dead (but was rather an exploration of one man facing up to his own mortality) and b) was not a musical. This became apparent about ten minutes into the performance when the performer stopped listing the joys of being alive in a deadpan voice and announced that this was the part of the show where he'd usually sing a song... but tonight his equipment had gone AWOL, so let's move on.

I wondered if this was part of the performance, and any minute now the black curtain behind him would lift to reveal a brass band and breakdancers. But it turned out - it wasn't.

Instead of the song and dance one might expect, you are instead subjected to one of the most awkward, uncomfortable and intense hours of your life. In front of us, a dying man begins to have a breakdown on stage as he begins to face up to his own impending death. He convulses before us, arms outstretched, perched on the edge of an imaginary precipice, and his words become more and more disjointed as he talks about his life and what it is to die. He doesn't say anything particularly original or thought-provoking on the subject, but what gets you is the rawness of it - I had to double-check at the end of the performance that it had actually been acting, and he wasn't really dying. I was genuinely concerned that the man in front of me, the one shaking, breaking down in tears, unable to reach for the customary glass on water at his side and silent for long stretches whilst he recovers his composure, was not acting.

It felt uncomfortable and awkward and horrible. I couldn't meet his eyes in the small room and I just wanted to get out of there. I wanted to run away and not have to think about death: his, mine or anyone else's. The only comic relief was the thought that I'd turned down going to see a Sarah Kane play about cannibalising a dead baby to watch this, because I thought that would be too depressing. I think I made the wrong call.

All I wanted throughout the performance was to get out of there and write my scathing review, but in retrospect this performance has moved me more than anything else I've seen at the Fringe yet, purely because it felt so real. It didn't have anything to do with the title, the script's by no means superb and the backstory doesn't develop as much as I'd like for an extended dramatic monologue - the whole thing feels scattered and chaotic - but if you want to be genuinely, purely affected then this is the show for you. It's lucky it's in a bar - you're going to need a stiff drink afterwards, because you'll be left feeling brutalised. If you see the actor at the bar then please, do buy him a drink too. I suspect he's in need of one too if he's breaking down like that daily.

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Natasha Tabani

at 02:14 on 4th Aug 2012

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When I turned up to see 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Musical', I was expecting something light-hearted and mildly philosophical. What I saw was mildly philosophical, extremely intense and not at all musical.

The set-up was more like a stand-up show than a musical, but what you get is the opposite of comedy. A man in a suit stands with open arms, a wide-eyed expression and a husky voice. He apologises for the lack of music that the show will contain; his friend has borrowed his musical equipment and hasn’t yet returned it. This was, of course, both a shock and a disappointment, but I later learned that he hopes to get his equipment back soon and that it isn’t too integral to the performance anyway (although this is another strange thing for a professed musical).

His monologue follows the story of Michael Thross, an ex TV performer whose life has taken an unexpected turn and who has become acutely aware of mortality. The speech loosely hints at ideas which are explored in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but contains only one explicit reference to Tibet (not even to the book itself!). The performance is extremely harrowing and uncomfortable, but still surprisingly gripping and engaging. It had a bizarre effect upon me, a bit like medicine, where the after-effects were better than the experience. In other words, I’m not sure I enjoyed it at the time but it left me with a profound impression and kept me thinking for a long while afterwards.

The Free Fringe shows are always going to be hit-and-miss. It’s great that their scope and depth extends to productions such as this, which is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Thross’s own conclusion on life is that ‘This isn’t real. This has never been real.’ The performance itself, however, is very real, overly visceral, almost hyper-real. This was a difficult one to review, partly because the music was missing and partly because I’m not at all sure what kind of grounds it should be judged on. I was shocked at the intensity of the acting, but I felt that the overall effect was slightly lacking – the thought processes could have been more profound, and given the name I felt there should have been more explicit links to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It was definitely innovative in its basic premise and captivating in its execution, but lacked substance. I would recommend it to anyone who’s willing to try something different and doesn’t mind uncomfortable and eccentric performances.

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Comments

Matthew Reynolds; 16th Aug 2012; 22:33:51

***** An experience. If you want to be amused, moved or entertained then do not come and watch this. It seems like a strange comparison, bear with me, but when i visited Auschwitz there is no way I would say I "enjoyed" it. That would be the most terrible insult. I felt something. And there is no doubt this performance will make you feel. Some will run to the door, others will stay put and take it. The first character of this one-man show speaks in broken English, says thankyou and sorry repetitively, fumbling with the audio equipment. With shades of Andy Kaufman you can't help but find him endearing. The rest of the hour is intense to say the least with rambling but somehow poignant monologues about death. The most striking of these observes that in health and safety manuals, there is no guide on what to do if you actually die. A moment later he drops the stage on himself and everyone isn't sure whether to help the actor from his plight or watch this strange metaphor for death. The "songs" suggested in the title are loopstation cacophonies, sometimes with audience interaction, with the performer acting out some kind of bizzare Sinatra tribute over the top. At the end, our broken English character returns to declare his love for us all. His hopeless smile and red sweaty face will haunt me for a long time.

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