How funny is genocide? This is the main question we came away with from this new production of Christopher Marlowe's final play, now on at the Rose Playhouse in Bankside.
The subject of his 1593 faux-farce is the killing of 30,000 Huguenots during the notorious St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. Hard to believe there were only 20 years between the murders themselves and Marlowe’s writing of a play, which is essentially a deliberately glib and gloriously gory panto – one played here, under the spry direction of Globe veteran James Wallace, for as many laughs as possible.
Running at a curt 90 minutes, the show’s main aim is to cram in as much mayhem as possible – the more inventive the better – with poisoned gloves, beheadings, dismemberments, countless stabbings, shootings and the spearing of drowning refugees in the scarlet waters of the Seine. It’s like Dante’s Inferno expressed as a playground game with a small band of energetic actors gamely expiring, getting dragged off into the wings then bounding back on to die all over again in some new and fiendishly gruesome way.
You certainly feel the scale – that a whole community is being erased – though it sometimes takes a conscious effort on behalf of the audience to remember that this craziness actually happened and that all the clever confetti effects would once have been real blood. Whenever that happens though the reductio ad absurdum veers towards ad nauseam and the play works best. It’s a challenging approach that seems to want us to admit that watching any re-enactment of mass murder is on some level pornography. Marlowe’s point is a simple one – isn’t this just nuts?
There are no real characters to speak of, though the villains overseeing the carnage keep coming back to remind us that there is a kind of order at the edges of the chaos. James Askill is very funny, playing the murderous King Henry as a camp and poisonous teddy bear, while John Gregor as hitman-in-chief, the Duke of Guise, has something of Rowan Atkinson about him. Also good is Kristin Milward as the medusa-like matriarch, Catherine De Medici.
The explicit references to Tarantino are a misstep – appropriate perhaps but a moribund cliché these days. Aside from that, this is a bold, bloody, rib-tickling romp that will leave you with just a little bit of sick in your mouth.
The Massacre At Paris is on at the Rose Playhouse until 29 March 2014. The semi-restored theatre is now raising funds for full redevelopment. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.