With Fat Souls behind me, I wanted to do something ambitious. I’d completed my undergraduate degree, and my head was full of ritual theatre and stage poetry. I was inspired by the verse dramas of Steven Berkoff and by the immense symbolist edifices built by Jean Genet at the height of his fame. I decided to write a poetic symbolist drama, for my sins.
Representations of ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ were obsessing me. Bosch and Grunewald created indelible masterpieces in, respectively, the late-middle ages and the Renaissance. In the 20th century, Dali and Ernst saw that the theme had surrealist applicability. It is easy to see the demons attacking the holy man as the enticements of the flesh. The more I looked at the paintings, the more I saw that the rocks are temptations as well. Blake taught me about cloven fictions. My character Anthony Saint, a social climbing artist in a dreamworld which resembles our own, is trapped between the fleshy lures of fleeting sensual pleasure and the hard inducements of socially acceptable conformity. Only a visionary Guru, who I fancifully pictured as dressing and speaking like natty playwright Howard Barker, could see that the demon has two faces. Both are bad for you.
The two forces of temptation I dramatized as two brothers. These offer a great duel role for an actor, and we pursued Mr Berkoff himself, unsuccessfully. A lot of the doubling in the play is meaningfully conceived, a trick which I carried into my next play, Coming Up. Keen, a rude and pretty lad who Antony Saint desires, is one of a number of figures in the plays, the desire for whom leads nowhere fast. He sits alongside the Monster in Desires of Frankenstein and Bobby in I Really Must be Getting Off as a warning against following white rabbits the eyes crave. It was a lot of fun writing the verse for the play, and conceiving the many outlandish characters who inhabited the worlds of the brothers.
West End impresario Michael Codron liked Fat Souls and toyed with giving me a commission. He baulked offered the initial outline of The Temptation of Anthony Saint. The play, which I then stubbornly insisted on writing on spec, turned into Two Faces. There was a reading at the Orange Tree in Richmond. We produced the play with the new company, Friendly Fire Productions, which I’d formed with some of my favourite actors. The title was now Groping in the Dark. It was the I consciously labelled A Visionary Drama, putting on stage the struggles within the soul.
Anthony Saint is an up-and-coming artist. He has a devoted wife, Emma. Their social climbing yearnings are realised when Anthony lands a commission from the governor of the land, Lord Stone.
Stone wants Anthony to tutor his tearaway son of seventeen, Keen, in the values of hard work and discipline. One look at Keen and it's clear that Anthony himself is going to need some self-discipline of his own. Gripped by a furious desire for the sexy delinquent, Saint follows Keen to the darkness at the edge of town. In a deserted warehouse people are partying and cavorting in ways the like of which Anthony had never dared dream...
These drug and music fuelled orgies are presided over by the licentious figure of Baron Stone. This is Lord Stone's banished brother, repressed in the governor's city but still haunting the outskirts of town.
Anthony is dragged into the midst of a life and death struggle between the estranged brothers. He serves Stone's purposes by day and sinks into the delights of Sate's world by night. He risks his job, his marriage, his sanity, his very life.
A wild array of phantasmagorical characters morph into view as Anthony journeys to the extremes of his existence. Lady Stone, the fiercely moralistic wife of his Lordship. Gitman, the epitome of the dirty old man. Scrute, an oleaginous art critic. Miss Chant, a party girl to end all tomorrow's parties. Two egghead social scientists planning structured environments to enforce Stone's control. Jaded sensualist Spit, seeking his own murder as the ultimate thrill. A Bull and a Statue who come to life in dreams which threaten to tear apart the dreamer. The mysterious figure of the Guru, who has a different perspective on it all…
Casting requirements: 2 f, 5 m (with doubling)
Reading: (as Two Faces) Spring Playreadings in The Room, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, 12 May, 1995
Cast: Andrew Broadhurst (Keen), Sabina Franklyn (Lady Stone), Helen Logan [Grear] (Secretary/Emma/Miss Chant), Tim Kane (Anthony Saint), Roger Llewellyn (Lord Stone/Baron Sate), Euan Macnaughton (Various Roles); Tom Murphy [Tom Hayes] (Various Roles)
Directed by Robin Dashwood
Produced by Orange Tree Theatre
Premier: Friendly Fire Productions at Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, 16-27 October, 1996 then Mermaid Theatre Studio, 29 October – 9 November, 1996
Cast: Caroline Burns Cooke (Lady Stone), Richard Earthy (Lord Stone/Baron Sate), Helen Greer (Emma/Secretary/Miss Chant), Tim Kane (Anthony Kane), Sebastian Knapp (Keen), Euan Macnaughton (Statue/1st Egghead/Guru/Scrute/Policeman/Policeman 2/Gaoler 2/Handsome Man), Thomas Murphy [Tom Hayes] (Dealer/Bull/2nd Egghead/Gitman/Troubled Fellow/Lackey/Spit/Gaoler 1/Tramp)
Directed by James Martin Charlton; designed by Zoe Gingell; lighting by Lisa Audouin
Produced by Friendly Fire Productions
"The dream sequences, the character of the Guru and the summary progress through time are some of the play’s intriguing features…" - Jeremy Kingston, The Times
"Saint is an artist employed by Stone to teach his son, Keen, the rudimentaries of painting in the hope that this will channel some of the boy’s destructive spirit... Saint falls for Keen, following him to Sate’s nightclub where the youngster gets involved in all sorts of sexual games. Saint is seduced by Sate and several of the clientele which only serves to heighten the confusion in his mind as to what he wants from life and there lies the heart of the play.... Does the dithering artist plump for his wife, security, routine and a settled life of boredom or does he follow the path of desire and hedonism and the dangers that entails?... What follows is a tug of war between opposing ideologies with Saint the piggy in the middle whose rind could well be cooked if he's not careful... Groping in the Dark provides ebony black humour and almost mime-like actions at times which only serve to enhance the beauty of the piece... Surreal, magical, disturbing, compelling, powerful and at times brutal, Groping in the Dark is a white-knuckle ride through man’s subconscious and society’s taboos. Riveting stuff." - News Shopper
"Hailed as a live-action cartoon, Groping in the Dark is a feast for lovers of fast and furious theatre… energy and visual brilliance… Charlton is an eloquent writer" - What’s On
"A picaresque piece of physical theatre… a poetical satire in the tradition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress… ingenuous philosophising… plenty of fizz…" - Patrick Marmion, Time Out