Review: In ‘Life According to Saki,’ Whistling a Perversely Happy Tune
Review by Ben Brantley published in the New York Times on February 13th 2017
A chipper young troupe out of Britain is pulling sunshine from the dark in “Life According to Saki,” a bouncy adaptation of the elegantly macabre short stories of its title character. A hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, this brisk entertainment bears the same relation to its source material as the 1964 Disney film “Mary Poppins”did to the novels that inspired it.
That is to say, it’s perfectly enjoyable as a whimsy-splashed showcase for fresh-faced talent. But the distinctive perversity of the author it riffs upon ultimately eludes the talented creators of this hourlong production, which opened on Monday night at the Fourth Street Theater.
Saki, the pen name of H. H. Munro (1870-1916), began his writing career as a light-penned political satirist and advanced into a peerless series of brief, perfectly composed tales that unleashed the demons of anarchy into the Edwardian drawing room. His stories informed the imaginations of many a preadolescent (including this reviewer), who thrilled in their discreet gore and nasty baiting of stuffy grown-ups.
In “Life According to Saki,” the British children’s book writer Katherine Rundell has reimagined a sampling of these stories as they might have been told by their author in the trenches of World War I, in which he served and died. As introduced by Munro (David Paisley) and performed with music-hall virtuosity by his fellow soldiers, these narratives come to represent British bravado in the face of disaster, the equivalent of whistling a happy tune when afraid.
Under the direction of Jessica Lazar, the rendering of his stories, including several lesser-known ones and two incomparable classics, brings out their most accessibly theatrical elements — the Oscar Wilde-esque epigrams and the comic grotesqueness of pompous members of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie.
This approach allows for some spirited horseplay, literally in the case of one sketch in which two Mayfair ladies, wittily played by Caitlin Thorburn and Phoebe Frances Brown, encounter a hyena while riding to the hounds. And the blithely protean ensemble offers many charming acts of instant metamorphosis.
They are assisted by a design team (sets by Anna Lewis and lighting and sound by David Doyle) that turns a theater of war into storybook theater. But it’s the show’s life-size puppets (by Clair Roi Harvey and Suzi Battersby) who come closest to evoking Saki’s eerie sense of avenging nature, especially in the “Sredni Vashtar” sequence, in which a dying boy makes a god of a pet ferret.
Ms. Rundell has made a few adjustments. A proposed hoax of a scheme in one story now involves the elimination of people with mustaches instead of Jews. And Saki’s figures of speech are occasionally tweaked for contemporary ears, not necessarily for the better.
As for Saki himself, whose status-quo-upsetting fantasies surely sprang in part from being gay in a repressive age, he is portrayed by Mr. Paisley as a jocular soul whose eyes brim with tears.
He’s agreeable company. But it’s hard to detect the man of whom the critic V. S. Pritchett said: “Saki writes like an enemy. Society has bored him to the point of murder. Our laughter is only a note or two short of a scream of fear.”