Originally written for The Guardian.
On the tiny stage of Notting Hill’s Gate theatre, Steffan Rhodri is joined by a pair of unlikely co-stars. Director Jude Christian’s production of the awkwardly titled I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole has added two small, headstrong piglets to Rodrigo García’s surreal monologue.
“I was bemused by this decision at first,” the actor says, “but I’ve sort of learned to love it.” He adds that the pigs, who stand in for the protagonist’s two sons, are “unpredictable”, but the chaos and absurdity of their presence is oddly fitting for the piece. The animals and their unscripted behaviour send out a strong signal to audiences: “It immediately sets that surreal tone, that absurd tone of we are not in naturalistic reality here, this is up to you to interpret what this man is on about.”
García’s play follows a man in the grip of a midlife crisis; he is “railing against the materialism of life, but also searching for some meaning”. As the man questions his own existence, he tells the story of a hedonistic road trip with his sons, which culminates with breaking into the Prado museum, in Madrid, to look at Goya’s Black Paintings. The line between fantasy and reality, however, is constantly blurred.
This character’s experience mirrors, to an extent, Rhodri’s reasons for taking on the role. The actor is best known as Dave Coaches from the television comedy Gavin and Stacey, which quickly became a runaway hit for the BBC. Rhodri says of the show that he was “lucky to be involved, but not defined by it”. He has since taken on a string of roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in the West End, as well as making a brief appearance in the penultimate Harry Potter film. This production is an opportunity to break out of that mainstream trajectory and do something “completely off the wall”. It is Rhodri’s window-smashing moment.
He is also firm in his belief that this sort of risk-taking, form-pushing work should be the purpose of fringe theatre, pointing out that a play such as this one would never be produced in the West End. “Quite often these days fringe theatre can be used in a very safe way as a vehicle for smaller, cheaper versions of mainstream theatre,” he says. “I think this is very different.”
As well as contending with the whims of the piglets, Rhodri has the formidable task of carrying García’s anarchic narrative alone each night. Although this is Rhodri’s first solo show, he describes himself as “a sucker for a challenge” and is excited about standing the piece up in front of an audience. “I never imagined myself doing a one-man show,” he confesses. “If I’m going to do one, I’d rather do one that breaks all the rules.”
Rhodri is also relishing the challenge of the “particular openness” that this slippery, ambiguous play allows. He compares it to Beckett and the absurdist tradition, as well as identifying “a sort of dreamlike quality that is reminiscent of Pinter”.
What most excites Rhodri – and, he hopes, the audiences who will come to see it – are the ideas that García is grappling with. “It is about the big questions of life, in a very short, punchy piece. How should life be lived? How should life be experienced? Do we need to make plans and be safe, or do we just need to do things?”
Photo: Tristram Kenton.