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British theater beguiles on the big screen

By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

Theater ReviewCCP’s National Theatre Live: FleabagGreenbelt 3 Cinema

THOSE OF US who are oceans away from London might think that watching a British stage play is but a pipe dream, just considering the great distance from and great cost of accessing a professional London theater. National Theatre Live (NTL), a new program of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, changes all that.

First launched in 2009, NTL broadcasts stage productions filmed live from the London National Theatre to cinemas across the United Kingdom, around the world, and now in the Philippines. Screened in high definition, it allows theater fans everywhere to watch an actual British play.

Classics — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and of course, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet — will have screenings at Greenbelt 3 in Makati over the next six months.

Already shown back in September were the magical visuals and puppetry in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a modern tale about the journey of a 16-year-old boy stranded on a lifeboat at the sea with four animals.

But it is the screening of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s darkly comedic one-woman show Fleabag in October this writer was able to see and experience what all the fuss was about.

Written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and directed by Vicky Jones, Fleabag is about a daring, often filthy-minded, and extremely flawed woman only known as Fleabag. The hilarious play follows how she navigates her strained relationships with family and friends and uses sex and adult humor to mask her vulnerabilities.

Though it inspired the BBC’s hit TV series of the same name, it is clearly the foundation or precursor for it. For one, it’s a one-woman show, with Waller-Bridge performing all the events she is recounting as Fleabag, almost as if it were a stand-up routine. (Of course, the key difference would be that stand-up follows no plot, so this qualifies as a play since there is a central narrative.)

Because of this, the magic of NTL being able to bring the glory and magnitude of a full-blown production to the big screen is tested only slightly. Fleabag is minimalist, with one actor on stage monologuing in a chair on an empty set.

(Perhaps BusinessWorld will attend a screening of one of the grander Shakespeare productions at a later date.)

Still, the simplicity of the stage works. Fleabag’s irreverent commentary, sharp wit, and at times shocking vulnerability become more intimate.

It is the sounds that bring her world to life — the tinkle of bells as a cafe door opens, moans from a computer as Fleabag watches pornography, and the soft squeaking of a small guinea pig central to the plot. Waller-Bridge also interacts with voiceovers sometimes while narrating a story.

The lights do their part. On a taxi ride home, the flash of streetlamps indicates that Fleabag sits in a vehicle traveling through the streets at night. The camera work by NTL makes the production somewhat cinematic as well, with angles switching when Fleabag recounts conversations with others.

Another reminder that this is a theater play is the audience reaction. It isn’t too distracting, like staged sitcom laughter. Someone may cough softly into handkerchief, as one did in London’s West End in 2019 when this was recorded live, or Waller-Bridge may suddenly speak as if pointedly making a certain audience member in the front row laugh.

The story itself is a riot, as the character tells the audience about various aspects of her professional, personal, and sex life, following the death of her friend Boo. Adult humor, subtle yet hilarious, often hides a sorrowful tone.

Fleabag, in essence, goes to great lengths to show how flawed a woman can be, relatable enough with its tonal shifts to make female audiences to laugh or gasp, but fucked up enough to remind us all that we’re watching a character.

This stream of consciousness composed of recollections of disastrous life decisions and short-term sexual flings gradually cuts through the defensive mechanism of humor to expose the raw pain within (tied inextricably to a certain guinea pig that we never see, but effectively only hear).

It’s the barebones genesis of a highly regarded television series, and though that does show in places, it’s a must-watch for anyone who is curious about how the crazy world of Fleabag came to be.

(Fleabag can be streamed on National Theatre at Home.)

Neil Banzuelo

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