CHARLIE CHAPLIN GOES TO WAR
Simon Bradbury’s one-man show, directed by the Gateway’s Artistic Director, Simon Johnston, imaginatively reconstructs how Charlie Chaplin might have arrived at the ending for his 1940 film satire of Hitler, The Great Dictator. It’s an intermission-less 90 minutes of hits and misses, worth seeing primarily for a novel technical effect.
As with the Firehall’s recent production of The Blue Light, a bio-drama of Hitler’s documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the audience is expected to know or recognize or recall details of a specific film more than half a century old. Unlike in The Blue Light, Bradbury at least performs many of the film’s familiar (i.e., if you know the film) scenes for us: for example, the Jewish barber shaving the dictator Adenoid Hynkel. His imitations of Charlie Chaplin, however, only make us aware of Chaplin’s remarkable, almost balletic grace and perfect comic timing, which Bradbury lacks. Not that Bradbury is a bad actor; it’s just that here he’s simply mimicking another performer who does himself better than Bradbury does him.
Bradbury (along with co-writer Dan Kamin) also handicaps himself with a device that has Chaplin in conversation with a number of offstage characters—mainly his brother, who also seems to be his assistant—via a crude and annoying speaker device. He creates plot complications through an almost equally artificial psychological device. For unclear reasons Chaplin recalls his primal trauma—publicly mocking his mother the first time he appeared on stage. Conveniently, his guilt ultimately leads Charlie to the solution of his problem, the ending of his film. It also makes possible the show’s most interesting and effective moments.
In the midst of what appears to be a kind of nervous breakdown, the live Chaplin (Bradbury) on stage begins interacting with the filmed Chaplin (Bradbury again) who mysteriously appears on a large screen in his study (via Simon Clemo’s witty video projections). Chaplin’s divided self (see above) is manifested in arguments between the Little Tramp and Hitler and various other binary versions of Charlie and Chaplin. Under Johnston’s direction these carefully timed scenes are clever and sometimes even moving.
They suggest how good this show might have been if playwright Bradbury had given actor Bradbury more imaginative material with which to work.