Laugh The Buffaloby Ella Grimwade / 28.10.2013
It’s probably every artist’s dream to be able to single-handedly captivate an audience for 70 minutes without a break; to be able to fill a stage with characters using only one, remarkably flexible, body.
That is exactly what Andrew Buckland manages in his masterful new play Laugh The Buffalo, which premiered at The Baxter this month.
The plot follows the fate of a down-on-his-luck, foolish, but well-intentioned character soon to become known as “Staff”. Despite years of unemployment, he dreams of becoming a secret agent. It appears his time has finally come when an opportunity at the State’s National Espionage Unit opens up for him, but it requires passing a course of enforced silence at a deep meditation facility. In this surreal setting Staff has strange truths unearthed before him, which flip his world upside down.
Buckland stretch’s the frontiers of acting, using mime, narration, and visual theatre to metamorph himself into the most diverse collection of characters in a seamless sequence. Some of these characters are arguable an excuse for Buckland to just have fun, playing with the different identities in his extensive character wardrobe, rather than contributing to any recognisable plot purpose. But, their presence was undoubtedly entertaining and having fun with the everyday has always been intrinsic to Buckland’s work.
Furthermore, this humour belays a serious message. The plot dips and dives around core themes of belonging, betrayal, and morality as Staff struggles to make sense of his place in an increasingly confusing world. There is a strong sense that as Buckland morphs from role to role, character to character, shape to shape he – through Staff – is looking for the shape which best represents him; looking for the disguise that fits. This is very much a microcosm for South African society. Ever changing, ever evolving, ever struggling to define itself, a nation unsure who to trust. Unsure whether it can even trust itself.
Certainly a production for small audiences, the intimate studio stage at The Baxter is ideally adapted to the performance. The simplicity of the set and lighting leant a feeling of honesty to a fictional tale. Equally, the close proximity allows the audience the kind of engagement Buckland thrives on and draws you in from onlooker to participant. Buckland seems to understand his audience perfectly. He dares the comic ingenuity of spending 20 minutes portraying the exact details of the morning routine, documenting nuggets of humanity we all (embarrassingly) share but prefer to overlook. This brazen displaying of shared flaws further creates a sense of shared humanity and peculiar familiarity within the audience. We all laugh because we can all relate. This common basis then underlies the audiences’ ability to experience a shared transformation as the play progresses.
Comical yet poignant, slapstick yet sophisticated, blunt yet sensitive. Laugh the Buffalo is brave, daring, insightful, and deeply, deeply funny.
* Laugh The Buffalo is on at the Baxter Theatre until the 30 November.
** Image © Oscar O Ryan