The life of Saki is a story unto itself story. Much like the characters the iconic British writer created in his later years, Saki—the pseudonym of journalist Hector Hugh Munro—spent his youth in exotic locales. He mourned tragic losses, including that of his mother by a freak accident when he was still a toddler, and suffered through an upbringing by puritanical aunt guardians. Later he took on adventurous occupations and assumed his secret identity to become a writer of contemporary fables. In the play Life According to Saki, the fruits of his imagination mix with details pulled from biographical accounts, offering a charming, touching glimpse into how his stories came to be.
Munro was in his prime when he insisted to march as a private into the muddy, miserable trenches that characterized the Great War. In those muddy troughs of misery he met his nation’s youth, the boys and men just emerging from their teenage years, some of whom would see nothing but those trenches until the ends of their short days. In this telling of his story and stories, it was in those desperate conditions that he did what he could to lift his companions’ spirits of and take their minds away from the field of battle.
L-R: Caitlin Thorburn and Phoebe Frances Brown
Going by the name of Saki—a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam—Munro penned sometimes humorous, sometimes macabre, always satirical short stories about the follies of the landed gentry back home and the absurdist behaviors unique to Edwardian England. The heroes of these stories, often children or members of the working class—easily imagined as proxies for the boys around him—are always cleverer, kinder, and all-round better at life than the silly sods who rule over them.
These tales, adapted for the stage by children’s author Katherine Rundell, are performed with precision and impeccable comedic expression by a troop of six very hardworking actors: Phoebe Frances Brown, Ellen Francis, Tom Lambert, Tom Machell, Caitlin Thorburn, and David Paisley, as Saki. This production and its cast won a Best of Edinburgh award in 2016, and it’s no wonder why. It is a marvelous piece of work told marvelously.
The vignettes are bound together, told as if in those trenches by a company of soldiers, with a narrative provided by the character of Saki. Along with a small assortment of everyday household props that stand in for weaponry and costuming, there is a collection of striking puppets—a small boy and a small menagerie of animals designed by Clair Roi Harvey and Suzi Battersby—that set an unsettling tone. They looked heaped together like rags, but have an expression of menace that nicely balances the twee and often silly aristocrats with whom they interact.
Ellen Francis (foreground); L-R (background): David Paisley, Tom Lambert and Caitlin Thorburn
Important to note is that Munro was a gay man who grew up in the same period as the trial of Oscar Wilde, which undoubtedly had an effect on his writing. Like Wilde used coded language to discuss love and sex in a highly repressed era, Munro used animals to write about the secrets in his heart. That the work can be enjoyed by children at one level and appreciated by adults at another is just one more reason why the work remains so alive and revered. It’s also delightfully silly.
Silliness is really key here. There’s satire and commentary on Important Social Issues, applicable both then and now, but what makes these stories so memorable is the full-on, high-energy delivery and the way these talented actors throw themselves head-first (literally in some cases) into the tall tales. Director Jessica Lazar has not spared her cast, leaving them only the brief interstitial moments of narrator Saki’s contemplation to catch their breath. But they never lag, never fumble, and offer unique and interesting characters by the dozens. They are a beautiful and talented group of performers, but special mention goes to the ladies, whose breadth of accents and investment in the physical comedy made them as hilarious as they are lovely.
All photos by Alex Brenner
Top: R-L: Caitlin Thorburn, Phoebe Frances Brown, Ellen Francis and David Paisley
Life According to Saki
Written by Katherine Rundell
Directed by Jessica Lazar
Now playing at 4th Street Theater
Through March 5, 2017