Unmissable Epstein: celebrating a secret god

Suave but not without a backstory: Nicholas Pauling is Brian Epstein. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

Suave but not without a backstory: Nicholas Pauling is Brian Epstein. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

They controversially deemed themselves more popular than Jesus Christ. Their songs are probably better known than Shakespeare. At 21 they were immortal. But they didn’t do it alone. This absolutely beautiful play reflects on the mysterious character of Brian Epstein, the record shop assistant who became manager of the Beatles: offering a thumbnail sketch of his life and how it interfaced with the success of a boy band from Liverpool that effectively changed the world’s music culture forever. The play has sharply honed language, incredibly three-dimensional performances and an utterly impeccable set. In short, it’s completely flawless.

It begins with the Liverpudlian scruffiness of the “Nowhere Man” played by Sven Ryugrok, who comes onto the scene as a pick-up. He emerges as a freelance music journalist, and therein unleashes the whole world of the 1960s with all its drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll; all its shaggy rugs, Mies van der Rohe evocative furniture and Mondrian-like visual simplicity. It’s a world where fame is within an arm’s reach, and the gods of popular music look as fresh-faced and happy as the proverbial boy next door.

Brian Epstein was Jewish and gay. He came of a conservative family fraught with taboos. With his brylcreemed coif and his conservative suit, he retains 1950s dignity with an understated but not undeveloped 1960s savvy. Nicholas Pauling embodies this larger than life, deeply troubled, obscenely successful and tragic character with a love and a sense of intimate empathy that will make you cry because of its realness, as it will make you love the man with all his frailties and demons.

This is no gentle tribute, in any way. Think of plays like Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye in terms of how the narrative and text, the characters and their predicament are teased out, cleaved together and revealed to be emotionally complex, fraught with barbs, difficult and recalcitrant, and this is roughly what you get in Epstein. The work leaves you feeling a bit battered emotionally, but deeply exhilarated, resonating with that reflection that Beatles music in its raw state had the simplicity and emotional wisdom to act as a prism to the times with its content that was clichéd by life, but affected by happiness, and could “knock you in the chest” with its directness and timelessness.

What the makers of TV series Mad Men have done in reflecting the advertising industry in 1950s Manhattan, so have director Fred Abrahamse and designer Marcel Meyer, with their slice of 1967 – the difference is obviously the time frame in which they have to do it (not to mention the budget at hand). The wisdom in balancing these two supremely skilled performers opposite one another, conjoined with the understated yet wisely constructed icons of the time, offer a sense of intrusion into Epstein’s life, which, engaging and emotional, will take you on a rollercoaster through an understanding of what success on such a fundamental level means.

Easily one of the best plays of the year staged in this province, Epstein leaves you with the impact of a man who was fallible but who turned the world on its head in opening doors for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. There are frissons of Beatles’ songs informing and fleshing out elements of the story, but this is no Beatles concert. It’s a bitterly fresh portrait of the back story of one of the world’s secret gods. And it’s the kind of play that enriches you, from the first until the last, and it doesn’t let go.

  • Epstein: the man who made the Beatles is written by Andrew Sherlock and directed by Fred Abrahamse with costumes and set by Marcel Meyer. It features performances by Nicholas Pauling and Sven Ryugrok and is at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino until September 27 co.za
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