Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker Two
I am writing this review whilst no longer in Edinburgh but working at the US Open tennis championships in New York. Having been close to the sport for years I was thrilled to see a performance that spoke about its world. Being welcomed into the Bunker Two by the unmistakable blue shade of a hard-surface court was more than enough to plunge me straight into the right setting.
The play is inspired by the 1894 novel Trilby by George du Maurier, about a despotic manager who exploits a young immigrant woman and turns her into a famous singer. Scottish playwright and director Eve Nicol’s transposition to a more modern setting is a testament to how timely the character still is in the era of #MeToo. In this case, Svengali is a coach and Trilby a young and beautiful girl “discovered” at the local tennis club.
Although not being particularly talented, she achieves worldwide success by blindly trusting his coercive psychological training. “Subdue the negative ego in our heads” is at the top of his agenda, which seems to entirely disregard the importance of technical skills. For its individualistic nature, tennis lends itself well to the analogy, as a lack of confidence in the long run is commonly what prevents an athlete from developing its full potential.
Supported by a solid script and well-structured plot, the real x-factor in this show is Chloe-Ann Tylor’s charismatic cross-gender portrayal of Svengali. Dressed in a grey suit and orange tie, hair pulled back, clenched jaw and overconfident with their body language, they can be truly intimidating. Despite the stagnant lighting and lack of sound, their emotions seep through as they transition from brashness, to rage and dejection.
If Nicol’s monologue was intended to depict a monster, however, this didn’t quite land. Manipulating the power of Trilby’s mind whilst fighting his own self-doubt – an internal voice referred to as “the super brat” – makes them borderline attractive. His theories are more fascinating than intimidating and, rather than despising their feats, I felt sorry for their demise. Entirely subjective as my reaction might have been, I walked away from the Pleasance believing that Svengali had also been a victim; proof that the character may be too mellow, or, even better, that the patriarchal mentality is far more ingrained than one would like to admit.
Written and Directed by: Eve Nicol
Produced by: Eve Nicol in association with Pleasance and Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Svengali played as part of EdFringe 2022.