It’s certainly rare to walk into the Basement Studio to find a two-metre-high replica of an eighteenth century guillotine—but crucially, as I find on this particular Tuesday evening, it’s not impossible. Upon first sight of the Basket Case set, it seems a remarkably dense arrangement: the guillotine upon a raised stage, with a tower of large crates sitting alongside. Off to the left, another tall, rectangular crate, placed vertically, with a red satin cloth over top. As I take my seat in the second row, I notice whatever’s sitting under the cloth is breathing. This ‘whatever’, it turns out, is the singed, ornately-styled head of Marie Antoinette (Mahalia Sinclair-Parker).
“There’s a remarkable tactility to this production—without a shadow of a doubt, I’ve never seen a period piece of this scale at Basement.”
The deceased—and decapitated—queen acts as our host for the hour, in an admirable turn from Sinclair-Parker: she carries us through all essential exposition, and navigates both audience participation and the occasional moment of opening night teething with finesse. Sinclair-Parker’s Marie Antoinette is also frequently accompanied (as one would hope, really) by Marie Antoinette’s body. This is the first of two roles played to the same effect by Tamara Gussy, who without a doubt puts in her fair share of the leg work. Clad for the duration of the show in a black cloth mask to obscure her face and head, Gussy plays assistant—and often provides physical demonstration—as the story unfolds, dressed from the bloodied neck down in a collection of intricate, well-made gowns. Indeed, the hair, make-up, and costume design feel just as realised as Tarquin Slater and Jordan Tarplett-Lee’s set does. There’s a remarkable tactility to this production—without a shadow of a doubt, I’ve never seen a period piece of this scale at Basement.
Once Marie Antoinette’s head and body have acquainted us (via several framed portraits) with the show’s essential thematic premise—the slippery nature of truths and public perception—we meet our remaining cast of characters. The three souls on trial, bound by audience vote for either heaven or hell, are: the disgraced revolutionary General Césaire Roche (Sam Goodger), a baker and self-described ‘murderer’ Timothée Petit (Mark Huston), and the infamous Vivienne Lachance (Elle Wootton). We first see the three of them sentenced to the guillotine, taken through execution with the aural sting of the blade and a flash of red light, followed by a short blackout. After each execution, we find the still-animated head of the deceased sitting on a bed of straw in a basket, atop the pile of crates. (The dense packing of the performance space starts to make sense at this point, when one considers the practicalities of having to hide the bodies of at least four—at one stage, five, with Ben Moore’s turn as Marcel Cauldron—actors onstage for almost an hour.)
Laid to not-quite-rest in the straw basket post-beheading, our three pseudo-heroes are tasked by Marie Antoinette to make a case for why they ought to, in the Basket Case vernacular, ‘go up’—accompanied by appropriate bright light and heavenly chimes—rather than ‘down’ (cue the red wash, spitting embers, and screaming). Ultimately, the choice will fall to the audience; a paddle, red on one side and green on the other, has been placed on each of our seats.
Writer/director Ben Hobbs has crafted the line-up well; each of the three characters is sharply drawn by both the script and the actor portraying them. These are familiar archetypes: the brash, cantankerous Roche; the comparatively meek, overwhelmed Timothée; the vivacious, playful Vivienne—and this familiarity gives the show an air almost of nostalgia as it moves adroitly through the beats of what feels like a classic black comedy. There are some clever plays on the French (Roche branding himself the rocher, ‘Rock’, of Burgundy, where other characters heard him publicly pronounced the boucher, ‘Butcher’), and a great war-of-perspective battle reenactment by Gussy and Moore (both masked and ‘headless’).
As Marie Antoinette counts down to the vote, we also discover new layers to each of our protagonists: infamous dalliances; the murky incitement of a massacre; betrayal of others for the security of one’s own; the giving up of an infant by a parent. These new layers, I imagine, are where public opinion would split heaviest. While certain revelations might be the nail in the coffin for some, I find myself coming down hard on the side of ‘going up’, almost more as a particular ideological counterargument than because the individual character has swayed me. And when the occasion of the final vote does arise, Marie Antoinette reveals one last twist: regardless of how compelling a case each of our characters has made, at least one of them must be sent down into the fiery pits. This launches us into the voting process proper, which reveals itself to be another site of ambiguity. Rather than casting a vote on each character and then gauging the atmosphere of the room, figuring out the general ratio of greens to reds and the standing of each within the trio, it’s far more a first come, first served arrangement.
“Where does justice live when an inherently punitive system allows no space for context or nuance?”
One character goes up before we realise this. Marie Antoinette seems almost surprised at our choice. Then the second round of voting comes—with, I get the sense from those around me, a degree of uncertainty as to whose destiny we’re voting on. And in that hazy, second round, two fates are sealed: sending another up and condemning perhaps the closest thing the narrative gave us to a conventional protagonist to eternal torture. It does feel unfair—like we’ve been misled by a process we have, in showing up, agreed to participate in. But I also can’t help thinking that might be the point. Perhaps the very conceit of the show hammers home the essential truth of it. Where does justice live when an inherently punitive system allows no space for context or nuance? (And to what degree can any justice be served, really, when all our principal characters are being forced to campaign for compassion, having already been executed by guillotine?)
I leave the show wondering how the verdict will fall at the conclusion of each of the remaining performances. Whether patterns will repeat themselves, whether small tweaks might make for fundamentally different outcomes. All things considered, I can’t help, as I leave, taking a gander at the fate laid out by the audience’s left-over voting paddles.
For the most part, I notice, it looks like Basket Case is going up.
Featured image courtesy of The Basement.