Cadaver Synod

Aug 23 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆    Gore of yore

Sweet Grassmarket (Venue 18): Mon 19– Sun 25 Aug 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

Cadaver Synod is an engaging historical comedy-horror from RFT at the Sweet Grassmarket that crosses boundaries of genre and taste with equal relish.

The scenario of a 9th-century Pope who has a predecessor exhumed in order to put his corpse on trial is one of those stranger-than-fiction ones, as Ben Blow’s play is based on real events in the time of Stephen VI.

Alastair William Duncan. Pic: RFT

The very idea of a decaying body on stage – which, by the way, is very well done – and the phrase ‘Cadaver Synod’ are gifts to a writer with a macabre slant, and Blow undoubtedly rises to the task. The mix of archaisms, slang, political machinations and horror has a real force – at least until after the trial itself, as the latter half of the play has much less tension and interest.

Alastair William Duncan’s Pope Stephen has both a commanding air and a slightly other-worldly feel. If the change in the character as he loses his grip is a little too marked, it is nevertheless a performance of considerable presence. David Valdez Taylor gives his assistant Camerlengo a gloriously evil sheen, while Andrea Linbova’s Queen of Italy is icily well judged.

There is an interesting combination of darkly seriously goings-on detailing a notoriously unstable period, and what can only be described as knockabout comedy. One of the faults in the second half is that this balance becomes upset, but for the most part it is well judged.

Blow himself gives three contrasting characters a great deal of comic power, while Jonathan Whiteside is so transformed in two contrasting roles as a lawyer and a soldier that you might struggle to recognise him as the same person.

a pleasing flow

Chris Allen and Hilary Davies have an effective double act as the pair of married undertakers called upon to see to the exhumation. Their appearances do have less impact as the play goes on, as they are rather overused.

Alastair William Duncan. Pic: RFT

There is a pleasing flow to the production, with director Robin Osman making good use of a small acting area and handling the constant parade of scenes and characters with skill.

The wilful refusal to adopt a consistent tone gives the production a refreshing novelty, something that is only enhanced by the recherché subject matter. Some of the ruminations on the nature of authority, papal or otherwise, that come towards the end make too explicit what has already been suggested, but otherwise this is an engaging and thought-provoking piece.

Running time 1 hour 5 minutes (no interval)
Sweet Grassmarket, Apex Hotel, Grassmarket, EH1 2HS (Venue 18)
Monday 12– Saturday24August 2019
Daily at 9.00 pm
Tickets and details:

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