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Home arrow Archive: Earlier Fringes arrow Archive: Edinburgh 2011 arrow Caruso and the Monkey House Trial
Caruso and the Monkey House Trial
Published on Monday, 22 August 2011

3 stars

Hill Street Theatre (venue website)
5-9, 11-16, 18-23, 25-29 Aug, 3:45pm-4:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

A fascinating concept for a one-man play, Caruso And The Monkey House Trial revisits the real-life, sensational trial of one of the world’s most famous operatic tenors.  In 1906, Enrico Caruso was arrested for molesting an unknown woman in – of all places – the monkey house of a New York zoo; it was a scandal to match any of our modern-day tabloid tales.  Was he guilty, or was he framed?  This play wisely avoids coming down definitively on either side, but there’s plenty to enjoy as it delves into the fading world which surrounded the trial.

Ignacio Jarquin, who plays all the roles, is a believable character actor, and employs a range of accents – Italian, German, American – to evoke the tale of Caruso’s troubled days.  The predominantly foreign tone works nicely, reinforcing the feel of a man who’s welcomed, but not quite accepted, by the country he now calls his home.  At times, though, I found the narrative a little hard to follow, and it took me a while before I was completely across the Who’s Who of Jarquin’s characters.  The details are certainly thought through – when he plays one man, for example, he always stands to the left – but giving the figures some bolder motifs would help us find our way in the earlier scenes.

As Caruso himself, Jarquin is haughty, yet broken.  With continual reminders of this wealth and importance, it’s a convincing and affecting portrayal of a man who’s suddenly thrown from his pedestal into the middle of a mob.  Perhaps it was a little too convincing: the emotion’s very much on one level, with Caruso, as he later comments, always wearing a (metaphorical) mask.  Despite a certain lack of engagement, though, it’s hard not to root for this “little Italian”; his attitudes to women are unreformed, but is that really just a judgement on the standards of his time?

Still, we are invited to judge Caruso himself, in a much more interesting way.  By casting us – the members of the audience – as Caruso’s jury, the script makes a valuable and telling point about how justice has evolved in the hundred years since his trial.  By any modern standard, only one verdict is really possible, and the audience on the day I attended reached it all but unanimously.  But history records a different result; and by forcing us to make up our own minds, the play drives home a reminder of the days when guilt by accusation extended out of the tabloid media and into the court itself.

There’s one aspect of Jarquin’s performance which, sadly and unavoidably, I didn’t get to see at its best.  We were warned as we headed up the stairs that he was fighting off a cold, so the fragments of operatic arias which punctuated the piece were surely not up to the standard he would usually attain.  For what it’s worth, I wasn’t convinced they added much, but who knows; on a better day, perhaps they’d have been captivating.

It’s to Jarquin’s credit that the show went on – and I learned a lot about a near-forgotten but hugely interesting footnote in the history of opera.  Watch out, too, for the neatly-done epilogue, which brings another character’s story (a rather unusual character’s story) to a touching close.

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