Posted on May 17, 2011
The opportunity to see the Manchester-based performer Benji Reid is always one to be taken. A fine exponent of body popping and other hip hop and break dancing styles, Reid’s exceptional facility lies in the ability to take his slim, lanky body – it appears at times almost goofy and rubbery – and craft movement from it that follows contours of shapes and lines with rhythmic precision and absolute clarity of form. He resembles one of the great Russian mimes in that this clarity and control of movement (that proceeds rather like a cartoon flip-book) charts ranges of language and emotions, whether it be at speed or in slow motion.
In recent years he has taken on the directorship of the hip hop dance theatre company Breaking Cycles (which he founded in 2000), based at the Contact Theatre, Manchester, and used it to work with young people from the local area, through workshops, masterclasses and professional performances. One such I saw as the curtain raiser to Mzobane (reviewed in December 2010’s Dancing Times and also devised by Reid in collaboration with Via Volcano) that showed these kids have thrilling possession of hip hop skills and consummate artistry. But seeing Reid the performer is all too rare, so when it was announced he would be performing his one-man (and a DJ, Alex Wong) show The Devil Has Quentin’s Heart at the Contact in early March, the decision to attend was a no-brainer.
Yet it did not quite live up to expectations. As it’s title suggests, the work, directed by Peader Kirk, is a Faustian drama for the 21st Century. Based on a novel, Iced, by the American author Ray Shell, it told of Quentin’s pact with the devil: the selling of his heart (but not his soul – “a black man could never be without his soul” Quentin asserted) in return for the life of a New York stock broker, a millionaire trapped in his own penthouse paradise-cum-jail. Yet the sale comes at a price and in seven years time, after he has defrauded his bank and lost his job (rather like a Tom Wolfe character), the devil will come to claim Quentin as his own.
The work began in Quentin’s last hour on his last day; his body huddled in a leather armchair, a box of tissues (he is masturbating when we first meet him) and a Victorian table lamp by his side, the detritus of an evening drinking surrounded him. It then proceeded in flashback, recounting the moments that had led to his shame – the arguments with his father, the meeting with a whore at the cemetery, that fatal conversation with the devil. This latter scene, central to the work’s structure, was the piece’s most dramatically gripping, as Reid assumed both roles physically and in speech, engaging in a dialogue with himself that reminded me of the Schubert song “Der Erlkönig”, in which the single voice brilliantly takes the four characters of the Goethe poem – a further reference by Reid to the Faust legend, perhaps.
Reid’s gift was to juxtapose these dramatically turbulent passages with others full of pathos, not least by his lyrical movement abilities at slow tempo, his arms and legs undulating with beautiful contrapposto, countering his alertly frenzied movements, as if charged with sudden electric shocks, when at higher pace. One scene, wracked with sympathy, saw Quentin celebrating his birthday party alone, with just a series of polystyrene cups dotted around to act as family and friends, and as he caressed one as his former girlfriend, it was hard not to be partly moved. Another saw him conversing with his father – a figure represented by his large portrait at the side of the stage – though these conversations lacked real dramatic urgency (and sometimes sense).
This, indeed, seemed the problem with the work as whole. At 75 minutes it outstayed its welcome on the stage by at least half an hour, and as we saw Quentin descend into his mayhem I asked myself whether I really cared. Yet Reid’s performance was majestic, with wonderful switches between the comic and the serious, and the lighting from the late Paul Colley – to whom this performance was dedicated – was beautifully iridescent. Ironically enough, the work seemed to lack heart and if we were expected to show interest in the heart of its protagonist, The Devil Has Quentin’s Heart certainly needed one of its own.
Benji Reid in The Devil Has Quentin’s Heart. Photograph: Irven Lewis