The greatest figures in both sport and art - the ones who cast the longest shadows - tend not to be well liked. We are fascinated and impressed by them, but they also become an outlet for our own feelings of inadequacy. The inexplicable rage or sense of betrayal we feel toward them often seems to be nothing more than a paltry and pathetic self-recrimination ever so thinly veiled.
In its strongest aspects, Sky Gilbert's Toller at this year's Fringe festival explores those self-same questions regarding the artist and sports figure Toller Cranston. Its essential masterstroke is that in a fine, if somewhat muscular, performance by David Benjamin Tomlinson, Toller has the same relationship to himself that we as the public do.
To be special, to be a foundling, a changeling and an unstoppable force, one must look at the world at large and say "THIS IS WHO I AM", in moments of solitude though it becomes clear that the inverse of "WHO I AM" is always, endlessly "Who am I?"
There's a lovely trick played on a rather ingenious fabric and rattan chair set by Stephen Newman whereby Toller begins by speaking into the mirror and gradually, almost imperceptibly the mirror becomes the audience-a striking idea for a man who lived and died by other's judgment (or his own perception thereof).
Toller is less a play and more a collection of scenes, and it has an antecedent in the historical Cranston's first book, also titled Toller. In the show's conception, though, it creates a sort of push-and-pull with the audience that undermines some of the strength of the best set pieces.
We go from being deeply moved to held at arm's length to rolling our eyes at the didactic nature of a scene involving Toller's lover/houseboy.
In the end, we are left feeling that the excuses that a creator makes about their own work would be more deeply and emotionally realized if the performance were to explore them rather than reference them. And perhaps too much indulgence (the ultimate undoing of the historical Cranston) also undoes much of the work of the play.
That said, there are too many exquisite moments to say that the play isn't worth experiencing, and the unparalleled supremacy of art is always going to be a tough thoroughfare to navigate.
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