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The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak (Wilton’s Music Hall, London): Review

tarrare the freak Come one, come all! Scene from 'The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak'. Photograph: Courtesy of Wattle and Daub.

Even more monstrously marvelous that Frankenstein’s creation, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is an unforgettable beast.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak tells the true story of an 18th Century Frenchman with a most unusual diet, eating anything he can get his hands on: from snakes and cats, to human limbs. Tarrare wants to feel full, a doctor wants to cure him, one half of conjoined twin wants to love him, and the French Revolution want him as a spy. Can Tarrare ever achieve happiness in a world that exploits and despises him?

tarrare the freak

Tasty treats. Scene from ‘The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak’. Photograph: Courtesy of Wattle and Daub.

Libretto

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is marketed as a “macabre puppet chamber opera”. Your guess is probably as good as mine was when I tried to imagine what that would entail (entrail?) upon first reading that, but it certainly had me intrigued. I don’t often cover opera, let alone a chamber one for puppets. Puppets are often mostly associated with children’s theatre (although, that stereotype is certainly not true these days) and chamber opera with a lot of pretentious noise and wailing (I’ve not been invited back to the Tête a Tête chamber opera festival after I was quite honest about a lot of the work…). But none the less, I was curious enough to see what The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak was going to be like. After all, if I could sit through two hours of Antony and Cleopatra in Polish, I could certainly stomach this.

Tom and Tobi Poster, in collaboration with Hattie Naylor, bend the real life account of Tarrare the Freak into a brilliantly grotesque little libretto. Blood, guts, spit, shit, and cannibalism are all present and riffed upon with masterfully puerile aplomb. This is a horrific story that deserves a libretto that’s just as gleefully ghastly. Rather than going for outright horror, Poster, Poster, and Naylor attack it with as sick humour that’s as darkly deranged as its narrative. They don’t shy away from any of the gruesome moments, but instead use them to produce some exquisitely uproarious laughs or twist them into some stunningly stylised and impactful.

It’s also important to mention that, the real life Tarrare, is actually the first documented medical case of polyphagia, and Wattle and Daub have actually based the narrative of The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak with actual medical research in conjunction with Dr. Alan Bates at University College London, among other academics. This is most apparent in the direction and performance, as details like Tarrare’s retching and gagging whilst he eats and regurgitates indigestible matter (such as bones and fur) give the opera a grounded real life, although sometimes disturbing and uncomfortable, foundation among the grim and ghoulish look and feel to it.

What really takes you aback, though, is the fact that there are several moments in The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak that are unequivocally and unexpectedly moving. As well as being made to feel a little queasy at times, your heartstrings are well and truly plucked at points. For a show out-Gothics Tim Burton, there’s unprecedented sincerity and stirring emotion is something that is completely surprising that really rounds The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak as a deep and ingenious piece.

The result is that you laugh, be sickened, learn something, and sit jaw-dropped throughout The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak in ways you never thought would happen. It’s such a wonderfully strange and dynamic piece for something so unusual and bold, let alone what you’d expected any other ordinary evening out at the opera/theatre. It’s difficult to try and describe The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak beyond that, because it really is like nothing that’s been on the London stage before, and perhaps ever again.

tarrare the freak

Cabinet of curiosities. Scene from ‘The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak’. Photograph: Courtesy of Wattle and Daub.

Music

Poster and Poster’s music is also as strange and haunting as the rest of The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, but is beautifully melodic and accessible enough that it’s not something that’s would put off any newbie to the genre. At times, it almost evokes something close to musical theatre in style and melody, but Poster and Poster still keep it quirky and operatic. For a score that is no more than a solo violin and a piano, it sounds deliciously rich and full when needed, as well as sparse and jagged at points: it’s fantastically atmospheric, wholly complimenting every moment of The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak’s narrative. Add to that crazy moments of shrill male falsetto, Poster and Poster’s music is as playfully crazed as Tarrare the Freak’s appetite is depraved.

Direction & Production

You know when a puppet show is good when your focus is constantly on the puppets and not the puppeteers. I’d say the usual cliche of, “the puppeteers make the puppets come to life”, if the aesthetics of Laura Purcell-Gates, Tobi Poster, and Emma Powell’s puppets weren’t deliberately looking decidedly dead. They all appear as shriveled corpses, with deep-set and empty eye-sockets, except for Tarrare who has bulging and beady eye-balls. They look grotesque, but marvellously so, adding to the tilted veneer of The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak. What’s more, the puppetry also makes some fantastic use of the appendages of the puppeteers, too. From the lovely feminine legs of the conjoined twins, to the deft hands of the doctor, puppeteers Tobi Poster and Aya Nakamura are literally a part of the puppets giving them a strange chimeric look to them.

Rebecca Wood’s production design, a cabinet of curiosity of puppets and other gruesome paraphernalia gives the show a real Victorian penny-dreadful look, along with some really fun little innovations in the set. All of this is expertly lighted by Mark Perry’s sinister back lighting and creeping dimness, giving The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak a vintage celluloid horror aesthetic.

Musicians An-Ting Chang on piano, who is also the musical director, and Katy Rowe on violin, are not only superlative musicians but are just as integral a part of The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak as the puppets and the singers. They are part of the tight-knit ensemble that are completely responsive and dexterously in sync with the rest of the company.

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Autopsy-Turvy. Scene from ‘The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak’, Photograph: Courtesy of Wattle and Daub.

Performances

Riffing off my comments above about the musicians, the same can really be said for the rest of Wattle and Daub: they’re a precision ensemble where every role and performance is just as slick and important as every other person’s. Tobi Poster and Nakamura’s puppeteering is superlative, working in complete unity with singers Michael Longden and Daniel Harlock, who work with intense coordination with Chang and Rowe. Every last part of this company is honed and perfected into a most magnificent whole. This is a chamber opera company that not only relies on the vast talent of everyone involved, but also exploits it and crafts it into something undisputedly united and outstanding.

Verdict

Far from a sweet dream, but a most unforgettable beautiful nightmare, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is morbid theatre and opera so groundbreaking it demands to be seen at your delight and your most delightful disgust.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak plays at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, E1 8JB, until 18 February 2017. Tickets are £10 – £20. To book, visit wiltons.org.uk.