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Sweetmeat (Edinburgh Fringe Festival): Review

sweetmeat Promotional image for "Sweetmeat". Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

A gripping and tense thriller, Sweetmeat is a play that tenderly, intelligently, and chillingly cuts to the bone.

When Christopher moves in as Sigmund’s flat mate, they soon fall in love. However, when Christopher’s urges threaten to jeopardise their relationship, like it has his others, Sigmund is all too willing to take their love to the ultimate, terminal level.

Writing

As mentioned in my Twelve Last Minute Edinburgh Fringe Festival PicksSweetmeat was one of the shows I was really looking forward to simply because of how intense and shocking its subject is. Based on the story of real life cannibal, Armin Meiwes, Sweetmeat is about consensual cannibalism. The question is, would this be a plat du jour or something that’s too hard to stomach?

Written by Ivo de Jager, Sweetmeat isn’t a play that’s out to shock, but instead is a tense and well written thriller. There is a heck of a lot of high culture references, and deeply intelligent explorations of love, death, and nihilism. The parts of the play that are difficult to sit through are the pay-offs of gradual and measured tense crescendos and not just some inserted lazy shock points. Because your interest has grown with the development of the play, although you might be vastly uncomfortable with how insane the narrative is getting, you’re so invested in it all that you can’t look away, even if you do view the show peeping through fingers.

The pièce de résistance of Sweetmeat though is its pacing. The road towards the final indulgence of Christopher’s fantasy is littered with little intrigues and secrets, as well as the simmering to a boil intensity of sexual tension between Christopher and Sigmund. The whole show feels akin to a string on a violin continually being wound by the tuning peg until it snaps: it only gets tighter and more taut by the moment and then, BAM! It’s a pace that is rarely done so well in writing, and if Alfred Hitchcock were still alive he’d undoubtedly be all over this.

The only problem is that Sweetmeat ends so abruptly that it’s a little bit of a let down. I’m going to blame the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s strict time limit for shows, as de Jager has demonstrated in every other part of Sweetmeat that they’re a writer that can mull device and narrative into a rich cordial. But Sweetmeat is still a show that’s wonderfully traumatic in its current state, but to imagine what it could be with more space to flourish is both exciting and terrifying.

Direction & Production

As much as I’d love to write about the fantastic performances here, I think notes on the production really need to be made. Doing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival requires a lot of ingenuity to make things work; not just with budget, but the transportability to get it up there and thunderbolt set-up and set-down of a show to ensure the venue’s programme runs on time. But there’s only so much you can rely on the audience to fill in the blanks in lieu of the production values a more permanent and funded show.

Gore is something that any thriller/horror needs to get right, and alas Sweetmeat’s production does leave a little wanting. Rather than using fake blood and a blunt/prop scalpel, Sweetmeat has opted to use a red marker pen instead. Now, I’m not accusing the production of being cheap and lazy as I can absolutely see why this choice was made. The soft tip means the actors can press the point into the skin and drag whilst easily simulate the resistance of tearing flesh, and it also leaves a fresh red line to signify blood and scars. You eventually just accept it for what it is, but it does look quite silly the first time it happens, really killing the tension that de Jager has so exceptionally built up. What’s more, you get frustrated about how great the sections of the show could look if the production was more able to convincingly simulate the violent scenes.

Given that this it the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I have decided to give the benefit of the doubt here and just put this down to the production needing to be as resourceful as possible: at least the result was a thought through one. But what Sweetmeat really needs is the production values to make this a real nail-biting and gut-clenching five-star show that it aspires to and absolutely can be.

Verdict

Although not for the faint-hearted, Sweetmeat is a harrowing but sumptuous thriller full of intelligent flavour: a Michelin Star thriller feast.

Sweetmeat played at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53) between 5-18 August 2017. For more information about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, visit tickets.edfringe.com.

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