The Szeps In Winter

Henri Szeps’ one-man show I Wish I’d Said That is not about himself but a man not too far from himself, a Swiss-French-Jewish ex-actor with a European sensibility immured in Australia, which doesn’t altogether suit him, and in a retirement village, which he resents but hopes to amuse soon with the (yes) one-man show he is rehearsing in his little unit.

It starts with King Lear’s denunciation of his daughters (‘just to get your attention’) and goes on to denounce his own. She’s coming to see him soon and he dislikes her. He paid big money to extend her house and she said he could see out his days in it, but then she turned him out. And now he is waiting, as he does most Mondays, to see her, and vainly, pointlessly, uselessly, seek to commune with her.

Stifled in his unchosen country and his small dwelling, he does turns for us: a summary of a speech from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which he can’t get the rights for until 2030; a summary of a speech from The Prisoner Of Second Avenue (ditto); Eric Idle’s song about the ever-expanding universe; a Green Room tale or two; some drab Jewish jokes. He tries, repeatedly, to sing ‘To Dream The Impossible Dream’ but dissolves into tears. He hasn’t made it; he resents his his fate; he disdains his life; but he soldiers on. Will his daughter come? Does it matter? He knows all there is to know, pretty much — philosophy, science, mortality — but he hates the way he found it out.

This is the best one-person show I’ve seen — a Barry Humphries or so apart — since Lynn Redgrave’s Shakespeare For My Father; and it’s hard to say why. The breadth of reference, perhaps, as he rolls the universe into a ball, and kicks it from foot to foot and sings, like Tevye, his resentment of its Maker and the brevity of our time here. Or it may be something else.

It’s to do, I think, with his acting. It’s so close-in, so empathic, so unemphatic, so searchingly arrived at. He doesn’t say a line, he admits it. He slides from accent to accent without us ever noticing the border-crossing. He has the concentration of Tendulkar, or Rostropovich, or Elgar. Or Ralph Richardson. Or Russell Crowe. It is impossible that each line he says could be any other. What an Einstein he would make. What a Paul Cox. What a Barry Jones.

He surprised me; but, then again, remembering his earlier Lear-like old man in Sky, he didn’t surprise me. This is a formidable actor in his prime — and, I guess, his late sixties; like me, for we were in SUDS together — demonstrating that distillation of life experience imperceptibly and subterraneously shown that is great acting. ‘Dreaming to order’ was how Ralph Richardson put it. Henri does that.

He’s in Gosford, Canberra and Parramatta soon, and should be seen.

Yes, Henri Szeps, the one they joke about. He’s very good indeed.

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