Review: WHEN YOU PASS OVER MY TOMB, Arcola Theatre

UK premiere for strange, funny, unsettling play

By: Feb. 15, 2024
Review: WHEN YOU PASS OVER MY TOMB, Arcola Theatre
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Review: WHEN YOU PASS OVER MY TOMB, Arcola Theatre Transgression is exciting, the frisson attendant on breaking the rules seductive to the most mild-mannered of individuals and irresistible to others. To limit transgression, laws are passed, religious rules pronounced and taboos established. But they’re broken, sometimes violently, sometimes politically, sometimes consensually - and often in art.

Examining one of the big taboos - necrophilia - is at the heart of Sergio Blanco’s clever, funny, tricksy play, When You Pass Over My Tomb, receiving its English language premiere in Daniel Goldman’s translation. The timing is fortuitous as it shares some themes (and a main character called Godwin) with Yorgos Lanthimos’ much discussed film Poor Things, also treading a line between bad taste and high culture whilst engendering sympathy for characters who unabashedly transgress.

Review: WHEN YOU PASS OVER MY TOMB, Arcola Theatre

There’s a bit of meta material to get through first (in fact, it never really goes away) as actors step forward to explain that they’re actually dead - the fourth wall is very flimsy here - and will be playing their parts as ghosts, establishing a jokey tone that makes it easier for us to access the humour in this dark comedy. Writer and director have form for this stuff, their excellent Thebes Land playing this venue in 2016 (reviewed here). A little of this kind of thing goes a long way and I confess I did feel a little irritation at times when the actors stepped out of character - well, one of their characters, as they were also playing the actors who played their characters. You see what I mean?

The device’s capacity to distract is mitigated somewhat by the cast’s charm and the winning relationship they forge with the audience proves crucial when the story goes to some very dark places. You do recoil from the detail of the real-life case studies that punctuate the narrative, but you also find yourself nodding along when it’s pointed out that Juliet kissed the dead Romeo and hear of many similar examples from classical works. To say nothing of the eroticism of depictions of Christ, dead on the Cross.

The body of the play concerns two relationships formed by a writer who wishes to end his life. The first is with his er… deadpan doctor at a Swiss clinic, who talks him through the assisted suicide process, each detail seemingly buoying the writer’s relentlessly cheery mood. Al Nedjari, proudly sporting a Crystal Palace shirt throughout, is also a quasi-narrator and isn’t afraid of a wisecrack or two to chivvy things along. Danny Scheinmann’s humour as the clinician takes a little longer to come through, but it’s there in the tension between his warmth to the writer (of whom he is a fan) and his Swiss-watch precision in planning his life’s termination.

The second relationship is between the writer and Khaled, the convicted necrophiliac incarcerated in a secure London hospital, to whom he decides to give his corpse for his pleasurable uses. Charlie MacGechan gives his bright, damaged Iranian immigrant a dangerously attractive quality, describing his preferred sexual practices in lascivious detail, unapologetically challenging us to find fault when the cadaver’s previous owner has consented, even encouraged, the post-mortem crime. (You see how hard it is to apply conventional concepts like consent in this field - the taboo ringfences language as much as it does behaviour).

It’s a fascinating play, often provoking a laugh, often a wince, written with great skill (Blanco is hugely successful in Latin America) and delivered with great skill and sympathy by the cast and creatives. It’s also quite different to much of what plays these days at London’s fringe venues, both a reminder of theatre’s capacity to push boundaries and a call to arms that, even in these straitened times, insists that there's room to challenge audiences and explore difficult material whilst keeping it accessible. This Arcola Theatre & Flying Colours production has a boldness that is fading from London and plays its part in nurturing theatre's fragile ecosystem assailed from all sides. 

The more avant garde corner of our industry isn’t ready for a Geneva clinic just yet, thank you very much.  

When You Pass Over My Tomb at the Arcola Theatre until 2 March

Photo images: Alex Brenner