Simon Bradbury’s Chaplin: The Trial of Charles Spencer Chaplin, Esq. is an extraordinary journey into every person’s struggle with doubt, insecurity and selective memory.
This multi-media presentation with Bradbury as the on- and off-screen tour guide uses Chaplin’s creations (The Little Tramp, Adenoid Hynkel), a host of unseen characters (including Nora McLellan’s marvellous rendition of Elsie, Chaplin’s girl-Friday), historical film clips (presented in similar fashion to director Neil Munro’s Bernard Shaw clips in last summer’s Misalliance), video (the numerous “takes” from the film-in-progress: The Great Dictator), music: orchestral excerpts (hilariously “played” on a 78 rpm turntable where only one disc was forgotten); piano—acoustic for the “live” comedy—electronic for the screened action), and words: the final speech, individually placed speaker-sensitive inquisitors, all of the rest heard or, perhaps, imagined.
For nearly two hours, Charlie talks to himself and through dialogues with an unseen troupe of staff and media.; The results are spectacular (the three “men of the press” really do seem to be in the screening room complaining about their coffee), but the snap, crackle and pop of true dialogue is always a breath away; rather like my long-ago assignment of synchronizing the voice of a fading tenor with pre-recorded orchestra tracks—close but no cigar.
In the early going, there is a chilling moment when we realize that the dailies being projected are not, in fact, the actual footage but the beginnings of the characters rebelling against their master.
The glue of the three moustaches (Hitler’s, The Tramp’s, Hynkel’s) initially, serves to link the three personas but, as the “imagined” start asserting their independence, the understanding that this piece is more about the perpetual self-doubt that manipulative/creative people constantly wrestle with begins to emerge through the subtext—all egoists’ sense of worth is irretrievably based on the reaction of their followers, albeit inferior (either through race or intellect). Yet only these, lesser mortals, can validate the image of their “superiors.”
The final speech, long laboured over by the silent screen’s greatest practitioner serves as a compelling metaphor. The public loves the silent bum, knows him and often identifies with his foibles; his actions have always spoken louder than words. To prepare the way, Chaplin decides that the evil twin will get his comeuppance through a speech of complete gibberish (a clear highlight of the current version, it’s truly geshtinken!) causing immediate ridicule of the most dangerous man in the world.
But that thought reignites a childhood memory where making fun of an ailing parent began a career and, effectively, ended two lives. Bradbury’s own child, Malcolm, both on screen and hauntingly echoing through the theatre gave us all the uncomfortable feeling that history, by his very inclusion, could repeat itself. Bradbury Sr. knows this and is completely unperturbed when many of the hysterically delivered set-jokes fail to elict a giggle.
And so Charlie’s world disintegrates: his creations rebel, his staff fear for the project, his inquisitors ready for fisticuffs, his parents already in their own personal hell. How wonderful it would be for a reprise of the earlier shaving the dummy scene where Wagner’s “Ride” was the wrong message, Rossini’s “Barber” more in the domain of a certain hair-cutting Rabbit, leaving Brahms’ (Wagner’s antithesis) Hungarian Dance—music that had just enough pushes, pulls and lifts to slice the whiskers away.
Instead, chaos takes stage: bullets first pop then pour out of the Tramp’s cane with a cruel irony that, convincingly, merges the inner fears of the three protagonists into every artist’s worst nightmare: What have I created? Is it really good? Will they still come?
The final faded image, with Charlie’s fully-flexed hand leaving it—empty—seemed one degree too subtle as closure for all that came before.
Nonetheless, the combined effect was a brilliant tour de force for the creators and technical wizards (kudos all around to Sergio Forest, Matt Flawn, Kevin Lamotte, Simon D. Clemo, Trevor Hughes and David Boechler). This material is now ready to fulfill its potential, but in another arena: only a film could do justice to the fine madness that starts slowly, moves steadily, yet, ultimately, outpaces even its creators’ intent. JWR