June 15, 2024

Fear and Loathing in Waterloo – Hunter S Thompson’s cult book comes to the stage @VaultFestival

I was somewhere around Waterloo when the paracetamol began to take hold. I’d had a bit of a headache but that was gone as I walked along a dark tunnel with the smell of spray paint fresh in the air. Guys wearing masks were graffitiing the walls. A mean Lisa Simpson stared back at me from a concrete stanchion. Suddenly there was a terrible roar and a pimped up scooter shot past, lights blazing. The air seemed to be full of the rumble of trains.

It was almost 7.30pm. Press registration for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was already underway and I had to get there before it started in order to, well, see the start. In many respects Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Richard the Third are very different plays. But  in one aspect they are the same – arrive late and you miss the best lines. Richard’s ‘Winter of our discontent’ is the first scene of the play, as is the great ‘Bat country’ scene of Fear and Loathing.

I was writing for a fashionable journal called The Flaneur, although instead of renting me a red Chevy convertible to get to The Vaults I just used my Oyster card. My pockets looked like a travelling journalist’s laboratory – notepad, biro, phone, iPad, voice recorder, microphone – not that I needed all those tools but once you get locked into a serious writing habit the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

Inside The Vaults was dark and brooding, people eating tacos and drinking beer. No one was obviously on ether, but who knows what uppers, downers, laughers or screamers they had already ingested. Suddenly I was in a casino, then an ante-room filled with sand and cactuses. Ralph Steadman drawings were scrawled on the walls, but there wasn’t time to look closely because an announcer boomed out that Fear and Loathing was starting in a couple of minutes.

I was about ready so I made my way to the theatre, which was a long rectangular room filled with red-topped back-free benches.  I approached a seat full of confidence, but realised the room was being filled from the opposite end – you couldn’t sit where you wanted. And when you came back from the interval you had to sit somewhere else.

We were quickly into the Red Shark, with Hunter – I mean Raoul Duke, played by Ed Hughes and countless cigarette butts telling us there was no point mentioning those bats…’the poor bastard would see them soon enough’. The poor bastard is played by Rob Crouch in a show-stealing turn as ‘my attorney‘. He is physically similar to Benicio del Toro in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film and his portrayal of Dr. Gonzo is exuberant and fully-committed.  His gut swells out his Hawaiian shirt to such an extent that I thought he must be wearing a false stomach, but a full-frontal nude scene later in the piece proved that the belly was all his own work. THERE SHOULD BE WARNINGS ABOUT SIGHTS LIKE THIS. I may still contact my own attorney to complain officially.

A second Raoul Duke played by John Chancer narrates events from a desk over to the left of the long stage, whilst the ensemble of Nina Smith, Libby Northside, Ben Hood and Tom Moores provide disturbingly accurate portrayals of reptiles amongst other less-demanding ancillary roles.

Sitting on the back row I didn’t see everything clearly. There wasn’t much gap between the audience and the actors and though the benches were raked slightly, it was not enough to see – which was probably lucky – Dr Gonzo lounging in a bath tub on the other side of the stage. It was only when he stood up – but I think I’ve mentioned that already.

The aesthetics of the play reflect those of the film starring Johnny Depp, who based his appearance and mannerisms on those of the author (and one-time Aspen Mayoral candidate) Hunter S. Thompson. Although there are scenes in the play that are not in the film it feels like an impersonation of the film and was kinda like a costumed book reading, centred around a clever recreation by Rosie Moon of the Red Shark. The red Chevy convertible headed towards the audience from the wall whilst disembiggening (check this is this a word – I may have just made it up) projections on the wall behind gave the impression of movement.

Some of the audience were having a bang-up time, others in front of me were talking and annoying other people and ‘Shut the Fuck Up’, got shouted. I thought Hunter would enjoy this performance and then security were called and I wondered: Can you throw people out of a play about Hunter S Thompson for behaving like Hunter S Thompson?

So what’s going on? A journalist and his attorney head to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. Along the way they take copious amounts of drugs. The slender story is just an excuse for Thompson’s whacked-out prose and mad descriptions, which work better on the page than in narration. I found that the excitable mayhem of the Bat Country scene palled as the virtually-continual virtually-plot-less drug-taking continued. Then it must have been the interval or the end and the man in front turned round and studied me and said ‘Where are you from?’ and I said, ‘England.’

He stared at me for a while and asked ‘Born and bred?’ like he didn’t believe me, although why he shouldn’t believe me I don’t know, I was born in England and have the papers to prove it. Anyway I said ‘Yes,’ and he looked surprised and said, ‘You look better than that,’ which makes no sense and has never been the reaction I’ve had to telling people I’m English before – and I’ve told a lot of people.

The underground, haphazard nature of the venue complements the book well, but it is a crowded room and there is a sit-where-you’re-told school-ma’amist tone to proceedings which ill-fits the anti-authoritarian relish of the play. It starts well but goes on too long – although not for one chap near me who knew the book so well he was finishing quotes along with the actors. At the end he stood and applauded with the exuberance of a life-long Exeter City fan who has just seen his team win the FA Cup.

As your attorney I advise you to read the book and watch the film. This is a play for die-hard fans.

More details

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas is playing at the Vault Festival, Waterloo until 8th March

Written with a hat-tip to Hunter S Thompson.


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