Monday, 28 January 2019

REVIEW: The Turk - The Lowry Theatre, Salford

A genuinely ambitious piece of theatre; a one man show, lasting a full two hours, composed of non-stop dialogue and singing. A period piece, exploring a gradually disintegrating mind whilst putting a lifetime into a philosophical context. An exploration of the progressive effect of addictive drugs upon an isolated individual, alone in the ocean. A retrospective of a life pushing the boundaries of both engineering and entertainment. Musing on past associations. And this is not even an exhaustive list but it provides an introduction into the show that is The Turk.

The setting of Johann Maelzel, a sick and dishevelled man amidst a disorderly collection of boxes and bric-a-brac certainly set the scene, aided by effecting lighting. The only ‘company’ that the protagonist had was the head of Turk; all that was left of a clockwork figure created to play chess; an early Victorian attempt at AI. Throughout the show, Maelzel conversed with the Turk as if it were a real person, going through a variety of emotions and reacting to non-existent comments and actions of the inanimate object. His mind was clearly jumbled but not so much that he couldn't make insightful observations about his life and existence itself. The Turk of the title is the invention of entertainer and mechanical engineer Johann Maelzel. With it, Maelzel has worked the early nineteenth century show grounds of Europe, winning audiences with its mechanical chess playing performances.

This was not a chronological story-telling and we were frequently treated to what appeared to be what was happening inside Johann’s imagination and thoughts rather than what was really happening within the bowels of the ship in which he languished. The acting by Michael Sabbaton was a tour de force and the singing not just impressive but remarkably varied, ranging vibrant, military-style songs to music with a definite hint of the Middle East to even a Victorian version of George Formby, complete with tiny ukulele, in old Music Hall style.

A wandering journey through addiction, grief and hopelessness, speckled with humour to remind us that darkness is never total. Sabbaton’s character Maelzel revisited the elements of his existence as his life began to expire.

This impressive one man show shifts and rolls through shades of regret and loneliness interspersed with a pleasing repertoire of songs both comic and tragic. As alcoholism and tropical disease twist their knives into Maelzel’s increasing self-absorption, The Turk remains the only companion able to share his fractured remembrances and loss of purpose. Sabbaton achieved a courageous portrayal of anxiety, longing and a life robbed of peace.

The overriding philosophical message is that hopelessness cannot exist without the possibility of hope to replenish its lack. As Maelzel approached his end, he chose to believe his existence meant nothing, with a disregard for the wealth of artistic and intellectual talents that have made his life unique. Appropriately set in the hold of a cargo vessel, Maelzel’s memories appear to drift and toss, but are charting a slow course toward their inevitable conclusion

The Turk was created with extraordinary abilities under the hand of its designer, and so was Maelzel. The Turk is an automaton, but the man is made in a higher image, obvious to anyone who can see beyond the turbulence of himself.

The Turk is currently on tour around the north of England. For further information, please log onto

Revieer - John Waterhouse
on - 26/1/19

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