BBC Radio 4, 21 January 2011
This play updates Balzac's mid-nineteenth century tale about a man who
is poor and wants more out of life - fame, riches and influence. He wanders into an antique shop where he is sold the
dried skin of a donkey. This skin is a magic one that can grant its owner every wish and desire; the snag is that, with
each wish, the person holding the skin loses some of his life.
Toby Swift's production updated the tale into a Serious Money-like morality
play, with the central character Rupert (Elliot Cowan) having been made redundant from a City bank, meeting a down-and-out
and entering an antique shop to purchase the skin. He embarks on a life of pure hedonism, working his way through parties,
meeting a group of would-be anarchists who want to change the world without doing anything, meeting another colleague Pauline (Naomi
Frederick) who loses her job and returns to acting; and eventually perishing due to a cough and exhaustion. As Rupert
degenerates, so the skin gets smaller and smaller, but still possesses a destructive power.
Adrian Penketh's adaptation sustained the morality-play framework of Balzac's story,
but suggested that Rupert was somehow a victim of his upbringing; having spent his professional life in banking, he has come
to understand that everyone in the City of London lives for themselves. Having sacrificed himself to "Lady Finance" as
he puts it, he makes another sacrifice to the magic powers of the skin. Penketh's strateghy invites us to sympathize
with a character who is devoid of moral fibre, despite his best attempts to reform. It is only at the end that Rupert
realizes how destructive his life has been: when held at knife-point by P@rick (Lloyd Thomas), one of the would-be anarchists, Rupert tells Patrick that wealth and/or the skin are not worth
having, if individuals want to retain their sense of self-determination.
In truth, most of the characters were fundamentally unpleasant people, citizens of
a seedy world of boom-and-bust in which ideals have been reduced to mere cant and where love counts for nothing. I'm
not sure that The Wild Asses' Skin was particularly contemporary; its morality is characteristic of any acquisitive
society, whether past or present. This only goes to show how pertinent Balzac's story remains, over a century and a half after
it was first published.