Plague at the gates, a mad queen, a defeated boxer’s concussed hallucination and enough craziness, gushing blood and seething hatred for a Jacobean tragedy. Artist Sophie Cundale packs more into a half-hour film than seems possible, let alone advisable. The Near Room, which takes its title from the mental space Muhammad Ali said he entered during his fights, opened at the South London Gallery back in March then promptly closed. The gallery reopens on Saturday allowing the film to continue its run. And what a run it is. There is much to admire in Cundale’s film, which is crammed with ideas, from a briskly choreographed training session at a local boxing gym to the homoerotic tenderness of the fight itself, from the rigours and self-punishment of a boxer’s diet regime to the lights-out catastrophe of the knockout punch – and all that in the first five minutes.
While professional south London boxer John Harding Jr lies prone on the mat, he enters a hallucinatory, cloistered world roughly based on the 16th-century Spanish court, where an unnamed and imprisoned queen, played by artist Penny Goring, believes that she is a walking corpse whose insides have rotted away. I imagine Goring making a great Winnie, up to her neck in sand in Beckett’s Happy Days, getting through the hours as she falls apart. The queen’s plight is based on the terrible story of Joanna, Queen of Castile, sister of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In Cundale’s film, Joanna is seen as suffering from Cotard’s syndrome, a condition linked to severe depression that leads the sufferer to believe that they are already dead. Goring brings her own struggles with trauma and mental illness to her role, just as she does to her art and poetry. The blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction continue in the casting of Harding’s boxing trainer, Mark Tibbs, in the film, while former boxer Ahmet Patterson, Harding’s opponent, reappears as Harding’s replacement as heir to the Queen’s throne.
If all this seems too much, it is. Enter boxing promoter Denia, played by RSC actor Chris New, who brings all his Shakespearean stage skills to his secondary role as the Queen’s jailer and courtier. New cuts a figure of cartoonish evil and intrigue, as much Blackadder as Wolf Hall. Even his lascivious tongue-rolling comes with a deliciously hammy actorliness. I’m not quite sure why he is wearing a corset. The real star here is Goring. I can’t take my eyes off her. The ageing, deluded queen, driven to madness by her situation, has real grandeur and pathos, as well as a taste for slitting throats. Suddenly she’s Judith to New’s Holofernes, having enticed him to her bed. “I’m lonely,” she wails. The blood gushes, but it is nothing a perky black neckerchief can’t assuage. He’s back again in the next scene. Did I mention the maggots? Maggots on the food, wriggling gamely, and maggots dripping from New’s open throat.
All this is bunkum, and there’s more of it before we’re done. Guttering candles, a wake for the possibly-dead-but-maybe-not queen, her heart pumping even on her bier, her body decorated with a dessert’s worth of soft fruit as a bedpan of pee is passed around. You couldn’t make all this stuff up, but Cundale did.
Tipping into grand guignol, The Near Room collides too many genres and too many themes in too little space. How does it end, you ask. Back in the gym again, punch drunk. What a romp.
• Sophie Cundale: The Near Room is at South London Gallery from 15 August to 13 September.
Source: The Guardian