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Has it crossed Christopher Hampton’s mind that, when he wrote of the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud in Total Eclipse back in 1968, he was writing his own Peter Shaffer play? Shaffer is famous for dramatising Apollo-Dionysus polarities: Pizarro and Atahuallpa, Salieri and Mozart, and so forth – the envious love/ hate of the hard-working professional for the beacon- bright natural. Here Hampton spotted an extreme example of this dualism. Both his heroes are poets. It is the wild teenage boy Rimbaud who inflames, seduces and regenerates the contained, married Verlaine. And Verlaine both leaves his wife, travels to England with Rimbaud in pre-Wildean sodomy, and, later, shoots Rimbaud in a subsequent fit of possessive despair. Shaffer must have been jealous that Hampton got there first.
What’s surprising in this Menier Chocolate Factory production is that director Paul Miller has treated it with ultra-classical containment. Daniel Evans (Verlaine) and Jamie Doyle (Rimbaud) speak every sentence with fluent Wildean control – a calm that is almost languor. There’s no doubt but that Miller wants it this way: both actors are skilled, and Evans has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for neurosis in other roles. Here, however, I can’t believe that this Verlaine would try to shoot a clay pigeon, let alone his boyfriend; I can’t believe that this Rimbaud would create a new poetry that shattered the mould; but I do see that both actors are doing spiffing auditions for The Importance of Being Earnest. Where is the violent spontaneity that changes both poetry and lives? Miller, an accomplished stylist, must intend this measured cool – perhaps as formal rigour against which what’s being said and done should become all the more powerful, as in Racine – but I can’t see that here it pays off.
Instead, Hampton’s play starts to seem on the wrong wavelength. It sounds thin, salacious, more interested in the adulterous gossip of this 19th-century affair than in the hauntingly eloquent poetry (in Rimbaud’s case, still breathtakingly innovative) that still makes both men lasting masters. Verlaine here seems more driven by sexual frustration than by poetic ambition, and Rimbaud becomes just another bolshy teenager. Miller uses the wonderfully flexible Menier space to set the action on a traverse stage, with the audience close to the action on either side, and the marvellous Menier atmosphere lends its own glow to the evening (even if the sign has fallen off the door of the gents’ loo). But Hampton’s play, not seen in London since the Greenwich Theatre in 1993 (Greg Hicks both mordant and tortured as Verlaine), needs more intense advocacy than this if it is to retain currency.
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