Total Eclipse @ Menier Chocolate Factory, London

cast list
Daniel Evans
Jamie Doyle

directed by
Paul Miller
2007 is proving a busy year for Christopher Hampton. The excellent production of Chekhovs The Seagull, which he translated, has just finished at the Royal Court, while the revival of his play Treats, starring Billie Piper in the West End, has received more mixed reviews. Now Hamptons second play Total Eclipse, first staged in 1968 when he was only 22, is revived at the Menier – sadly, it proves to be a major disappointment.

Like Treats it revolves around a mnage a trois, though of a very different kind. Here the subject is the scandalous relationship between two Symbolist poets of fin-de-siecle France: teenage prodigy Arthur Rimabud and the older, more established Paul Verlaine, who is married (though his wife Mathilde remains very much in the background). After Rimbaud comes to visit Verlaine where he is living with Mathilde in her parents country house, they begin a tempestuous affair which takes them to Paris, Brussels and London.

But Verlaine (who is by now a father) refuses to leave Mathilde, and the two poets relations becomes increasingly strained, ending in violent recriminations. Twenty years later the slowly dying alcoholic Verlaine is visited by Rimbauds sister who asks him for her dead brothers manuscripts, releasing in him a wave of mixed-up memories and regrets about the man who turned his life upside down.

The ill-fated story of these convention-defying writers which has echoes of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas – sounds full of dramatic potential but unfortunately there is very little passion or poetry on display here. Hamptons dialogue is highly intelligent and frequently witty but so self-consciously literary and smugly complacent that everything seems contrived and artificial.

The play may ostensibly be about the destructive course of illicit love but we dont feel the force of it as its impossible to become emotionally involved with the characters or believe in their relationships. We also learn virtually nothing about what made Verlaine and Rimbaud tick as poets.

Paul Millers production does not serve the play well. Its traverse-style staging, with the audience divided by a raised wooden catwalk, accentuates the sense of the characters parading their emotions rather than feeling them: we seem to be watching moving mannequins rather than flesh and blood people. (There is also a serious problem with sightlines, as it is very difficult to see from the back as the seating is not adequately raked.) The protagonists scarcely ever touch each other in this curiously sexless show about amour fou, so that the brief explosions of violence seem tacked on.

Daniel Evans struggles to make Verlaines obsessive love credible, failing to show why the man risks losing his family and reputation, suggesting only a bourgeois self-centred neediness. Jamie Doyles Rimbaud looks the part of a fallen cherub but his one-note performance as a sulky rebel without a cause lacks any intensity or danger. Susan Kyd is the passive Mathilde, Georgia Moffett her supercilious mother and Ronald Markham her affronted father.

Perhaps such a cerebral show about chess players, for example, would be more acceptable but something much more visceral is required for this torrid tale of decadent poets. What we end up with is not so much a total eclipse as dull greyness.

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