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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Total Eclipse
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2007

When everyone in a play is bad, and bad in the same ways, then the fault is entirely the director's.

That's Berkowitz's Law, which I've had occasion to invoke before, but rarely with such aptness as to this revival of Christopher Hampton's 1968 portrait of the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine.

Director Paul Miller clearly ordered his actors to Act.

Never stop Acting. Let the audience see you Acting every minute. Don't let a hint of naturalism or recognisable human behaviour creep in. Pose, indicate and speechify in ways that make classical French tragedy or Restoration comedy look underplayed. Act, Act, Act.

And so they do, and so at no single moment in the whole evening can you believe in what's going on onstage, or care.

Of course, they're not helped by Hampton's play, one of his first, that repeatedly tells us what it's about and never shows us.

We are told that the older, somewhat bourgeois Verlaine first admires and then becomes sexually obsessed with the teenager Rimbaud, but the process is not dramatised.

We are told that both men are poets, but nothing we see offers any evidence of this. (Yes, I know poets don't have to act like poets, whatever that means. But when all the other characters are written as one-dimensional stereotypes, Hampton might as well have helped us believe these two were artists.)

We are told that the characters, particularly Verlaine, are feeling great passions, but mainly what they do is take turns describing their experiences and feelings to each other in highly literary speeches of inordinate and unlikely length.

Meanwhile, the very few moments in which something actually happens - Rimbaud passing out in the midst of disrupting a poetry reading, Verlaine shooting a gun - are bungled through particularly clumsy staging.

Daniel Evans as Verlaine comes closest to surviving with his dignity intact. You will never believe he is in the grip of an obsession or understand what he sees in Rimbaud, but he does convey the confusion of a man who would secretly rather be back with his wife and even his bourgeois in-laws.

Jamie Doyle is given one note to play as Rimbaud - of bratty, self-indulgent and demanding teenager - and that's what he delivers, with no hint of either the artistic genius or sexual magnetism that would attract Verlaine.

All the other characters, from Rimbaud's snooty in-laws to the waiters delivering endless glasses of absinthe, are written and played as cartoon caricatures in an evening that simply never comes to life.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Total Eclipse - Menier 2007