There’s a moment in Pamela Carter’s play Slope when the 19th century French poet Paul Verlaine, ensconced in a seedy London flat with his young lover Arthur Rimbaud, fears that they’re being watched.

Yet the strong, beating heart of this production is clear enough; it has a sharp, memorable script and an incredibly strong cast, each of whom is willing to push the emotional envelope until it near bursts.

Contextually, it’s the paranoia of a weak, addictive man worn down by —and kicking against —the social expectations of the homophobic society in which he lives. Yet it’s also literally true; in the compact atmosphere of the Citizens Theatre’s Circle Studio, both actors are surrounded by an audience lining the walls in a single row, clearly visible and easily within touching distance. While, anywhere in the world with a WiFi connection, untold numbers of others can also be potentially watching this unfolding drama of two tempestuous and ultimately doomed relationships, courtesy of a live webcast.

This is both the plus and downside of this new production of a play that, both in 2006 and now, has to shoulder the weight of an unnecessarily conceptual presentation courtesy of director Stewart Laing. Necessarily lit and directed as much for the cameras as for the live audience —who are deliberately (one assumes) robbed of the usual voyeuristic safety of a dark auditorium and can find themselves literally sitting next to the cast and in clear view —this new production totters between being live theatre repeatedly spoiled by the needs of the audience “at home”and a filmed drama with all the sloppy, amateurish framing and editing you’d expect from the earliest days of live television.

Yet the strong, beating heart of this production is clear enough; it has a sharp, memorable script and an incredibly strong cast, each of whom is willing to push the emotional envelope until it near bursts. A gritty Owen Whitelaw as Verlaine successfully embodies the frustrated, violent man kicking against the confines and restraints of marriage, fatherhood and social responsibility —and who all-too-soon discovers that the “bad trip”of life with Rimbaud is equally as draining to his “sickly soul”. James Edwyn —incredibly in his first professional role —absolutely nails the sneering, petulant enfant terrible but not without showing an emotional fragility that ultimately saves the character from just being “a nasty, mangy dog”.

Arguably, Jessica Hardwick, as the ‘wronged women’Mathilde Verlaine has the most difficult task, not least because her character is essentially only in the opening and closing thirds of the play. Her stage presence, however, and the subtle emotions seen in her face and eyes tell so much of the character’s inner turmoil and eventual determination “not to be remembered for this”. The irony, of course, is that Mathilde almost certainly is remembered as the unwilling and abandoned member of this menage a trois—not least because of Carter’s decision to follow the two poets to London which robs us of seeing how Mathilde copes and grows stronger as a result.

Unfortunately, the undoubtedly powerful story of these three characters is undercut by its presentation, with some of the most important, powerful lines and moments deliberately delivered to camera —robbing the audience actually there —while viewers of the live stream can often fail to hear and see exactly what’s going on —though, certainly by the fourth live webcast the visual editing, if not sound levels, had improved. Overall, though, in attempting to serve two masters, this production fails to totally deliver for either.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

Stewart Laing, who directed The Maids last year on the Citizens main stage, returns with a new production of Pamela Carter’s play Slope, originally produced by Untitled Projects in 2006 and re-conceived for an intimate studio setting.

Slope explores the love affair between the 19th-century poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud and its impact on Verlaine’s young wife Mathilde. Their verbal sparring is scabrous and hilarious, and their rollercoaster relationships as passionate and claustrophobic as they are cruel and ridiculous.

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