Strikingly staged by Paul Miller on a raised wooden platform bisecting the Menier audience in a traverse arrangement, Total Eclipse can be viewed in many ways: as a debate about artistic daring, as a doomed public love story along the lines of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, and as a companion piece to Hampton’s currently revived Treats, an emotional triangle with Verlaine at the apex of a two-way struggle with Rimbaud and his own virginal young wife, Mathilde.
One thing is absolutely right at the Menier: the look of the casting of Daniel Evans as the bearded, jumpy older poet and newcomer Jamie Doyle (a 2005 RADA graduate) as his junior rival. Ten years separate the men, something I hadn’t really absorbed from David Hare’s otherwise sumptuously brilliant 1981 revival with Simon Callow and Hilton McRae. But what that version had in spades, this one lacks completely: sensuality and shock value.
Although Doyle is a dead ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio in the flawed but underrated film version (in which David Thewlis is a cravenly besotted, wonderfully dissolute Verlaine), he’s far more calculating than dangerous. His suggestion that he and Verlaine should become children of the sun and live in pagan pleasure could just as easily be a proposal for a nice quite weekend in Bognor Regis.
Similarly, although Evans gets the pathological weirdness of Verlaine as an uncontrollable facet of his personality (“I haven’t set fire to her since May,” he protests feebly after a bout of wife-bashing), you don’t sense him being sucked into a vortex of disaster. Georgia Moffett’s Mathilde is admittedly an underwritten role, but a single note of prim respectability doesn’t explain her bedroom power over Verlaine.
Hampton’s supple text is, however, a source of constant pleasure, and it’s remarkable how he manages to convey artistic personality without resorting to direct quotation (the poems of both men would defy such treatment) or gossipy name-dropping. The physical explosions do not punch their full weight, neither in the poetry meeting (where Rimbaud stops short of urinating on the assembly) nor in the café tryst where he stabs Verlaine through the hands.
But the Brussels shooting – as comical as Uncle Vanya’s botched shots – does come at you with a whiz bang in the middle of another emotional fracas, and the account of Rimbaud’s agonising last days is beautifully done by Wendy Nottingham as his bereaved sister. A fine play has been serviceably reclaimed, but the roof remains firmly in place. Susan Kyd paints a vivid picture of Verlaine’s mother-in-law, while Ronald Markham defines three small roles with an expert display of facial hair, starting with mutton chop whiskers, declining to a white goatee, then breaking loose with a clean shave as the judge.
- Michael Coveney