Monday, 23 November 2009

When Henri Met Oscar - Barons Court Theatre, London

When Henri Met Oscar
Writer: Michael Gannon
Director: Sinead Kent
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

This new play is an examination of the friendships between the artistic elite in 1890s Paris and the characters’ subsequent fall from grace and favour. Oscar Wilde visits the rooms of the post-impressionist painted Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and also meets his companions: the prostitutes Marie and Yvette, Fouché (the brothel owner), and La Goulue (darling of the Moulin Rouge and creator of the ‘Can-Can’).

The audience enters to Henri painting the lovers, Marie and Yvette, as they pose for him in his rooms at a high-class brothel in Paris. The two actresses looked uncomfortable with touching each other, and this in turn was uncomfortable to watch, however their relationship became marginally more believable as the scene progressed. Henri (Steven Rodgers) was well played, with an intensity and integrity that made him extremely watchable, and he dominated the opening, setting up the physical challenges that the character had to live with and his aggressive temperament (Henri was beset with illness as a child and was left with under-developed legs and grew to only 5ft tall). We also discover that he has contracted Syphilis, a condition that noticeably worsens in the second act, with Rodgers amping up the bitterness the character feels and skillfully showing his slide into insanity.

The entrance of Oscar Wilde (Adrian Francis) was a strange affair. Sporting discoloured teeth (despite the prostitutes having clean white teeth), he was introduced as being an Irishman who had lost his accent. Presenting neither the expected RP nor a credible Irish accent (though a teeth-clenching one was attempted), Francis set forth - with a distinctly Midlands accent - to squash the vowels of some of the best prose and poetry in the English language. Despite this I sympathised with him as he was terribly miscast, and was certainly listening and reacting nicely. The main issue is that Oscar Wilde was known as a genius with a biting wit - a real raconteur - and Francis’ performance gave none of this. His Wilde lacked charisma and he, like many of the actors, lacked conviction and pace while speaking.

The scene between Francoise (played by Sinead Kent, who also directed) and The Client (John Mcleod) was extremely uncomfortable to watch, partly because Mcleod is clearly not an actor, and partly because it was poorly directed - perhaps a result of having the director in the scene – and included a cringeworthy nod from Francoise ‘through the 4th wall’. Mcleod also played Michel and Edward Carson, roles he was hugely underequipped to play.

Eamon Griffin gave a slightly shaky performance as Fouché in the opening scene, however he soon redeemed himself with a strong portrayal of the lecherous priest Father Murphy, and the waiter in the final scene. Despite my misgivings at the opening, both Marie (Amy Malherbe) and Yvette (Liz Balmford) developed as characters, and both actresses gave stronger, more believable performances in the second act, with Balmford making a pithy final speech and a splendid exit.

Literally bursting onto the stage in act one, Jessica Martenson breathed some much needed life and energy into the piece just at the time it was beginning to stagnate. Portraying the outrageous, audacious La Goulue, Martenson showed a star at the top of her popularity, just as arrogant and pompous as the two men, and even threw in a ‘Can-Can’ and the splits to top it off. In direct contrast, this larger than life character reappears in the second act, drunk and disheveled, depressed and virtually penniless. Although Henri and Oscar have suffered similar twists of fortune (Toulouse-Lautrec has been institutionalised and Wilde incarcerated), it is hard to feel any sympathy for their characters, yet the change in La Goulue was sensitively and subtley played, and brought the first genuine, heartfelt emotion to the stage.

The Barons Court Theatre is a small thrust space, so was always going to pose a challenge for the director, and by and large the actors were well placed to allow the majority of the audience a clear view. The closing tableaux was beautifully set, but the play should have finished on La Goulue’s final, poignant line, rather than through a narration that felt tacked on to the rest of the production. The script held promise, as did some of the performances, but overall the pace and energy of the piece were lacking and made large sections feel superfluous, or worse, tedious. The production needed stronger direction within the scenes, rather than just attention to the overall picture, and with more appropriate casting could have been a far better piece than the play that was presented.

Runs until Sun 29th Nov
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