Adapting an erotic novel for the stage is always going to be a difficult task to achieve within the boundaries of good taste and social acceptability. However, even with all its pornographic scenes, the 1893 book upon which Teleny is based contains as much literary style as its contemporaries and is often credited to Oscar Wilde. This makes it all the more difficult to understand how a story so enduring has resulted in this witless and bloated production.
Set in Paris, the story begins when the youthful Camille Des Grieux locks eyes with Hungarian pianist Rene Teleny while attending his small concert performance. His infatuation is instant and quickly leads to him stalking the object of his obsession as the musician engages in several sexual liaisons of his own. However when they do finally meet properly, they find their feelings for one another are mutual and a wildly passionate affair begins. Their relationship goes through a rollercoaster of dramas including Camille being blackmailed, Teleny being unfaithful (with Camille’s mother, no less) and attempted suicide.
The original novel has numerous sub-plots and typical of literature of the era, is dense in detail. Playwright Barry Lowe seems to have decided practically every last word of the book was too good to be left on the shelf, creating a script entirely devoid of economy. So much of this tedious writing could be left by the wayside without making an ounce of difference to the understanding of the audience, yet instead we’re left with a production that takes 3 hours and 40 minutes (including 20 minute interval) to drag its bloodless carcass to an ending that could have been sensational plot wise, but instead simply feels like a release from purgatory.
The torturous nature of this production isn’t entirely the responsibility of Lowe however, as director Robert Chuter is in fact more responsible due to the ponderous way he has instructed his cast to stretch out each scene to the complete limits of its welcome. In what seems to have been an attempt at creating a balletic elegance to this piece, his cast have been unnecessarily choreographed through every last move on the stage. While this is just plain tiresome for most scenes, it does go some way to making the explicit sex scenes seem less salacious than they are, but neither the choreography nor the ‘dancing’ shows anywhere near enough talent or skill to carry off this concept.
What’s more, Chuter seems to have instructed his lead actor, Tom Byers as Camille, to give a more arch performance than any pantomime villainess could ever achieve. Byers portrays the young Frenchman with an outrageously plummy English accent that sits somewhere between Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter and Family Guy’s Stewie, all the while looking like he’s a boy playing a man’s role. Jackson Raine as Teleny acquits himself with somewhat more style but still gets dragged down by the swampy nature of the direction.
One thing that can certainly be said of this production is that its performers are fearless. Extended periods of nudity on stage for almost the entire ensemble, usually involving simulated sex (sometimes of a violent, unconsenting nature) that pretty much requires the performers to dry-hump one another, means most of the cast have had to push beyond the limits of what is usually fairly expected. If only it resulted in an engaging, if somewhat confronting, story. Alas, all this nakedness is about as sexy as a fart in the face.
The distended nature of Chuter’s direction turns scenes such as Teleny’s introduction of Camille to an Eyes Wide Shut style underground society, into nothing more than a gratuitous display of bare flesh. Perhaps it’s prudish to say this scene didn’t need to go for the 20 or so minutes that it does, but frankly to be situated close to the stage in a production where simulated fellatio results in one performer simply being turkey-slapped by another, it’s difficult to see the artistic value of the scene.
The biggest crime of this production is its complete disrespect for its audience. With the first act running at a full two hours and the second for an hour and twenty minutes, on Chapel off Chapel’s unforgiving seating, the audience is left with sorer backsides than the character here who is sodomised with a champagne bottle, only to have it shatter mid thrust.
There seems to have been a complete miscomprehension of the value of this text so that what’s on stage isn’t a bit of titillating Victorian-era gay erotica, but instead a masturbatory experience for it’s creators. What could have been a unique and risqué piece of new theatre is merely an exercise in pointless self-pleasure, leaving audience and cast alike left feeling defiled by the experience.