REVIEW: The Rage of Narcissus, Pleasance Theatre, London ✭✭✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews The Rage Of Narcissus by Sergio Blanco now playing at the Pleasance Theatre, London.

Rage Of Narcissus
Sam Crane (Sergio Blanco). Photo: Ali Wright

The Rage of Narcissus
Pleasance Theatre
21st February 2020
5 Stars


I think this is a ‘post-structuralist’ drama: it’s certainly not an everyday sort of thing to see in the UK, and a very unusual thing to see it done so well.  The French-Uruguayan writer, Sergio Blanco approaches theatre in a way that is completely unfamiliar to most British audiences, who rarely get a chance to see anything that departs so thoroughly from the naturalistic conventions that dominate here.  The author puts himself at the centre of the story, with an actor ‘impersonating’ him going through a story which – we are invited to believe – is true.  Since the story involves the ultimate death of the author (another post-structuralist trope), the complete veracity of the tale is, to say the least, unlikely.  Its effectiveness, however, lies in the extent to which credibility is amassed for the narrative of a visiting university lecturer discovering sinister events having happened in his hotel room, and then falling into their recurrence.  Along the 90 minutes of its way, the drama has a lot to say about the nature of the self, the relationship between myth and reality, sexual desire and human destructiveness.  It also succeeds as a gripping thriller, with the screws of incremental revelation and tension being tightened step by step to the ingenious conclusion.

Pleasance Theatre London
Photo: Ali Wright

Blanco is a remarkable creature: he is at once omnipresent in this ‘story’ and yet completely elusive.  The baring of his soul in this work is utter, and yet it seems an act of empty desperation, revealing nothing at all: the author’s dismembered and soon to be eviscerated body at the end of the piece is a cool, rather horrifying metaphor for much worse things, we feel, things which are hinted at constantly through the piece, but never – quite – pinned down.  The pretence of academic life; the shallowness and superficiality of erotic desire; the failure of civilised agencies to offer any kind of understanding of the people for whom they are made, or protection for the vulnerable; and, ultimately, the unknowability of the self, and the incomprehensibility of human emotions and drives.  These are not the kind of themes that most writers have either the inclination or the skill to broach, let alone master.  But the overall effect of the work is telling: the audience sits hypnotised and entranced by its relentless simplicity, the artless banality of its content, the sheer ordinariness of its terrible events.  For audiences, as we know, the grisly detail of brutal murders is the meat and potatoes of its daily entertainment, via the telly and in its sensationalist press.  Blanco blurs the lines between those horrors and the people who seek to amuse themselves with them ‘at a distance’, hinting that it really wouldn’t take very much for any of us to be placed in the position of his actor….

Sam Crane, we are asked to believe, was invited specifically by the author to take upon himself this role.  If we can credit the veracity of what this play tells us, and I think – probably – there is very little reason to do so, but for the purposes of the play, Crane does indeed seem the best choice.  His control of the immensely long text – he has to speak most of it himself – is astonishingly well balanced and evenly modulated, while preserving a constant sense of surprise and novelty in his usually quiet and restrained voice.  In fact, he only allows himself to use chest support in a single line: ‘This world.  This world.  This world!’  And it is a masterstroke, emphasising the metaphorical nature of the entire performance and its intention to present a wider commentary upon our life and times. Yet, except for that moment absolutely nothing else through his faux-shabby demeanour and louche deportment suggests anything of the kind: from when he first appears, to when he at last vanishes, he never seems anything more – or less – than any other member of the audience, into whose midst – as if to prove a point – he even once gently insinuates himself.  It is an performance of remarkable stealth and carefulness, in which he plumbs the utmost depths of human despair – the extinction of the self – with uncanny mastery and skill.

Sergio Blanco The Rage Of Narcissus
Photo: Ali Wright

The director, Daniel Goldman’s role in this is not immediately evident, because of the efforts he goes to – like the author – erase any trace of himself in it.  He places the actor on an empty, black-box set, moving him around in slightly changing pools of light focus now and then, but really doing little to shake the sense of the ‘performer’ being present and ‘telling a story’.  And yet.  There are many times when he takes the script out of the mouth of the actor and puts it into projections on a screen above his head: this is done frequently.  He even ‘records’ part of the actor’s lines and pretends – by playing them back – these come from the voice of the invisible author, who is heard asking the actor to take on the job we are now seeing him do, splicing email with voicemail.  He handles the positioning and density of the sound in the same sort of way.  In fact, there are so many little elements that have to be got right, it might be tempting to direct more recognition towards other contributors.  But, given the multiple roles Goldman plays here – translating and adapting as well as directing (and the script as performed diverges in many, many details from the one printed in the programme-text), I suspect that most of the important decisions that have been made here are his.

Nonetheless, Natalie Johnson’s worryingly ambiguous design, Richard Williamson’s eerily subtle use of lighting and video projections and Kieran Lucas’ perfectly judged sound all conspire with Goldman to make this a hauntingly grim experience in the theatre, gradually lifting the intellectual veil off human nature and exposing its nihilistic lust lurking beneath.  If you want to see The Rage Of Narcussus, don’t delay: it closes on March 8th.

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