Nineteenth century French poetry luminaries Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud met in 1871, at the invitation of Verlaine himself, after the younger poet, aged sixteen had sent the twenty six year old writer some of his poems.
Fate rapidly led them into a torrid, tempestuous love affair, despite the fact that Verlaine had recently taken a sixteen-year-old bride who at the tender age of seventeen, had just given birth to their son. During the course of their turbulent partnership both symbolist poets composed some of their most defining, and, particularly in relation to Rimbaud, who was also one of the first exponents of free verse, precedent-shattering poetry.
In light of the play's youthful characters, it is interesting to note that playwright Christopher Hampton, perhaps best known for his 1986 Olivier Award winning Les Liaisons Dangereuses, wrote Total Eclipse, his second play, in 1966, when he was twenty-one. As such, his play seems to capture the essence of brashness and youthful sensuality. In alignment with the fluctuating careers and temperaments of his characters, the play, which was not well received at the time, followed closely on the heels of his inaugural effort When Did You Last See My Mother? which had been lauded the year before at the Royal Court, as well as during its subsequent West End run. However, having been captivated by Rimbaud's life and works since his own discovery of them when he was himself, sixteen, Hampton would later come to regard Total Eclipse as "the play I'd always been planning to do," despite its critical censure. Since its anti-climatic debut, the play has enjoyed a 1981 reincarnation at Lyric Hammersmith, directed by David Hare as well as a 1995 film adaptation, by Hampton himself, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Arthur Rimbaud and David Thewlis, who won Best Actor at Cannes as Paul Verlaine.
Yellowed fog drifts round the spotlights and amongst the distinctly weathered and, different from one another, wooden chairs serving as seating on either side of the rectangular, planked performance area. A chaise lounge sits, posed for occupants while a bed waits its turn offstage. The autumnal tones of the setting are reminiscent of aged, sepia tinted photographs. Text appears on the wall as a man's voice begins to speak of his meeting with a young man he does not understand, one who dazzles with his beauty but who is himself, completely unfathomable. Following this shadowy verbal confessionary flashback, Olivier Award Winning Actor Daniel Evans (Sunday in the Park with George) takes to the stage as Paul Verlaine, and the audience learns that, not knowing what Rimbaud looks like, he has missed his youthful guest's train in favour of the 'Emerald hour,' during which he habitually over-imbibes in Absinth.
Evans is instantly and continually riveting as temperamental poet Paul Verlaine. As he alternates between cynical calm and frustrated rage, his performance looks and feels like a major theatrical achievement. It quickly becomes obvious that during the course of the playwright's research, Hampton must have become just as intrigued with the layers of Verlaine's character as he initially was with that of his younger counterpart, Rimbaud. Given the close proximity of the seating arrangements, it almost seems at times as though the audience is privy to insight into Verlaine's thinking; such is the power and range of Evans emotionally variegated performance. The delicate balance between the two intense, leading characters of the play requires precise timing at all times in that, whatever Rimbaud says or does triggers off reactions in Verlaine, and vice versa. Not only is actor Jamie Doyle a striking Rimbaud look-alike, but, he is also, absolutely stunning as the non-conventional, anarchic young genius. Despite his character's reckless abruptness, it is always understood that however deadpan he may appear, whenever his partner hits too close to a nerve, he is still inwardly reacting. The two starring performances in Total Eclipse would be, in and of themselves worth far more than the price of a ticket.
However, when you also consider the engaging performance of Georgia Moffett in her impressive theatrical debut as Verlaine's childish wife Mathilde, as well as that of Susan Kyd as her mother, Mme. Mautre De Fleurville and Verlaine's tawdry late life companion, Etienne Carjat, Ronald Markham as the poet's father in law, and all those who gave thoroughly credible performances in various seemingly minor roles, Total Eclipse becomes as well rounded a theatrical experience as it is a memorable one.
Under the considered, well-paced direction of Paul Miller, Hampton's play and its characters assume a vibrant life of their own. By the inevitably crushing conclusion of this engrossing production, many members of the audience appeared to be basking in the resonating afterglow of its illuminating subtext.
The atmospheric seating arrangements make their own tangible contribution to the immediacy of the overall theatrical experience, as the nature of the chairs the audience occupies, which almost seem to have come from a café or home like the ones suggested onstage, function as a unifying link of sorts between audience and actors. Paul Wills' sparse set designs, which offer only what is relevant to a scene and no more, assure that David Shrubsole's musical compositions and Sebastian Frost's Sound Design have sufficient space in which to embroider on intentional pauses within the context of the play's action. Julie Bowles costume design reflects class differences as well as highlighting the intricacies of the clothing of the play's time period. It is uncertain however, whether the overtly heavy makeup on the women, which apart from that of the prostitute, seems quite contemporary, was meant to reflect on the exaggerated use of cosmetics in theatrical productions of the era, or if was simply an oversight on the part of the play's production team. It was, however, a very minor flaw in an otherwise flawless, thoroughly engrossing production.
It is now widely acknowledged that without Verlaine's protection, Rimbaud's poetry, all of which he, rather amazingly, composed between the ages of 15 and 19, (he gave up writing poetry when he was 20) might well have been destroyed at the behest of his family, without his former partner's intervention. Hence Verlain's contribution to the literary world far exceeds that of his own lyrical, symbolist poetry. For, in addition to the fact that both poets have, over time, assumed their own places in the annuals of literary history, in salvaging the output of Rimbaud's latent genius for future generations, Verlaine also, inadvertently, provided a major influence for the creative work of such subsequent trend-setting, free-style visionaries as Beat poet Alan Ginsberg, legendary Door's front man Jim Morrison, Folk icon Bob Dylan and Punk's precursory high priestess, Patti Smith.