The thing about allocating stars to designate a production’s calibre within its type is that you first have to determine what its type is. If there is a subgenre of Samuel Beckett-inspired TED Talks in the True Crime strand at over-thinker conventions, then Sergio Blanco’s The Rage of Narcissus is a 5-star stand-out smash. Singularly anchored by the redoubtable Sam Crane, who enacts basically everything and everyone (save a brief GIF appearance by Jean-Paul Belmondo, which Crane then re-enacts), this actor is commanding (and gorgeous – he’d be wonderfully cast as the third brother of Tom Hiddleston and Rafe Spall) enough to watch for 90 minutes almost irrespective of the script he delivers.
As for the script, if you studied Comparative Literature at Yale some time in the late 20th century, grab your alumni directory and make a coach party of it! This is certainly a show for those who prefer Foucault to Friends and get more laughs out of Derrida than Derry Girls. However, if refractions and reflections of the artistic gaze don’t mean anything to you, you may be slightly puzzled even if you are highly intelligent. I’m not sure how big the post-structuralist show-biz market is these days, but these guys are a respectable challenger brand within it (although for Escher-based entertainment enthusiasts, Michael R. Jackson’s Strange Loop still leads the market thanks to wickedly catchy song-and-dance numbers!).
For couples occupying a mixed marriage (humanities and STEM), the Paglia-wearing member of the family may want to share The Ladybird Guide to Lacan along with a light pre-theatre supper. This production is not an entry-level foundation course in hermeneutics. With the convenient device of the narrator being an academic lecturer (and boy does he lecture!), it sometimes feels like you’ve been inadvertently enrolled in Basics of Epistemology in the Instagram Age. Hey, I kinda like that sort of thing but it’s a far cry from Noises Off.
Designer Natalie Johnson cleverly creates a three-walled mirrored box for Sam Crane – who plays ‘Sam Crane’ who is playing a character called ‘Sergio Blanco’ who is the author in the story (or ‘narrative’ but not drama, as he is at pains to explain in the Prologue) but not the actual playwright per se – such that we are both brought into the mise-en-abyme nature of the story’s ‘structure’ and see ourselves narcissistically whenever the house lights are up. It’s a nice touch and the confinement of infinite self-reflection gets another canny nod via the cube Sam wears on the chest of his hoody.
Daniel Goldman’s translation and direction of Sergio Blanco’s text (or should I say ‘work’? The ghost of Roland Barthes will haunt my criticism with a meta-consciousness [or perhaps I can entice you to come with me as you critique my review such that the act of your gaze upon this review as a prism to see a play of which you may later form a judgement but, for now, a pre-judgement as to whether to go see it or not, will subvert the form of reviewing and I should cast myself within it as a character of ‘Mary Beer’, the theatre critic; present but transformed by the act of reviewing, adopting the gaze of the reviewer and the reviewed… get it?) is sympathetic and vigorous. The play was originally written by Franco-Uruguayan Blanco for Gabriel Calderón and first performed in Montevideo, Uruguay exactly four years ago. Finding the right tone and touch is no mean feat and something in which Goldman succeeds in both his roles, which are profoundly complementary. However, this is a play that is a lot of ‘tell’ and not so much ‘show’ (although with its central Vermfremdungseffekt, the characters of others whom we can only know through the perceptions of Sergio/Crane, do matter). There is a thread of explanation, context and foot-noting ever-present. The Rage of Narcissus takes editorialisation to its apotheosis but how does it fare as theatre rather than thesis?
Given all its ambition and courage to grapple with The Biggest Ideas (with stories of hotel-rooms-cum-crime-scenes and Slovenian chem-sex parties) and not succumb to paralysis for fear of pretension, The Rage of Narcissus is simply a little hackneyed in some of its allegorical flourishes. Let’s break it down: hot local Grindr dude, Igor, likes to watch and be watched. The medium that enables these encounters – and acts as an intermediary for a good portion of the sexual gratification experienced by ‘Sergio Blanco’ (the academic in Ljubljana to give a lecture on the artist’s gaze and the myth of Narcissus) – serves increasingly like the mirrored cube-cum-cage for the self who longs to be seen and transformed. However, as the audience, we only know of Igor via the description given by Sergio (the artist) and enacted by Sam Crane (the performer) played by the actor Sam Crane and so he’s sketchy and a device as is pretty much everyone and everything. Sergio delivers a direct speech from his lecture to the audience: ‘The third reason that I believe that Narcissus’s gaze resembles the artist’s gaze is that both gazes not only transform what is before them, but also immortalise it… This makes me think of something that Deleuze maintained when he stated that art is an act of resistance…an act of resistance against death’. We are then told that Igor crashes Sergio’s academic address and asks: why is he so afraid of dying? And, of course, this is what the play is about but its power is diminished by intellectual clutter, even if stimulating and occasionally wonderfully poetic and resonant.
From the beginning, we know of a crime-scene and a grizzly murder. In all its described gore and psychopathy, it’s a very straightforward bit of sicko/psycho wrathful violence of the type that has inhabited many a David Fincher picture. The quasi-snuff sensibility that occupies the ‘plot’ (because there does have to be some kind of story alluded to if not actually enacted [even in a Beckett-lite TED Talk!]) feels clunky and obvious. Is this because it requires a degree of fictional and emotional risk, rather than erudition, and that is not Blanco’s sweet spot? As a mash-up (shall we call it the ‘Slovenian Chain-Saussure Massacre’?) of pot-boiler and treatise, it can’t quite find an emotional purpose despite all its intensity.
Intellectually impressive? Of course. Entertaining? Well, if you want didactic stimulation with some conventional sensationalism, then you will probably have a good time during the performance and an even better time in the bar afterwards deconstructing it.
Review by Mary Beer
When Sergio arrives in Ljubljana to give a lecture on Narcissus, the first thing he does is look for someone to have sex with. A few hours later, once Igor has come and gone, Sergio spots a bloodstain on the floor.
As he begins to investigate, he gets drawn deeper into the murky world of desire, infatuation and murder. Perfect material for the new play he’s trying to write – if he can get out of Ljubljana alive.
Award-winning director Daniel Goldman returns to the London stage to reunite with internationally acclaimed Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco following their smash-hit Thebes Land (Best Production, Off West End Awards 2017).
The Rage of Narcissus is a fascinating and disturbing exploration of the darkness within us all.
The Rage of Narcissus
Tangram Theatre and the Pleasance
18th Feb 2020 – 8th Mar 2020
Main House – Pleasance London
7:30pm, 5:30pm, 3pm
Suitable for ages 16 and above