Theatre review: Slope, Glasgow

Owen Whitelaw as Paul Verlaine with Jessica Hardwick as his wife
Owen Whitelaw as Paul Verlaine with Jessica Hardwick as his wife
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UNTITLED Projects may have been inexplicably excluded from the list of regularly-funded companies recently announced by Creative Scotland, yet the team that brought us The Salon Project and Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner is undoubtedly one of the three or four most exciting companies in Scotland; and it is still difficult to forget their first 2006 production of Slope, Pamela Carter’s explosive chamber drama about triangular relationship between the 19th century French poet Paul Verlaine, his young wife Mathilde, and his lover Arthur Rimbaud, one of the most savagely brilliant writers ever to blaze briefly through the world of French literature.

Slope - Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

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Staged then in a deep tank of a space at the top of a huge wooden slope in the Tramway’s main exhibition space, Stewart Laing’s production was visually stunning, offering us a strange, birds’-eye view of Verlaine’s terrible and sometimes violent inner struggle between the bourgeois literary respectability offered by his life with Mathilde and his job as civil servant, and his wild affair with reckless and impoverished Rimbaud.

Now, though – at the Citizens’ and next week at the Traverse – Carter’s play is reborn as an intense 100-minute studio drama, played to an audience sitting along the walls on bentwood chairs; and the formal twist that’s always present in Stewart Laing’s productions comes with the fact that this show is live-streamed to the internet as we watch it, and is played as much to the five or six small cameras dotted around the room as to us, the audience.

The effect is to place us closer to the action, but also to make us less central to it; it’s as if the cameras’ watching eyes represent, in the room, the force of external, societal opinion and judgment that looms so large in Verlaine’s mind, as he struggles with his own denial of the nature of his relationship with Rimbaud.

In terms of the play’s subject, it’s clear that times have changed, even in the eight years since Untitled Projects last staged the play: gay relationships are now both legal and celebrated through civil partnerships and marriage.

Yet there’s still something troublingly familiar about the creative tension between wildness and respectability played out among the three characters, brilliantly conjured up by Owen Whitelaw as Verlaine, James Edwyn as Rimbaud, and Jessica Hardwick as young, strong, indomitable Mathilde, utterly 
driven – by her fear of society’s judgment.

And if ordinary homosexual relationships no longer represent, in our culture, the kind of “forbidden” love that some find irresistible, the presence of the cameras reminds us that our “tolerance” is often provisional and skin-deep, and that our society is still capable of making the most harsh and divisive judgments against those whose stories are only glimpsed on-screen.

Seen on 13.11.14