James Baldwin's novel is rightly regarded as a twentieth-century gay classic. This stage adaptation, developed from a drama-school workshop led by director Maia Guest, lead actor Peter Gaitens and composer Simon Deacon, respectfully concentrates on lengthy sequences of dialogue; the story flows with the stateliness of the Seine through the Paris in which protagonist David, trying in vain to square the circle of his sexuality, loses both boy and girl.
Guest's notes speak of searching for "a rhythm, energy and eloquence" to match Baldwin's prose. Eloquence comes over in abundance, rhythm to a certain extent, energy only tenuously. Protracted scenes of duologue, usually between David and his lover Giovanni, are presented with reverence, linked by David's narrative monologues. Simon Deacon's pervasive score of languid, smoky jazz heightens the tone – David and Giovanni's first sexual encounter fades to darkness centre stage, whilst the piano, upright bass and singer Kristen Marks in the corner take up the strain with "In A Sentimental Mood".
Yet the overall impression is one of "atmosphere" in general, not of any atmosphere in particular. What Guest and her company do, they do very well, aided by the estimable though under-used presence of Bette Bourne as ageing, predatory queen Guillaume. Bourne spends some time sitting above the main action, looking indifferently down upon it; the climactic murder scene, with the antagonists located on different levels, loses much of its considerable power at the moment where Bourne unfortunately has to strangle himself.
The play's chance encounters and social gatherings are there mainly to intersperse the central sequence of scenes between David and Giovanni, and later between David and his fiancée Hella. Gaitens conveys the sense of detachment, or of unwillingness consciously to engage, of David: the dual status of protagonist and narrator. Ed Vassallo's Giovanni exudes from the first the sense of doom which he condemns Americans such as David for being unable to feel; but it is a slower, heavier feeling than is usual in drama – this is doom mediated through troubled, fragmentary memory. Guest's own portrayal of Hella as breezy and at least superficially self-assured is intentionally at odds with the shadows and secrecy around her.
The decision to insert an interval into the show (a sine qua non in the Drill Hall in high summer) does not dissipate the play's power, which remains primarily literary rather than theatrical in nature.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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