EFR - Reviews of Porphyria

Porphyria

Wed 8th – Mon 20th August 2012

reviews

James Fennemore

at 09:12 on 9th Aug 2012

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‘Porphyria’ is an innovative and interesting production that is occasionally let down by underwhelming elements in all three key production areas of writing, directing, and acting. I sense that it has come out of a very strong student drama scene and tradition at Nottingham University, but is in itself not representative of the absolute best of their output.

Initially, the play seems to be going the way of a fun yet slightly predictable modern retelling of the ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ story of Browning’s poem: man has fantasy mistress – man wishes to keep fantasy mistress for ever – man kills fantasy mistress. This, however, is embellished upon by the writer, who integrates the poem explicitly within the text, as the protagonist Reginald Blake (Nick Jeffrey) becomes obsessed with it after hearing his son read it in a school competition. Blake is not the maniacally disturbed but elegantly eloquent speaker of Browning’s poem; he is a buffoonish copycat, a man wrapped in his own fantasies who comes to let Browning’s character do the thinking for him.

The writing is often sharp and funny – early sparring over a scrabble game is a highlight – but falls short of excellence, as I soon began mentally finishing characters’ lines for them before the words left their mouth. The final scene places the play in the middle of a court case, which has become an over-used and unnecessary trope in new writing; this added dimension simply didn’t add anything to the piece. It was clear enough that the morality of Blake’s fantasies and actions were being examined without having to thrust him before a barrister.

Both female characters are focalised through Blake and therefore often necessarily two-dimensional as they succumb to the simplifications of his psyche. It would, however, have made for a more interesting performance if more had been made of the distinction between his perception of them, and their actual reality. Liz Stevens, playing Blake’s wife, offers a very moving performance at the one moment where she is really allowed to by the writing, in a monologue addressed to her husband as he obsesses over the poem in a cold daze. All too often, however, she is reduced to bland antagonism, as her predominant role in the play of Bickerer-in-Chief.

The direction has been strong on the dialogue between actors, and allows for some good moments of both verbal and physical humour. There are, though, several scenes in the play in which visual devices and staging are used in a rather dull manner; in one, Porphyria (Gen Cunnell) walks behind Blake from right to left, her reactions on either side demonstrating both sympathy and ire. These effects are a little underwhelming and often tiresome to watch. The scene changes are also in urgent need of sharpening up, as actors are taking far too long to move and transform their admittedly inventive and flexible set.

‘Porphyria’ manages to remain a proficient production throughout – but doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its conceit, nor the talent of its actors and directors.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 10:04 on 9th Aug 2012

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If you know Browning's 'Porphyria's Lover' - then you already know the plot of Porphyria. Wilmann's transposition of the heady Gothic-romance of 'Porphyria's Lover' into modern domesticity is irreverently amusing. Reginald Blake thinks indulging his imagination at night is harmless, until one day he looks over his newspaper to find his wet-dream at the breakfast table. And of course the new au-pair has a favourite poem... whose inevitable inclusion is cleverly motivated.

But Wilmann doesn't stop at vulgarising Browning. Within Porphyria itself, he plays around neatly with the undiscerning reception of canonical literature. The poem is first recited at a competition by a seven-year-old boy who barely understands its significance. Little more intelligent is his father, when he takes the words as the motivation for a crime that they warn against.

The characterisation of Reginald Blake by Nick Jeffrey as a stolid, brow-beaten husband - always one step behind his wife - prepared well for this obtuse interpretation. The cheekily smug expression he wore at the most inappropriate moments delighted a giggling audience. And at the other end of the spectrum, his looks of obsessive fixation were themselves engrossing. But in his performance of the role, Jeffrey perhaps overdid his oleaginous obsequiousness towards the au pair, to the point where it was hard to see how she fell for him. To the extent to which his role allowed him, Jeffrey played a good, if not psychologically deep, obsessive fool.

The women were less interesting. This was to some extent intentional in a play that was focused around Reginald to the point that it at times seems to be played out in his head (though these boundaries could be clearer). Unnamed, their relationships with Reginald became in one scene so interchangeable that he gives the same replies to both. The clichés parodied are at times funny, but sometimes it peters into predictability. The latter parts of the script seldom lived up to the witty scrabble squabbling of the beginning.

Like the plastic set - an extraordinary bed-sofa-dinner table that transmogrified itself into any piece of furniture required - the play was conceptually neat, if a little ostentatiously so. When it stuck to comic modern misinterpretation(s) of Browning, 'Porphyria' was strong. But the loose ends of the plot - like the court-case epilogue, in which a contrite Reginald is bizarrely defended by the wife he cheated on - are not only psychologically implausible, they undermine this central effect.

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