Written for Whats On Stage 19 November 2009
It’s always exciting to look into the lives of those artistic giants who have shaped our modern culture and delight in the surprises to be found there. Mark Rothko’s hatred of Andy Warhol, Claude Monet who, long before his bourgeoisie water lilies, was the enfant terrible of the art world; the list of real life intrigues is endless.
Following this gossipy ‘tude therefore, When Henri Met Oscar, Michael Gannon’s new play, is bound to be a corker. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec with his painted whirling dervishes and Oscar Wilde’s delightfully sharp yet frothy wit, both outsiders of the Establishment, both in their separate ways obsessed with beauty; this was to be a meeting of titans. But instead of the explosion longed for, all that results in this confused play is a bemused fizzle, and a damp one at that.
We begin in a high class brothel in 1894 Paris, and end in a cafe in 1900. During this time Wilde is imprisoned and released whilst Toulouse-Lautrec has been sectioned and is dying. Bewilderingly these life changing events do not affect any discernible personal development within Gannon’s characters. All we get to see is a continuous and tedious routine of griping and quipping at one another which bears no relation to a two-way friendship. Interspersed between their waspish discourse, prostitutes giggle and flirt, supposedly giving us a taste of the bohemian atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge.
Sadly for all this intended hedonism, the only joyous moments come when Wilde is quoted verbatim, with all else in this staging being quirky and awkward. This is a mess of a script that jumps incomprehensibly from the past to the present and gives no in-depth sense of these two men as either individuals or friends. After two hours the question still remains; what did happen when Henri met Oscar?
Director Sinead Kent fails to get a grip on the piece, leaving the cast to fall into either overacting, or under confident performances. Moments of silence are all too easily seen as accidents and consequently there are no moments of tension. Within this hesitant bumbling there are some valiant attempts at detailed physical characterization from Steven Rodgers, who at points succeeds in channeling a little of the spirit of Toulouse-Lautrec. But this is more than can be said for the rest of this show, which disappointingly lacks any of the sublime clarity and conviction that made its eponymous heroes so exceptional.