“At times refreshingly witty and sharp, and then lets itself down…”

Hugo McPherson is left questioning by 'Arseholes', a new play about Rimbaud and Verlaine

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In the most recent play by the Ionian Productions Theatre, Julia Hartley attempts to bring a relatively unknown story about love, lust and poetry to the stage. Arseholes focuses around the life of Paul Verlaine, a nineteenth century French Poet (played by Inigo Howe) who takes a talented young poet, Arthur Rimbaud (played by Archie Foster) under his wing. As the play unfolds, Verlaine leaves his young wife Mathilde (played by Tamar Koplatadze) and begins a passionate affair with the young Rimbaud. As an audience, we see Verlaine torn between familial duty and hedonistic passion, which is reflected in his poetry, which we hear (translated into English by Hartley) during the play. Lots of things worked about the play. We are thrown into excitement from the off, as Foster and Howe come running onto the stage in argument, and this excitement resurface again at other points. The script at times is sharp and comic, brought out well by the strong ensemble. The story is exciting and tragic, and we feel sympathy for Verlaine, slave to his own heart, throughout the show. The two main actors, Foster and Howe, take a difficult and demanding task to make the audience believe in their love and do it relative justice.

Howe as Verlaine is at times believably nervous and emotional, but this is often overplayed, and in the most demanding scenes, he slips into frantic gesticulation and awkward shouting. Foster as Rimbaud was clearly the standout, taking the role of the naïve and irreverent teenager in his stride.

Despite a confusing West Country accent which mysteriously disappears after scene one, Foster is the main source of life in the play. Tamar Koplatadze, who played Mathilde, was also impressive, exhibiting the heart ache of rejection with skill. Mathilde’s parents in the play, played by Keshya Amarashinge and Steve Goddard, worked well together, as they moved between comic timing and heart-felt emotion. The rest of the cast is made up of smaller roles, but the depth of the acting is good. Ernest Cabaner, played by Matt Gibson, was a personal favourite, bringing some life and zest to scenes with comic ease.

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Hartley should be lauded for her effort in bringing this complicated story to life, especially considering she translated all the poems herself. However, the play lacks drive and tension. We are often led to a dramatic moment in a scene to have in snatched away from us in a cliff-hanger, and then not resolved in the next scene. The play seems stuck between ideas. In terms of comedy, it is at times refreshingly witty and sharp, and then lets itself down with crass humour and embarrassing puns. The lighting and sound both misfired, some scenes transitions had music, some didn’t, and the house lights came up three times. The realistic period costumes are let down by obviously fake props and embarrassingly fake beards. The realism of Howe and Foster’s passionate scenes is let down by the rushed and unbelievable fight scenes, with actors reeling off punches that we didn’t see or hear. To add to this, the play is simply far too long, with unnecessary scenes with no relevance to the main story dragging on.

On paper, the story behind Arseholes is intriguing and full of life, but unfortunately its transition to stage by Hartley does not do it justice. Go to see some capable acting and fantastic period costumes, but don’t expect a masterpiece.

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