People are often said to be living in a ‘dream world’, unable to distinguish between imagination and reality. But what happens when your imaginings leave the privacy of your dreams and come to live in your world? New Theatre’s latest production invited its audience into the darkness to find out…
Porphyria, written by C. J. Wilmann, is a black comedy about the blurring of reality and imagination. The production focuses on Reginald Blake (Nick Jeffrey), a modern man who dreams about his perfect woman, providing him with a fantasy he can escape to when married life becomes too much. But when this fantasy arrives at his house in the shape of the new au-pair (Genevieve Cunnell), Reginald begins to lose control. As his wife (Liz Stevens) becomes increasingly frustrated, the temptations of infidelity arise. But Reginald begins to lose more than his marriage as he struggles to differentiate between fantasy and reality.
The play takes its name from the gothic Robert Browning poem, but the relevance of this isn’t revealed until the end of the performance. Reginald becomes obsessed with his son’s poetry recital video but this is more than fatherly pride. Few would have guessed that the poem would provide a catalyst for the protagonist’s actions, as he finds the answer to his confusion in the content of the text, ironically using the au-pair’s favourite poem as inspiration for her fate.
The two directors, Tom Barnes and Matt Wilks, have clearly collaborated closely with the producer, Elin Stenner-Matthews, to produce a carefully considered and stylised performance in everything from its scenery to the delivery of the dialogue. Keeping things simple, the three characters managed all the set changes; unfolding beds and tables to create the next domestic scene. Modest freeze frames and dimmed lighting indicated when one scene ended and the next began.
Less simple were the techniques used within the delivery of the performance. Porphyria was mirrored and framed by Reginald’s soliloquy, which opened and ended the play whilst a humorously modern twist was added as he clapped his hands to turn off the lights. Ending the performance as it began suggested that in Reginald’s head nothing had changed, although the audience knew better.
Creativity was also shown through the pure wit of the dialogue. Scenes of simultaneous action unfolded as both women enacted the same scenario from different points in time to a rather bewildered Reginald. The dialogue was clever; with abrupt responses he managed to have a conversation with both his wife and his lover, enraging each of them until their reactions became identical and they replied in sync. The two moaning women appeared to merge together onstage, similar to the merging of Reginald’s dreams and realities. It took a while to work out what was actually happening. With the boundaries between time, reality and imagination heavily blurred, the audience are subjected to the same confused feelings that the protagonist experiences. The theatre company were clever to restrict our focus solely on Reginald by omitting the name of the wife or the dream woman. Able only to engage with the protagonist, we become preoccupied with his descent into madness.
To lighten the darkness of insanity, the play introduced a comedic aspect early on. However, with a script that was already highly amusing with mundane bickers about the everyday and a tragic depiction of a failing marriage, the numerous gags and exaggerated facial expressions included in the first half were not really needed. The delivery of comedy felt somewhat misjudged as the play progressed and this slapstick style of humour disappeared. The inclusion of such a sit-com style of comedy might have been a technique to show the gradual decay of Reginald’s light and comic personality, but with a dialogue that was already highly entertaining this exaggerated style of humour was not really necessary.
Despite this, Porphyria was still remarkably impressive. The confusion and madness of Reginald was perfectly portrayed by Nick and complemented by Liz’s realistic portrayal of the frustrated but loyal wife, whilst the ‘dream woman’ Genevieve gracefully floated in and out of each scene as she might Reginald’s mind. Although a little clunky in the humour at places, with such a satisfyingly dark plot, a witty script and some ingenious acting scenes, Porphyria is definitely worth seeing.
Porphyria will be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe at the Zoo Southside venue 6 -20 August 2012