Saturday, August 01, 2009

Too Close to the Sun

‘A writer is not just the sum total of his books – he’s a legend’, says Hemingway’s stalwart fourth wife. She defends the dying author from his floozy secretary and a predatory old school chum in this feeble musical about the Nobel Prize-wining author's last days. Snake-hipped Louella hopes to be wife number five and the Indiana Jones-style project Rex outlines can only tarnish the writer’s reputation.

Daniel Reitz’s much better Studies for a Portrait, at the Oval House Theatre explored a similar theme in more dynamic style. As an admirer of Hemingway's prose, if not his subject matter, I was interested. Whereas Reitz’s play pitted respectful homage against get-rich-quick opportunism in the final days of a dying painter, writers Roberto Trippino and John Robinson stumble under the weight of Hemingway’s action-hero reputation and the mystery of his shotgun death.

‘Words fly at me like meteor showers’ and ‘America only knows what to think when I have my say’ pronounces the shambolic hero, in a terminal state of writer’s block but happy to re-imagine the hell-raising youth evoked by Rex. The play offers no real insight or portrait of the action-hero writer. The actors did their best with a poor script and some banal and unmelodic songs

Christopher Wood’s set is the best thing about the show - three spaces in the ground floor of a house in Ketchum Idaho, where the reclusive Hemingway has come to die. The rooms’ dividers are slatted wood, making a kind of tropical see-through log cabin, the walls festooned with bleached animal skulls. A revolving stage makes for seamless scene-changes, and suggests a steamy Somerset Maugham or Tennessee Williams atmosphere, while the see-through walls suggest the characters keep each other under constant surveillance. In a memorable sequence where Rex runs through his frenetic screenplay, Ernest following him from room to room, it becomes a model zoetrope, a visual preview of the proposed Hollywood travesty.

The fatal weakness is the musical numbers. Each character steps forward in turn and crudely expresses their aims in a recitative style. Ernest’s expository ‘I lived too Close to the Sun’, is little more than an ‘I did it My Way’ apologia that doesn’t endear, an impression reinforced when Rex and he join in a song about their womanising. In a chilling precursor of the final scene Ernest demonstrates to Rex the only certain way to shoot oneself (place the shotgun in the mouth), but otherwise the script is rambling.

Christopher Howell was an adequate standby Rex in the performance I saw, but James Graeme made an over-active Hemingway for a man suppsosedly physically ruined by his excesses. Tammy Joelle as Louella was pert rather than seductive. Helen Dallimore as wife Mary, the only admirable character, brought a resigned dignity to her role as the protector of a husband whose work she admired. It’s a shame the writers can’t make the audience care as much as she did about his legacy.

Too Close to the Sun at The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street:

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