Midway through Sergio Blanco’s fascinatingly tricksy play, I started wondering if Sergio Blanco was a real person. The Rage of Narcissus is so layered, complex, and obsessed with questions of authorship that it felt totally possible that it could all be an elaborate death-of-the-author type fantasy.
Franco-Uruguayan playwright Blanco (who, a quick Google later, I discover is indeed a real person) writes himself into this play from multiple mirror angles. It starts with a long preamble, where actor Sam Crane carefully explains that he’s going to play the role of Blanco in the performance that follows, and tells us what he knows of this unseen playwright. Apparently, Blanco is full of excitement at the prospect of Crane performing his latest work, his hotly anticipated follow-up to Thebes Land. This is Blanco sketched from the outside; a little vain, bursting with enthusiasm and faith in his own genius. Then, we get Blanco seen from the inside; Crane inhabits this playwright/academic as he prepares to speak at a conference on mythology in Ljubljana.
Just like a character in a myth, Blanco is drawn inexorably to what he desires. He finds a man called Igor on a dating app and brings him back to his hotel room for a wild day of sex. Then, he tries to return to preparing his talk on Narcissus. But lust bursts in on his solitary routine of early morning runs, writing, and Skype calls. Igor is a reflection of a want that Blanco doesn’t always verbalise, the ‘id’ under his practical exterior. The Narcissus parallels go further, too. This is a story of a gaze that leads to destructive fury; a brutal ending that’s constantly foreshadowed in the faded stains of blood that cover Blanco’s hotel room. Natalie Johnson’s set design imprisons him with perspex-walls, creating reflections for him to brood over and rail against.
The Rage of Narcissus is an intriguing blend; part slow-burning thriller, part examination of myth and the self. It’s styled as ‘autofiction’, aka fiction that centres the author’s subjectivity and experiences – a genre pillaged from the literary world. Here, with the demands of creating dramatic thrust, the emphasis is more on the ‘fiction’ than the ‘auto’. Blanco uses real details from his own life and presumably from his own research as a philologist, but his subconscious stays opaque. This feels more a slow-burning thriller – one that uses the appearance of truth to add impact to its increasingly disturbing narrative.
Director and translator Daniel Goldman’s production has a kind of wry, icy detachment. I like the loftiness of The Rage of Narcissus, and its ambition, and the way that it makes you sit forward on your seat and puzzle through its careful layers. But not all its ideas land. They’re a funny mix of ponderously academic, and joltingly obvious; Blanco quotes Oscar Wilde’s “art is useless” – one of the blunter weapons you can poke a theatre audience with.
In the original myth, Narcissus’s death is symbolic, but it’s also pretty funny – a comically apt punishment for vanity. Like the Ancient Greek equivalent of those guys who die trying to take a sexy selfie with a tiger. The Rage of Narcissus delivers on limb-tearing fear, on the message that we’re doomed to destroy the objects of our obsession, whether it’s ourselves or someone else. But I wish this story did a little more to puncture the horrors of the writerly ego, and the way that metaphors and theories can cloud emotional truths, as often as they reflect them.
The Rage of Narcissus is on at Pleasance Theatre until 13th March 2020. More info and tickets here.