The Oyster Problem follows Gustave Flaubert’s decline as he fights a disastrous case of writer’s block and lives in denial of his dangerously dwindling inheritance fund. Finally paying the price for his insatiable appetite for champagne and oysters, Flaubert struggles to accept that compromising his art may be the only way to save himself and his beloved niece from financial ruin. As Flaubert (Bob Barrett) and friends jarringly discuss their dislike for democracy, the threat of the ‘common herd’ and how money and market forces are corrupting the arts, ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’, an unmistakably romantic tone emerges, set against a backdrop of the late 1870s literary scene in Paris.
Jermyn Street theatre itself is a wonderfully intimate venue, which happens to work well for a production dominated by conversations around dinner tables and exchanges between close friends. The audience feel that they are part of these spirited discussions by virtue of being so close to the action.
The play feels a little too long at times, whilst being incredibly dense and wordy. Nevertheless, the rigour of the research evidently propping up the script and the precision of each line made Orlando Figes’s debut play admirable. The historical context is richly and thoughtfully created, unsurprising, since Figes is an esteemed Historian. It creates a vivid picture of the culture in which Flaubert and his friends lived. The trajectory of the play leaves the audience with a general impression of both the characters’ passion for the arts (as well as wine) and their grief as they see the world change.
In some sections where the pace dwindles and delivery feels self-conscious, one character stands out as strong, authentic and subtly amusing: the formidable George Sand (Norma Atallah). Sand’s no-nonsense approach and practical manner is a gasp of fresh air in comparison to Flaubert’s insistence that he wallow continuously in self-pity, perform self-aggrandizing speeches as a form of self-soothing and fight fictitious battles with imagined enemies. Sand promptly tells Flaubert to stop feeling sorry for himself and get to work. When Flaubert complains of a ‘sea of shit rising up the ivory tower’, she flatly replies that he will therefore just ‘have to learn to swim’.
Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Commanville (Rosalind Lailey), lives a life of self-sacrifice at the foot of her uncle’s pedestal, giving up her own significant talent as a painter for her uncle’s career as a writer. However, moments of firm confrontation from Caroline hint at a steely will underpinning a polite and accommodating facade.
Heavily historical, dense and complete with actual props and a set, this play steers away from being “cool”, conceptual or contemporary, but it certainly stands out for its literary and biographical details and creates a rich and engaging context. By dramatising a biography of Flaubert’s later years, a sort of artistic manifesto for the writer is portrayed and his spirit, both inspiring and infuriating, is brought to life.
Image: Rosalind Lailey and Bob Barrett in The Oyster Problem, Photo by Steve Gregson
Review by Lucy Evans
Lucy’s passion for the arts began with drawing and painting at a young age and developed later on into a love of landscape painting and a degree in Art History, with a focus on Modernism and gender. Lucy has grown to love literature and acting in particular, and her experiences acting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have been formative, convincing her that performance can be an essential tool for communication and connection, as well as of course being a valuable source of entertainment.
Madame Bovary made Gustave Flaubert the most famous writer in Paris, but thanks to a bad publishing deal he’s barely earned enough cash for a croissant – let alone enough to indulge his appetite for oysters. In fact, he’s flat broke. His friends Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev and George Sand beg him to dumb down his work for the masses, but Gustave isn’t compromising. There’s only one thing for it – Flaubert must find a job.
Orlando Figes makes his playwriting debut with this snapshot of Paris’s 19th Century literary superstars. Orlando unearthed a series of captivating letters between Flaubert and Turgenev while researching his hit book The Europeans. The discovery of those letters was the starting point for this hilarious, poignant look at one of the greatest writers, as his friends knew him. Philip Wilson directs this dramatised comedy of literary fiascos.
Orlando Figes says
‘I wrote this play, my first, as a hobby and experiment to see if I was any good at writing plays. It came out of my work on The Europeans, which dealt with the meeting between art and money in the age of the railways. I fell in love with Flaubert, as an artist and a man, through his letters to Turgenev and George Sand, who clearly loved him too. Their correspondence gave me the idea and some of the conversations of the play, which I hope will entertain and make us think again about the artist in the modern world’.
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