Genet’s The Balcony is a very strange play. First performed in London in 1957, its opening night was laced with drama as Genet accused the director of ruining his play. Indeed, it’s a very easy to play to ruin: constructed in a series of overlong vignettes that drag pace and slow momentum, it’s a challenging task for any director.
The Balcony focuses on Madame Irma, the proprietress of a ‘house of illusions’. Clients from all walks of life come to The Grand Balcony to fulfil their fantasies. She provides the machinery for their odd, sometimes diabolic re-enactments: a Bishop chastises a beautiful young penitent, a Judge condemns a thief, a General rides his ‘young filly’ in battle. Meanwhile, a revolution is raging outside (a fact repeatedly brought to our attention by background gunfire: a nice touch, but unsubtle as it continued a few hours into the play). As insurgents foment rebellion, real figures of authority are deposed or killed, and their fake counterparts must take their places.
Meg Jayanth does a credible job of bringing this difficult piece to the stage, and must certainly be applauded for excellent stylistic vision. The set and costumes were both impeccable, and the opening of the second act was unconventional but highly effective. The play dragged considerably, however, and during many of the scenes I felt a lack of tension (sexual or otherwise). During the initial fantasies, the characters appeared more bored than aroused; I expected to squirm in my seat, but instead found myself wondering when the tableaus would end. The play, particularly in the first act, should cause a frisson of discomfort and voyeuristic guilt/pleasure. Unfortunately, the prevailing atmosphere was stale rather than electric.
Melissa Julian-Jones’ performance as Madame Irma grew on me. Much of the first act she flounced about, swishing her robe and performing the same distracting, fluttering gestures (a hand on the breast, a hand touching her hair). But she surprised and impressed with her depth in scenes with Carmen and in conveying her hopeless, masochistic love for The Chief of Police. Her chemistry with Laurie Penny’s Carmen made their scenes some of the most crackling of the night. This was partially due to Penny’s winning and natural performance. Morgan’s Chief of Police was terse and sinister, his megalomania more pronounced as the night wore on. The Bishop (David Coghill), Judge (Jonathan Totman), and General (Alex Stewart) all turned in convincing performances, but could have been more hyperbolic in their ‘roles’, the better to show anxiety when actually thrust into them.
Despite some glitches, this is certainly a production unlike most Oxford offerings. The Grand Balcony is worth a visit.
The Balcony runs all week at the OFS at 7:30 pm.