It is perhaps unsurprising that a play named after a boy who falls in love with himself should be as self-indulgent as Kian Moghaddas’ Narcissus is. The play unapologetically devotes itself to Oscar Wilde and attempts to recreate the decadent culture of fin de siècle England. At best, this leads to moments of delightfully frivolous conversation peppered with aphorisms worthy of Wilde himself, as when Mr Norris (Ezra Jackson) declares, “I can resist everything, except temptation”; at worst, the endeavour to resuscitate the diction of dandyism becomes shot through with modernisms such as “ready when you are” so that we are left with a somewhat Frankensteinian dialogue that brings the action of the play to a jarring halt.
The more general issue these narrative fissures reveal is that Narcissus cannot sustain the emotional gravitas it heaps upon itself. Take, for instance, the scene in which Echo (Sophie Magalhaes), who has recently fallen in love with the young Narcissus (Sam Burles), goes to the house of his father Lord Necropher (Noah McGarrity) in search of him only to learn she may never leave. Magalhaes’ voice resounds with all the pathos of one who has learned they may never really live again; McGarrity inflicts this fate with a gratifying Machiavellian glee; David Street’s work on lighting does much to create an appropriately sinister atmosphere. Yet at times the lines feel so stilted as to undermine all this, so that ultimately the scene conveys all the threat of a 3D-printed Keir Starmer.
Narcissus is at its strongest when it allows this unselfconscious theatricality to slide and flaunts its own underlying absurdity. Burles’ pairing with Cosimo Asvisio as Arthur Minyas works particularly well in this regard. The latter, playing a dusty socialite whose life clearly peaked in his (presumed) time at Eton, delivers his plaints to his reluctant lover with a droning monotonousness sufficiently soporific to euthanise an expiring poodle. The resulting bathos is superb, because it allows the play to register most acutely its ironic distance from the world it purports to recreate: Narcissus and Arthur are no Dorian and Lord Henry, it seems to acknowledge, but only a flaccid imitation of them. This point seems to be reinforced by the comic moments of the play, such as when Narcissus and Arthur, lying in wait to uncover Norris’ secret lover, are discovered and claim, respectively, to be looking for their (third) shoe and tying their (already tied) shoelaces; or when the matriarchal Lady Necropher (Charlie Lovejoy) grills a squirming Arthur over his intentions in his friendship with Narcissus. The dynamism between actors in these scenes conjures up the slapstick hilarity of a Fawlty Towers episode, an aspect all the more entertaining because it is transplanted into the world (admirably recreated by set and costume designers Iona Eyre and Eliza Browning) of upper-class Victorian London.
Unfortunately, the play does not entirely commit itself to this comical self-reflection. Burles’ final monologue seems at first to capture the naïve ardour of a youth entirely in love with himself, spoken by an actor setting out to ironise the performativity of this pose. Yet by the time Narcissus stabs Arthur in the back (to an uncomfortably short snippet of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu) it is unclear whether play and actor share the unreflective sincerity of the character himself. The denouement does have the merit of turning around a well-orchestrated plot-twist, yet this fails to bring the hoped-for gasp from the audience because the play lacks the narrative backbone to support it. Each scene up to this point feels almost like an Instagram reel, something to be enjoyed for itself but then largely forgotten, so that Magalhaes’ character, in spite of how well she plays it, feels by the end of the play less like an echo than a whole in a shirt you took to Oxfam six months ago.
Wilde, of course, with his emphasis on style over meaning, would laud Narcissus reel-like quality. Indeed, the sexual politics of the play, which seem at one moment to condemn adultery, at another to champion homosexuality, and then finally to declare its apathy towards both these issues, seems thus to disavow any moralising purpose in favour of technical flourish. Particularly impressive are Magalhaes’ interaction with McGarrity, and later a dinner scene involving Lord Necropher, Narcissus, Arthur and Norris, in which characters echo one another, pick up one another’s lines, speak together and, at one point, comment on the artificiality of all these tropes. Yet the play (once again) self-sabotages this ambitious formalism in a moment when Arthur, Narcissus and Echo perform a polyphonic speech on the taboos and attractions of adultery and homoeroticism. What was previously a mere technical feat becomes infused with a moralising tendency, and what unfortunately results is a scene that smacks of a GCSE Drama piece on the throes of secondary school romance.
Ultimately, Narcissus, much like Dorian Gray, looks at itself to find an image that it does not recognise. Regardless of the undeniable merits of its constituent parts, holistically it cannot decide what it wants to be.