“The cork has been drawn, so the wine must be drunk!”
The Oyster Problem conjures a vision of a literary gathering where oysters and champagne are taken for granted, and famous novelists come and go with casual intimacy.
Jermyn Street Theatre is a small theatre with only 70 seats; you have to cross the stage to reach the bathroom. Here, we are welcomed closely into the private life of Gustave Flaubert, the French literary realist best known for his novel Madame Bovary, as he hosts illustrious writers and dear friends: Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and George Sand.
The happy drunken scene feels like an impressionist painting: the writers are surrounded by indistinct reflections of themselves, in the blurry mirrors around the stage. They are living a charmed life, with a touch of unreality to it.
But before long, the hideous spectres of debt and ill health have reared their heads. The mirrors are folded away, replaced by a bright window and bookshelves. The oysters are gone. The increasingly dishevelled Flaubert, in a fit of rage against his niece’s frugality, exclaims, “Wine and cheese? What are we, bohemians?!”
Bob Barrett plays Flaubert as quick to anger, snappish and unreasonable, but the writer’s great capacity for love and for loyalty shines through. He gives full weight to the contradictions in Flaubert’s personality; at times a cynical misanthrope, but suffering from the same idealistic naivety which dooms his protagonist, Madame Bovary. This is intensely frustrating to his loved ones, as he invents excuses to reject their pragmatic solutions to his struggles.
The chemistry between the cast is strong, with nuanced and capable performances all round. It’s wonderful to see a portrayal of the depth and intensity of love which develops among friends, and between relatives, given centre-stage.
We see a patchwork of conversations between the assembled novelists, some imagined and others lifted from their writings and letters. They debate questions such as: is an obscenity trial typically profitable for the writer? Why are there so many terrible books written by celebrities, and who buys them? Should a true artist be subject to an editor, or should he stand his ground? Should the author be visible in his work?
The playwright, Orlando Figes, is a historian with a curatorial eye for language. He follows the course of Flaubert’s later years, without imposing any particular narrative structure or dramatic denouement. The Oyster Problem is primarily composed of anecdotes and ideas, and contains too few events to justify a runtime of two hours and twenty minutes. It could be heavily abridged without losing its charm.
Figes’s script is a captivating miscellany, more than anything else. Zola, frantically looking for a chamberpot, eventually urinates in a glass dish and shamefacedly hands it to the maid. We hear that Balzac supposedly believed abstinence was a route to creative productivity. After sleeping with a woman, he allegedly told a friend, “I’ve lost a whole book!” Turgenev reports, deadpan, his foolproof method to avoid anxiety about his own death: “When we Russians get caught in a snowstorm, we have a phrase: Don’t think about the cold, or you will die.”
The Oyster Problem is a remarkable pearl of a play. It’s a patchwork of anecdotes and ideas, with few actual events. If you have read these writers – or you might want to – it is absolutely worth seeing.
Written by: Orlando Figes
Directed by: Philip Wilson
The Oyster Problem plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 4 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.