First published in The Times, Wednesday June 24 2015
Muriel Spark’s 1970 novella The Driver’s Seat would probably be considered too much of a curiosity for publication today. The protagonist is Lise, a woman in her thirties, alienated and unhinged by the rituals of her office job, who travels from northern to southern Europe, ostensibly in search of “her type”. Spark pulls the carpet out from under her readers’ feet by revealing, barely three chapters in, that her central character will be brutally murdered.
In writing and directing this stage adaptation, Laurie Sansom, the artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, retains the book’s unusual structure. Described by Spark as a “whydunnit”, the plot alternates Lise’s encounters with various male aggressors and eccentrics in an unnamed Italian city with the impending police investigation into her death.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Sansom employs a variety of techniques in lieu of Spark’s pitiless authorial voice. Much of the action is filmed in close up and displayed on screens at the back of the stage. A disc jockey sitting in full view of the audience plays Philip Pinsky’s patchwork soundtrack of moody incidental music and pastiches of cool Sixties Italian pop. The seven-strong supporting ensemble, which includes Ryan Fletcher as a lecherous passenger on Lise’s flight and Gabriel Quigley as a sympathetic hotel guest, shifts abruptly in and out of character.
Although this self-conscious theatricality is initially distancing it eventually forces us to confront head-on the unsettling questions Spark’s asks about identity, male violence and the nature of empowerment, embodied in Lise’s attempt to take control of her own death. Certain episodes are perhaps less effectively realised than others, but at its best the atmosphere is Kafkaesque: you feel as though you are bearing witness to someone else’s nightmare.
Morven Christie’s superb central performance provides the crucial point of identification for the audience. Without recourse to sentimentality or hysteria she fills in the emotional gaps left by Spark’s austere prose, emphasising Lise’s isolation in a chaotic, uncontrollable world, which in turn makes our knowledge of her ultimate fate all the more unnerving.
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