First published in The Times, Thursday January 25 2018
The weaving of dance elements into drama has become so widespread as to be unremarkable, even if certain productions tack on passages of movement in such marginal ways that they seem almost afterthoughts. Unusually, this adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s novel, created by Fleur Darkin of Scottish Dance Theatre and Jemima Levick, the artistic director of Stellar Quines, professes a 50:50 split between the two forms. While sporadically effective, their collaboration fails to capture the visceral power of its source.
Duras’s autobiographical novel, which was published in 1984 and frankly and unapologetically recounts a love affair between a 15-year-old schoolgirl from a French family and an older, wealthy Chinese man in colonial Saigon, is famous for its deeply subjective authorial voice. The action of Darkin and Levick’s adaptation is relayed entirely from the perspective of the protagonist (played by Susan Vidler), looking back on her youth from the safe distance of middle age.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
For the bulk of the 85-minute piece, Vidler’s is the only voice we hear, whether live or recorded, with the apparitions from her past lip-synching to her words. This aspect has a disarming effect, lending certain scenes the uncanny quality of presence and absence found in dreams. Yet the technique is underused, with the adaptation relying heavily on flat, first person narration rather than giving over the story wholly to dramatisation.
Darkin’s use of subtle, understated choreography to delineate characters, including the lovers (Amy Hollinshead and Yosuke Kusano), and the protagonist’s indolent brothers (Francesco Ferrari and Kieran Brown), is compelling but too fleeting – the balance in the production between words and movement tilts excessively towards the former. Leila Kalbassi’s simple set design of transparent drapes and protruding tree branches, lit in warm hues by Emma Jones, is beautiful but rather too tasteful, reflecting none of the heat, dust and pollution of the city backdrop as it is described in the text.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The scenes of lovemaking are similarly lacking in feverishness passion: there is certainly little trace of the “cool and moist contact” of Duras’s novel. Frustratingly, the final scene, in its silence and stillness, achieves the desired poignancy. Otherwise, this feels like a missed opportunity, a theatrically and emotionally underwhelming experience.