Take heed, here be spoilers…
“Only the novel of a life is real, not historical facts. It’s in the imaginative memory of time that it is rendered into life” wrote Marguerite Duras shortly after the publication of The Lover. And if time is elliptical for the writer, filmmaker and essayist, it is elliptical too in La Musica.
Director Jeff James’ tweaking of Duras’ spatiotemporal realities gives the production a sense of estrangement. The text travels back and forth in time as Michel and Anne-Marie, former husband and wife, gather in a hotel room, bathed in an orange street lamp light, to discuss what should be done with their furniture following their divorce. Tim Reid’s camera introduces a different kind of elliptical experience into the production with implied, though not quite, mismatched sight-lines. What happens later, for ‘round two’ of Duras’ play sees the couple’s relationship play out gladiatorial style, chin-to-chin with the audience.
On first entering the auditorium, we are able to survey the stony, still backs of the actors as they sit suspended on a concrete block. We might thing that this is the playing space. But we are deceived. The house lights snap off and Michel and Anne-Marie’s faces appear in separate extreme close-up shots on two individual video screens. Even if these two were to kiss, it would never be able to take place within the same camera shot without the need for some serious reframing. They would still be split, their union disrupted by the gap in the wall between the screens.
This separation, and the use of video which slightly distorts the actors’ faces, has a shocking quality. It fractures our expectations and this psychodrama of desire, loss and death becomes, what Freud calls, “a space of uncertainty in which boundaries blur between the rational and the supernatural.”
As Michel and Anne-Marie gently spar, their faces recede into the black and although we can see their bodies, albeit in a different physical space, it seems as if their heads are hovering in a different time zone, perhaps even a different era. They are both here and not here; as Emily Barclay’s Anne-Marie later says, “present” but not present.
Duras’ best writing deals with subversion and power, the relationship between victim and victimiser, romantic and cynic. Michel and Anne-Marie are kept neatly in their roles by the physical restraints of the camera frame. When Michel, in distress, dares to hesitantly move to the window, leaving the audience with a gaping black “confessional box” camera frame to stare into, Anne-Marie calls him “back into the light,” back to the camera. “Tell me, this play acting, what is it for?” she asks later. “It is nothing to do with feelings,” replies Michel.
This “play acting” is all the more hyperbolised when, in the second act, Michel and Anne-Marie are lowered off their platform in a juddering scissor lift operated by a solemn faced, deadpan stage manager. Sam Troughton’s Michel assumes the nonchalant countenance of a Nouvelle Vague film icon, a mask which does not slip even when the lift, briefly and hilariously, gets stuck. The audience rearrange themselves on Ultz’s stage at the behest of a Tannoy announcement and then the stylisation is dropped, the familiar discarded; James does not allow his audience to feel comfortable for long.
Dan Gunn wrote in the TLS of Marguerite Duras that “she is a writer whose next move only the foolhardy would predict.” Perhaps the same can be said of Jeff James, for his production forces us to question “Where are we?” and “What does this mean?” He did similar things in Stinkfoot, his version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes at the Yard Theatre. Here though, he has Michel and Anne-Marie exchanging not just words but, sometimes, seats, quite literally swapping points of view. Under Jo Joelson’s soft yellow spotlights, Troughton delivers what must be the best line of the evening: “We’re in despair”, with such droll eloquence; the text is not allowed to take itself too seriously.
In Duras’ film of this play, which she co-directed with Paul Séban, she used the actors’ bodies to frame each other, here the audience act as their own live framing devices. This further reminds us we are watching a play (just as when Duras has her characters stare knowingly into camera) but it also allows for real gravitas, the language is given space to breathe.
The production seems restrained emotionally, with the actors tending to rein things in, but this is fitting as Duras disliked any show of “tenderness,” for her it excluded or nullified sexual desire. Troughton and Barclay approach the edge of things only to dance away again, to retreat into language, a choice which honours the playwright’s belief that “acting doesn’t bring anything to the text.”
The ending made me think of Meshes of the Afternoon, a 1943 film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, a different work of art entirely, however the dreamlike sexually charged feeling is not dissimilar. And just like that film, here too there’s a sense that this narrative has not really ended, that it may well continue on a cyclical trajectory in our minds, continually being reframed by experience.
La Musica is a Classics for a New Climate production. Classics for a New Climate investigates how making theatre can be more sustainable, in collaboration with Julie’s Bicycle.