To say that French writer Marguerite Duras’ 1984 novel L’Amant (The Lover) told the story of her affair in 1930, aged 15, with the much older son of a wealthy local businessman in colonial Saigon is to relate only part of the tale of how this incident informed and influenced her writing. She returned to it more than once, apparently fictionalising it in some instances; at times he was her welcome sexual awakening, at others a manipulator who physically repulsed her.
The Lover remembers – or possibly reimagines – the former spin on events, and the novel has been adapted in this new co-production from Stellar Quines, Scottish Dance Theatre and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre in a sensuous and erotic light. Leila Kalbassi and Emma Jones’ set and lighting design builds a rich and meditative scene, all light hanging fabrics and warm, dusky tones, and the decision to have the actors communicative through a voiceover read by Ros Steen – who relates their mimed dialogue and the inner thoughts of the lead character – gives a further dream-like quality.
It’s a bold move for David Greig’s new and experimental version of the long-established Lyceum, a theatre more used to the traditional three-act-play-with-interval format, to take on a relatively short piece of work at fewer than ninety minutes, and one which bears a similar level of ambiguity to Duras’ writing. The character who is analogous to the writer is played by two women, Amy Hollinshead as her younger self and Susan Vidler as the reflective older version, and much of the piece concerns itself with the tentative passion between the Girl and the Man (Yosuke Kusano).
The choreography of co-adapter and director Fleur Darkin is a joy to watch, as Hollinshead and Kusano writhe against each other in a manner which suggests heated passion but very cleverly involves minimal body contact (that both are wearing flesh-toned body stockings also takes the heat from the scene somewhat). Another strikingly narrative sequence sees the Man attempt to sit with the Girl, only to be blocked by her mother (Vidler again) and two brothers (Francesco Ferrari and Kieran Brown ) with fluid, interlocking motions.
The piece skirts vaguely around several big and pertinent issues, including the legacy of colonialism and the cultural clash of interracial relationships, but all feel brushed aside by the most significant and hard-to-reconcile story point; that the Girl is a child, and that her partner is an abuser, regardless of her feelings. These Lolitaesque overtones never quite feel thoroughly worked out, and even the experienced reflections of Vidler’s elder incarnation don’t provide definitive answers on what it all meant to her.
Which is not a flaw, really. Definitive answers and neatly packaged moral points might seem pat in the case of such a difficult and ambiguous subject as whether a person finds it hard to judge whether they feel they engaged in sexual experience or exploitation many decades ago, but the only certainty is that it’s a tale which only women – in this case, Darkin and co-director Jemima Levick, artistic director of the female-led Stellar Quines company – are qualified to tell. They’ve made a work which mesmerises and troubles in equal measure.
The Lover is on at Lyceum Theatre until 4th February, 2018. Book tickets here.