The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark’s 1970, and personal favourite, novel is still a spine-chilling read, a ‘whydunnit’ open to multiple interpretations. One of Spark’s most intriguing creations is central character Lise, a morally ambiguous woman in acid-bright clothing, both peacock and chameleon in a panoply of guises and with nihilistic, potentially masochistic, tendencies. The concept of control, as alluded to by the title is left in the eyes of each individual witness to Lise’s fate. So a play adaptation is a very bold gambit. The National Theatre of Scotland have mostly succeeded, helped by the evocative and noirish open-plan set, which incorporates a clock with animated hands and video footage (designed by Linbury Prize winner Ana Ines Jabares Pita) and is accented by mood lighting by Chris Davey. The chiming soundscape by Philip Pinsky is beautifully eerie, at times augmented by the Goblin’s theme from horror classic Suspiria.
Laurie Sansom’s direction retains a sense of ambiguity, and is at its sharpest when showing Lise’s misanthropic disdain. Morven Christie’s Lise (consistently excellent) is initially off to the side of the stage, sneeringly observing her co-workers – and much of humanity – in isolation. Sex is something unpleasant, intimacy to be avoided – yet conversely she draws attention with her every utterance and action. This is certainly consistent with the novel: for all of her strange, unknown motives, she is without question an inveterate snob.
Even after tiring of her office job, her holiday destination is uncertain, somewhere loosely based on Rome but as likely to be France or Portugal. The hippy dream is souring, personified by Ryan Fetcher’s creepy Bill, the macrobiotic enthusiast. He is a travelling companion you would cross continents to avoid. Fletcher is fantastic, ice blue eyes bulging as he strokes Lise’s thigh on the aeroplane, condescending and full of self-entitlement. As many cultural commentators have since noted, Spark seems to be playing with ideas of sexual agency, implying that free love was merely an excuse for some men – and women – to become boorish sex pests.
Yet, as symbols of Italian machismo, Ivan Castiglione’s Carlo and Andrea Volpetti as his friend Francesco are problematic, falling at times into the grating sit-com ‘Hey, wassa matter?!’ stereotype. There is a jarring comedic element here, as with Lise’s sweetly befuddled older friend Mrs Fiedke (Sheila Reid), which at times sits a little uneasily with the rest of this fine production.
Where it excels is through reinstating a detached, almost clinical, air. Lise’s age is unknown. Her thoughts and judgements remain unclear. She could be anyone in the balmy stillness of the night. The eventual sexual violence and murder Lise endures is effectively rendered by simply being implied, just off camera, although her face suffers in pornographic zoom-in – a late Hitchcockian twist.
Ultimately, the anonymity of Lise’s many personas tie in nicely with the mapping of her whereabouts, the all-too-prosaic tourist detritus (ties, scarves, maps and cards) encased in plastic merely serving as a sad reminder of a young woman who is, to the casual observer, merely another murder statistic.