“Language is power… The instrument of domination and liberation.” So said Angela Carter, who might just as well have been writing the tagline to The Girl in the Yellow Dress, showing in London for the first time since its 2010 premiere at the Traverse, Edinburgh. Craig Higginson’s play is an absorbing study in the potency of language, delivered with verve in Tim Roseman’s shattering production.
A five-part two-hander, the setting is the chic Paris apartment of late-20s Sorbonne drop-out Celia (an immaculate Fiona Button). Cast from a prim-and-proper North London mould, Celia teaches the odd English lesson to top up the cash she receives from a family trust fund. Her apartment oozes with sophistication – books abound; fresh daffodils sit on a pristine white bookcase; she’s about to greet a new student with a warm smile and a pot of black coffee.
The new student in question is Pierre (Clifford Samuel), a young man who’s been saving up for English lessons and, he reveals, has been admiring his yellow dress-clad teacher from afar for several months. The play unfolds across five encounters between teacher and pupil, with the tutoring proving an ideal context for intimate, considered introspection – forced to get to know each other, to express themselves in an uncommon tongue, every word, every nuance, is under scrutiny in meetings charged with sexual and sometimes racial tension.
Over time the pupil becomes more skilled in the language and the teacher more at ease with her student; as linguistic possibilities unfold so too do the possibilities for invention, as both characters delight in spinning story after story. They spar each other on to declare things never told to anyone, “something dangerous”, as language becomes a medium of release – to Pierre from the complexities of his African heritage, to Celia from her not-so-implacable background. “The psychologists call it scopophilia,” declares Celia. “It’s an illness. There’s the pleasure of looking and the pleasure of being looked at. Objectifying others or objectifying yourself. It can become addictive if you’re not careful.”
And in this world of addiction, Celia and Pierre will do anything for a linguistic fix; the personal histories grow ever more elaborate, ever more laced with untruths. Each of the five sections slowly unpicks everything we’d known – or assumed – in the previous; we become increasingly unsure of the boundary between truth and lie. The language-drug leads the duo into their disturbed, darker sides, too; it’s a medium for declaring the unspeakable, from incestuous feelings to a history of kleptomania. It’s no accident that Celia’s sofa looks more like a psychologist’s couch. Everything – every object, every idea, every part of speech – is under the spotlight in this crucible of a grammar lesson, and under questioning everything falls apart – the daffodils decay, the coffee stops being made, the books are packed away.
Roseman’s smart, polished production draws exceptional performances from its cast, whose game of linguistic entrapment is played out to a tee; and Higginson’s script challenges assumptions of race and class with cutting insight. It’s not without flaws – the five-part construction, each section of which takes a slightly unsubtle title projected across the back wall, in both English and French for good measure (“narrative tenses,” “lies and truth”) – at times wears thin; there are only so many French grammar gags one can take, and I say that as someone with a degree in the stuff. But this is bold, thought-provoking work, and a gritty battle of language and power-politics from a vital voice of the modern stage.