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La Musica- Young Vic
“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 her novel The Lover. And if that time is elliptical for the writer, filmmaker and essayist, it is elliptical too in La Musica and director Jeff James’ tweaking of Marguerite Duras’ spatio temporal realities, which gives the piece an overall sense of estrangement and discombobulation. The text may travel back and forth in time as former husband and wife Michel and Anne-Marie gather in an orange street lit hotel room to murmur softly over what should be done with the furniture post divorce, but Tim Reid’s cameras- extraordinary close ups on Sam Troughton and Emily Barclay- introduces a different kind of elliptical experience with implied, though not quite, mismatched eye lines. What happens later, for ‘round two’ of Marguerite Duras’ play, embraces some of the director’s former stylistic interests when the couple’s relationship, brought down from the precipice like heights of the Maria’s windows, takes place almost gladiatorial style and chin to chin with the audience sitting or standing on Ultz’s make shift terraces.
This interpretation of La Musica may seem highly original. Entering the auditorium, the audience has the chance to survey the stoney, still backs of the actors who sit suspended on a concrete block. One is beguiled into believing 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 ups on individual video screens. Not only may we chuckle in delight and shock, we also realise that 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. At the all important convergence, they would still be split, their joining hidden from sight by the gap in the wall between the screens.
This implied thought not made quite explicit separation, the use of cameras with their slight distorting of the actors’ faces, is unexpected and shocking. The nature of it fractures our expectations and experiences of time- this psychodrama of desire, loss and death becomes, like Freud suggests “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 the bodies they belong to, albeit in a different physical space, it seems their heads are hovering in a different time zone, perhaps even a different era. They are both here and not here, and as Anne-Marie later says, “present” but not present.
Marguerite Duras’ best writing deals with subversion, power, victim/victimiser, masochist/sadist, romantic/cynic. Here Michel and Anne-Marie play along, kept neatly in their roles by the physical restraints of the camera frame: “man” shows himself comfortable in playing this prescribed role. So 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,” to come 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, for 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 as Michel assumes the nonchalant countenance of a Nouvelle Vague film icon, which does not slip even when the lift, briefly and hilariously, gets stuck. It’s continued until the audience rearrange themselves on Ultz’s stage at the behest of a tannoy announcement and then the stylisation is dropped. What was familiar for at least 30 minutes is discarded, Jeff James is far from allowing his audience to remain feeling comfortable or resting on their laurels for long. Dan Gunn once wrote for his inaugural review at 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 he will wheedle out all that we start to believe is reality and, to the gentle almost mocking notes of Ben and Max Ringham’s piano and cello, ask us to question “Now where are we?” and “What does this mean?” as the couple face each other as if opponents in a boxing match.
This is hardly unknown stylistic territory for the director though. Stinkfoot, his version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes at the Yard Theatre more than a year ago, had its main characters dressed as heavyweights and moving as if they were limbering up for some championship match. Here though, Michel and Anne-Marie don’t so much limber as migrate the space as they exchange words and, sometimes, each other’s seats and literal points of view. Under Jo Joelson’s soft yellow spotlights dimmed in an overhead light box, Sam Troughton delivers what must be the best line of the evening- “We’re in despair”- with such droll eloquence the audience collapse into laughter. Thus, the text is not allowed to take itself too seriously, although, for all Marguerite Duras was a director and filmmaker, she believed first in the power of words and nothing but words.
The introduction of the audience too, brings a different kind of physical reality. Whereas in Marguerite Duras’ film of the same play, which she co-directed with Paul Séban, she used the actors’ bodies to frame each other and thus find some sort of physical meaning for the audience with the shapes and contortions made on screen, the audience here now act as their own live framing devices. If this further disallows the text to take itself too seriously by reminding us all that we are watching a play (a little like when Duras has her characters stare knowingly into camera) it does so only so that the play’s more serious moments can have real gravitas- lines like “Perhaps they don’t remember pain when they don’t feel it anymore” can then have space to breath.
The production may seem emotionally restrained with the actors tending to reign in their feelings. But Marguerite Duras disliked any show of “tenderness,” for her it excluded or nullified sexual desire. And if Sam Troughton and Emily Barclay seem like they approach their own emotional precipices only to dance away from them to the safety of their words again, it might be to honour the playwright’s belief that “acting doesn’t bring anything to the text.”
The play does not provide the audience with a resolution although it reveals plenty, not least Marguerite Duras’ thoughts on age and eroticism and she exposes gender prejudiced attitudes towards infidelity. Somehow the ending had me thinking 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 like that film, we feel sure that this narrative has not ended- it may well continue on a cyclical trajectory in our imaginative minds reframed only through the prism of experience.
Imaginative and provocative staging by Jeff James of Marguerite Duras’ little performed classic.