Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until February 3
Seen at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow;
at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 30
Reviewed by Mark Brown
A dance-theatre piece based upon Marguerite Duras’s acclaimed, autobiographical novel The Lover was a tantalising prospect. Sad to say, however, this co-production (by the Lyceum, Scottish Dance Theatre and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines) is dreadfully misconceived.
There are, in general, too many adaptations of famous novels on the stage. That said, some prose fictions contain more theatrical possibilities than others.
The Lover, published in 1984, would seem to offer much to the stage. In the novel, Duras recounts a love affair between a 15-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old Chinese man in French colonial Indochina. The affair at the heart of the book (which is illicit both racially and due to the girl’s age) is charged with the kind of psychological and erotic possibilities that often make for great theatre.
The trick with any successful stage adaptation of a novel is to find the right theatrical form in which to express the depths and nuances of the fiction. Adapters and co-directors Fleur Darkin and Jemima Levick have come up with a central, interpretative idea which misfires badly.
Fine actor Susan Vidler appears on-stage as The Woman, the narrator of her own story, remembering, many decades later, both a tumultuous love affair and the extraordinary city (Saigon) in which it occurred. However, her live speech is intercut, in fact overwhelmed, by recorded narration and dialogue.
Four actor-dancers represent The Girl, The Man and The Girl’s brothers (who are spoiled brat products of colonial entitlement). When they speak, they mime to a recorded female voice.
This makes a certain, conceptual sense. It reminds us that the story is being told from the perspective of The Woman later in her life, and, therefore, carries with it all of the potential embellishments, omissions and other creative alterations that come with memory.
However, in performative terms, it is nothing short of disastrous. It is truly amazing that Darkin and Levick did not realise that having dancers mime to recorded speech, not occasionally, but continuously, would be ridiculous, in visual terms, and absolutely distracting to the audience.
The choreography itself is a mixed bag. Although occasionally evocative and executed with technical accomplishment by the dancers, it is often too literal in its visual metaphors.
In an evening of mangled opportunities, the central sex scene is particularly silly. Playing in mock naked costumes (or fake nudes, if you will), Amy Hollinshead (The Girl) and Yosuke Kusano (The Man) are fighting a losing battle as they attempt to evoke the powerful erotic connection between the lovers.
Vidler’s almost heroic performance aside, the production’s only other saving grace is Leila Kalbassi’s set design. Exhibiting a subtlety which is otherwise entirely absent in the show, it takes its inspiration from the famously delicate visual arts of East Asia.
Dance-theatre is a genre (exemplified by the great London-based company DV8 Physical Theatre) which makes a seamless connection between choreography and live drama. Frustratingly, this staging of The Lover is all seam and very little connection.
Achilles, a new, solo work from Glasgow-based physical theatre group Company of Wolves is no less ambitious than Darkin and Levick’s offering, and considerably more successful. Performed by the Wolves’ co-director Ewan Downie, the piece is an example of a theatrical form which is familiar to some in the Scottish audience, but rarely practised by Scotland-based artists themselves.
Downie and his co-director Anna Porubcansky (who is dramaturge and composer on this piece) stand in a rich, Polish tradition (developed most famously by the great theatre master Jerzy Grotowski). Downie is a former member of the acclaimed Polish ensemble Song of the Goat, which has illuminated the Edinburgh Fringe with such great shows as Chronicles: A Lamentation and Songs Of Lear.
Company of Wolves is a welcome attempt to bring this profound artistic form into Scottish theatre practice. Achilles is an admirable step on that journey.
Downie is simultaneously the expressive, Homeric narrator of the piece, and also the performer of its drama. At the outset, he paints for us a colourful word picture of Troy, a functioning city living in dread of its siege.
Then, he turns to the story of Achilles’s and his vengeful anguish when his beloved friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan warrior Hector.
Lying on his back on the floor, Downie begins to sing a Greek song of lamentation, his limbs moving slowly in an affecting expression of Achilles’s insufferable moral pain. Then, as anguish turns to rage, we hear of the Greek hero’s preparations for war.
Achilles’s ensuing bloodlust is, first, recounted in unsparing, gruesomely poetic detail, and, then, re-enacted, with muscular, visual eloquence. The spasmodic death agonies of a Trojan soldier, whose spine has been skewered by the Greek warrior, carry an unflinching truth.
The three songs in the show (two, like the music at the heart of Song of the Goat’s Chronicles, from the folk traditions of the Epirus region of Greece, the other from the Byzantine Christian liturgy) carry a powerful spiritual resonance, and are performed by Downie with real depth of expression. The simple designs (set and costume by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, lighting by Alberto Santos-Bellido) are tailor-made.
The shifts in tone required of Downie, between narration, stylised physical performance and emotive song are not easy to sustain across the work’s 45 minutes, and the piece does lose its rhythm from time to time. However, there is much to admire in the attempt.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 28, 2018
© Mark Brown