Theatre review: The Lover | Achilles

WHAT a luscious and beautiful thing is the Lyceum's new staging of Marguerite Duras's 1984 novel The Lover, adapted and directed by Jemima Levick of Stellar Quines and Fleur Darkin of Scottish Dance Theatre. Every aspect of the production glows with a powerful aesthetic sensibility, from Leila Kalbassi's exquisite porcelain-like set '“ white screens, minimal black furniture '“ to Emma Jones's sumptuous lighting, and two beautifully-pitched central performances from dancer Amy Hollinshead as The Girl, and Susan Vidler as The Woman, the same character, 50 years on.
The Lover
by Marguerite DurasThe Lover
by Marguerite Duras
The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh *** | Citizens’ Theatre Studio, Glasgow ***

Duras’s great autobiographical story of a love-affair between a teenage French girl and a wealthy Chinese man a dozen years older is set in colonial Saigon in 1930. It has to do with poverty and wealth, race and colonialism, and how both of those tensions interact with the power of sexual attraction, in the mind of a 15-year-old girl from deeply dysfunctional family, who longs to be a writer; and in a very brief 75 minutes, Levick and Darkin’s version glides smoothly across all these themes, using both direct monologue by The Woman, and the sound of her own recorded voice playing her younger self and other characters, to emphasise the fact that the story is an act of memory, filtered through decades of later experience.

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This is a decision that reduces all four other characters (The Girl, The Man, The Girl’s brothers), and the dance through which they express themselves, to staged illustrations of The Woman’s words; it’s not a dramatic device, but it makes for good-looking, legible theatre, and at its best the movement has a gorgeous, fluid quality, embodying something of Duras’s obsession with the mighty, fast-moving Mekong that flows through Saigon.

Achilles by Company of Wolves, created and performed by Ewan DownieAchilles by Company of Wolves, created and performed by Ewan Downie
Achilles by Company of Wolves, created and performed by Ewan Downie

The problem with all this, though, is that it yields a piece of theatre that looks beautiful, but somehow lacks any sense of communicative purpose, as if it had been put together as an exercise in multi-art-form theatre, rather than out of any urgent need to reconnect with and reinterpret a story that could be an intensely topical one, given the current concern with questions of power and consent in sexual relationships.

Only Torben Lars Sylvest’s remarkable sound design seems to take a pro-active attitude to Duras’s narrative, with a range of chansons from the singer Camille and rough-edged original anthems that rouse the story from its period context, and suggest something more contemporary and disturbing.

For the rest, it’s all gorgeous aestheticism, offering the barest outline of the marvellous political and observational richness of Duras’s writing; an experience that finally seems more like a brief, elegant reminder of the novel, than a new and exciting theatrical engagement with it.

The latest show from the Glasgow-based Company Of Wolves also combines narrative and movement in an intense tale of passion; but in Ewan Downie’s new solo performance, the passion is the rage of the mighty Greek warrior Achilles, after his lover Patroclus is killed in battle by the Trojan hero, Hector. Downie begins his 45-minute monologue quietly, with narrative drawn from the classic rhythms of Homer’s Iliad; the Greeks have been besieging Troy for nine years, there is stalemate, Achilles is sulking in his tent.

Achilles by Company of Wolves, created and performed by Ewan DownieAchilles by Company of Wolves, created and performed by Ewan Downie
Achilles by Company of Wolves, created and performed by Ewan Downie

As the action gathers speed, though, Downie begins to move and – most spectacularly – to sing, mighty Greek and Aegean male-voice laments that keen and soar, delivered in a superb voice that shakes the rafters of the Citizens’ Studio. Some of the movement sequences work better than others, as he returns obsessively to the dozens of ways in which the raging Achilles can slice, pierce and shatter his enemies into oblivion; sometimes he looks like a little lad playing soldiers, miming being shot or stabbed at vaguely comic length.

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Yet at its best, this short glimpse of the anger of Achilles is a thrilling experience, packed with promise, and lifted by the sheer vivid brilliance of Homer’s poetry; and it looks set to win another round of praise and applause when it makes a brief Edinburgh appearance next week, as part of this year’s Manipulate Festival.


The Lover is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 3 February. Achilles is at the Citizens’ Theatre tonight, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 30 January