When watching the stage adaptation of any book, especially one I’ve not read, there’s often a question lingering at the back of my mind; would I appreciate this more, would I understand this better, if I had? It’s a telling distraction, of course; arguably, any stage adaptation should stand or fall on its own metaphorical feet as a work of theatre; if you need to bring background information to make the experience work, it’s failed.
The lithe, physical strength of the dancers is, at times, breath-taking
Not that this stage adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s memoir is a failure; it is beautiful to watch, a balanced combination of theatre and dance within a simple set of delicate drapes and monochromatic graphics. There is an equally entrancing soundscape of French and English pop that, while historically inaccurate for 1930s Vietnam, feels narratively appropriate. It’s a rare coproduction between three of the country’s most creative performance companies: Scottish Dance Theatre, Stellar Quines, and the Lyceum. Yet all through the 90 minutes running time, I couldn’t help wonder: What I was missing from the book? Worse: Why should I care?
There is a potentially extremely involving story at the heart of The Lover, the memoir of a 15 year old French girl’s passionate affair with a 27 year old Chinese man; how her family’s poverty and his millionaire father’s expectations of an honourable marriage ultimately doomed their relationship. Apparently following the approach of the memoir, this stage adaptation by choreographer Fleur Darkin and director Jemima Levick avoids names and details of the individuals involved; only the Girl’s two brothers have names, but both are pretty much robbed of individuality by having all the characters’ dialogue pre-recorded, in female voices.
The lithe, physical strength of the dancers is, at times, breath-taking; whether it’s Amy Hollinshead’s free-spirited Girl, Yosuke Kusano's lean and curiously vulnerable Man, or Francesco Ferrari and Kieran Brown as the Girl’s two extrovert, quarrelling brothers. There are occasions when the choreography is narratively succinct and far more effective than any written scenes could be; and yet, equally, there are also moments of cliche—such as the cast’s initial crawling entry onto the stage, which cuts at the ropes of suspended disbelief and leaves you wondering what’s fundamentally wrong with simply walking like a normal human being.
For all the production’s promise of being “an irresistible blast of sensual heat for the dark days of January,” however, the reality is that The Lover lacks full-on passion, or a reason to care. Entwined, carefully choreographed bodies are not, in themselves, sufficiently erotic no matter how young and muscular they might be—not when the overall emotional experience they supposedly portray is deliberately kept at such a physical and emotional distance from us.