Marguerite Duras’ novella, L’amante anglais, has been adapted for the stage many times since its release in 1968. Indeed, this is now the fourth run of the production in Melbourne alone, an impressive feat in a city famous for the new and different. More impressively still, it is the second encore performance at fortyfivedownstairs in collaboration with La Mama. The performance is almost always sold out, but tickets, if you can get them, are well worth the investment.
In 1949, a brutal murder is committed in the small town of Villon, France. Dismembered body parts are found on trains all over the country; everything except the head, that is. Investigators soon discover that each train passed through the same point – an underpass in Villon – and the townspeople are each interrogated in turn. Claire Lannes, an unassuming housewife, confesses immediately. The dead woman is Claire’s deaf-mute cousin and housekeeper, Marie-Therese. The audience learns all of this in the first few minutes and the remaining 97 are a gripping attempt to uncover why this shy, retreating woman committed the savage act, and more pressingly, what did she do with the head?
Director Laurence Strangio shuns the unnecessary frills of theatre (sets, props and costumes included) to produce a starkly stripped-down affair: on a bare, simply lit stage, flanked on either side by the audience, the protagonists sit and talk. With lesser actors, it could easily have felt claustrophobic or mundane; it’s a small space and a long, physically static play. But Rob Meldrum and Jillian Murray render the performance entirely engrossing: like spectators at the tennis, audience members turned from one speaker to the other, transfixed.
The dialogue itself is near perfect, and Meldrum and Murray inhabit their roles so completely that it becomes perfectly real too. Meldrum plays a detached and pragmatic Pierre, a husband of convenience lacking any desire to understand his wife. His performance is indifferent, matter of fact and perfectly controlled. Murray, who won the 2015 Green Room Award for her performance in L’amante anglaise that year, is an entirely compelling Claire: odd, lonely, disdainful, confused. Mad, maybe. Murray’s performance reveals an extraordinary inner life and the audience is at once sickened by her crime and heartbroken for her.
L’amante anglaise is a perfect work of theatrical minimalism, a thrilling psychological drama and a poignant exploration of morality, human relationships and our hidden inside worlds.
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Season: 8 – 19 February 2017 (preview: 7 February)