“We should talk because we haven’t anything else to do”
It came as little surprise, after leaving La Musica at the Young Vic, to discover Jeff James has worked with Ivo van Hove as Assistant Director on A View From The Bridge and Antigone. van Hove’s influence is thrillingly palpable on this two-hander as it has clearly encouraged James to explore the representation of space and how it can be broken free from a traditionally naturalistic (perhaps British) style to something more expressionistic, European even.
That he achieves in two strikingly different ways in this adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ play, translated by Barbara Bray, which is itself split into two. For the first part, the actors (Sam Troughton and Emily Barclay) are sat high to the right on a platform in the corner of the Maria studio in front of two cameras, their backs to the audience, two large screens dominating the space we look at. And in intense, extreme close-up, this divorcing couple lay bare the tatters of their relationship.
Ostensibly meeting up in a hotel lobby, the unflinching gaze of the camera leaves no room to hide as they quickly move past the pretext of what to do with some shared furniture to the emotional turbulence of their marriage, the damage it has inflicted upon both of them, the impact it still has on their current, new, engagements. Planted so firmly in the role of voyeur, this almost confrontational closeness is breath-taking, the gnomic quality of the text further heightening the artistic hauteur.
But from that icy aloofness then comes a real intimacy – a brief pause sees the audience re-sited and reconfigured into a square with Troughton and Barclay moving right in there among us. That private space which was carved out so elegantly on giant screens becomes claustrophobically, inescapably real as Troughton’s Michel cries on your shoulder, Barclay’s Anne-Marie pushes exasperatedly past you, as the toxicity of their doomed love becomes all too viscerally real.
Whereas you could hardly look away from the screens but could if you chose, James makes it so you can’t turn your head away, the audience becomes as trapped as these characters are. Even if you’re not sympathising with them, and truth be told they’re not hugely likeable, the immersion into their world is total. And minimalist as they may seem, the clinical design from Ultz, Jo Joelson’s shifting canopy of light and Ben & Max Ringham’s brooding swells of sound, along with Tim Reid’s video work, all contribute hugely to a most striking piece of theatre.