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February 13, 2014 6:01 pm
The first world war has been on every mind this year, but there are other centenaries in town. Among them is that of Marguerite Duras, the writer and director who was a formidable presence in French intellectual life from the 1950s until her death in 1996. While her voice has slipped from the public consciousness since, the flurry of plays revived this year is a welcome reminder of its uncompromising intensity.
Private theatres have been quicker off the mark than their publicly funded counterparts, perhaps because the latter lean more towards the avant-garde and associated directorial freedoms: the apparent simplicity of Duras’ plays never appealed to the radical elite, and she was notorious for trying to control those directors who did tackle her texts. One of them was Didier Bezace, but all seems to be forgiven: the trilogy of works he has just staged for the Théâtre de l’Atelier takes us back to the heart of Duras’ world.
All three works – Le Square, Marguerite et le Président and Savannah Bay – are extended tête-à-têtes between protagonists who tentatively reach out to each other through their solitude. Resolution is elusive: there is an obsessive quality to Duras’ characters, who go in circles as they grapple with their own traumas. The plays are often spare to the point of mysticism, and yet, seen today, they spring from the page with surprisingly natural phrasing.
In Bezace’s production, the same light white set serves, with small adaptations, for each play; each has a heroine whose dress is cut in the same old-fashioned, flowery fabric; each gives us a different facet of Duras. Le Square, the earliest work, focuses on a chance encounter between a housemaid and a travelling salesman in a park. Her dream is to get married and leave her life behind; he sees no alternative to his life on the road, and they explore their differences without quite letting their guard down. Bezace directed the play for the first time in 2004; this time he plays the leading male role alongside Clotilde Mollet, and their gentle reserve and vulnerability are poignant.
Marguerite et le Président is Bezace’s adaptation of a dialogue between Duras and François Mitterrand, a fellow member of the French Resistance during the war. A newspaper reunited them in the 1980s for a series of conversations, and it’s an unusual look at politics, its contemporary resonance evident from the audience’s reaction. Duras was still alive when Bezace first staged it, and strongly approved of his central idea: to cast her as a child (here Loredana Spagnuolo) facing off with Mitterrand. The contrast between her naive stubbornness and his weary experience works well and, as Mitterrand, Jean-Marie Galey carries the performance with gravitas.
Savannah Bay, the only work here that Bezace has not staged before, is quintessential Duras. Written in 1982, it shows us a woman who cares for her elderly grandmother, a former actress unable to come to terms with the suicide of her daughter on the day she gave birth. In a glorious coup, Bezace convinced Emmanuelle Riva, who rose to fame with Duras’ film Hiroshima mon amour, to return to the stage at the age of 87, two years after her Oscar-nominated turn in Amour . She is searingly truthful as she conveys the old woman’s crystallised memories: a rare performance, and a fitting anniversary tribute.
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