Neil Cooper of The Herald meets Jemima Levick & Fleur Darkin in rehearsal

IT WAS seven years ago that Fleur Darkin and Jemima Levick first talked about putting Marguerite Duras’ novel, The Lover, onstage. They had both become captivated by the French novelist’s semi-autobiographical best-seller set in 1920s French Indochina concerning an affair between a 15-year-old French girl and a wealthy Chinese man 15 years her senior.

With Darkin now artist director of Scottish Dance Theatre and Levick in charge of the Stellar Quines theatre company, when the pair’s unique adaptation opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh next week, this collaboration between the three companies will highlight their own labour of love.

“We’ve been living with it intently for the last three months,” says Darkin of a book written by Duras when she was 70, and narrated by an older woman looking back at her younger self. “Adapting the book has been quite a dance. We’ve kind of honed it down to the bare bones of the story, which feels a bit non-Duras in a way, but I think we’re relying on the fact that because we’re doing it cross-form, and we’re coming at it musically as well as textually, that it will tip a nod to her spirit.”

As Levick points out, “It’s not like we’ve ironed it out and made it into a literal narrative play, because it’s very definitely not a play, but it felt like it needed something relatively straightforward to hang it off of without the people who don’t know Duras’ work feeling like they’re totally at sea.”

The result combines spoken-word, dance and music to cut through to the story’s physical and sensual heart. With actress Susan Vidler taking on what amounts to an extended internal monologue as The Woman, both her character’s younger self and her lover himself are played by dancers. Two others take on all other roles. Such an impressionistic approach is in keeping with a story which Duras returned to repeatedly throughout her life, and taps into the book’s poetic essence of personal transformation.

“That space of girlhood Duras writes about is so under-articulated,” says Darkin. “I think a lot of girlhood is private, and its nature is quite concealed. When I first read The Lover I was at quite a formative age, and I just loved that world. I loved hearing the language, and I wanted to know more about that energy, and try and put the audience in her lap.”

Levick too recognises the inherent physicality that drives the story.

“When Duras talks about the relationship between the lover and the girl, she says that you just give up and let the body do what it needs to do. That’s what dance does. Dance is instinct, and when I read the book, it had a real profound effect, because it all feels like it comes from the inside.”

Darkin goes further.

“I think when you deal with The Lover, you’re really dealing with intimacy,” she says. “It’s a whole inquiry into what intimacy is, how it feels and trying to get it. That’s what we’re struggling with now in the rehearsal room, because intimacy is private, and it’s hard to do if you don’t know people. One of the lovely things I read recently that helped me was when Duras talks about this primal act that happens at the back of the bachelor’s quarters, and the shutters are hiding them from the people walking outside, and it’s both public and private at the same time. She said that created her as a writer. Being private in public, that’s the same act as writing, and I feel with what I do that I’m always creating intimacy which hopefully someone in the back row is part of, and can connect to from the darkness and safety of their seat.

“That public/private thing seems to be something that’s so powerful with Duras, and she was able to realise what the lover gave her. He didn’t save her life, he didn’t protect her from her family, but he did give her this space where she was able to reflect on her family, and she credited that with being able to find her voice.”

The Lover was first published in French as L’Amant in 1984, and was translated into English by Duras’ regular translator, Barbara Bray. For a writer whose vast output of novels, plays and screenplays were more readily associated with the post-Second World War French avant-garde, the book was a surprise mainstream hit. Up until that point, Duras was probably best known for her Oscar nominated script for the Alan Resnais directed 1959 film, Hiroshima Mon Amour. As with The Lover, it’s depiction of a conversation between a French-Japanese couple used extensive flashbacks to highlight how memory can play tricks.

While The Lover went on to be translated into 43 languages, it was Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 big screen version that took Duras’ creation – or a version of it – into the tabloids. With the then 18-year-old Jane Marsh making her big-screen debut as the Young Girl (Jeanne Moreau provided the older woman’s off-screen narration), despite the film’s seriousness, much was made of the film’s sexual content, with the English-born March inspiring nudge-nudge headlines that dubbed her “the Sinner from Pinner”.

“That’s actually how I knew about the book, after knowing all that tabloid stuff,” says Levick. “I guess that was what really flipped it into the public consciousness. That poor actor, I don’t know if she’s ever recovered. She’s really good in the film, but basically was just tainted for being sexual, like she wasn’t allowed.”

The Lover is the latest female rites of passage story to grace the Lyceum stage in recent times, and its timing is particularly pertinent in this era of heightened anxiety over sexual behaviour. The production follows similarly audacious versions of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Tipping the Velvet, as well as the late Linda Griffiths’ play, Age of Arousal, which was also seen in co-production with Stellar Quines. As with the first two shows, anyone expecting attempted imitations of the film and TV versions should think again

“If they’re coming for a cheap thrill they should go back to the book and double-check what it was really about,” says Levick. “It’s the greatest lesson in how a film is not the book that it was based on.”

Darkin and Levick are clear too that the girl in The Lover is in no way a victim.

“The crucial thing about this story is that she’s in control,” says Levick. “She’s not swept away and kidnapped by this older man. She makes a choice, she feels desire and she pursues it. She survives it, and she becomes a writer because of it, maybe. It inspires her, and it gives her a future. This is a story about empowerment, and making choices, and about ditching your childhood, becoming a woman and discovering yourself.”

As Darkin points out, “Her sexuality is some kind of passport out of there, and some kind of step into an imagination that’s her own.”

Like the story, the show itself sounds like a liberating force for good.

“In the world we’re living in now, it’s refreshing to be telling that story,” says Levick. “The fact that we’ve been talking about this for seven years and it’s never died, it’s timeless. We’re all fascinated by the story, and that’s because it’s about matters of the heart. Whether that’s a relationship or a familial thing, the characters who inhabit this world in the story are so present, and they’re present in all of us. It won’t go away, and finally we’ve found our moment to do it.”

Neil Cooper – The Herald 9 Jan 2017