To conjure the sensual heat of Saigon in the depths of a Scottish winter is ambitious; to do so when dosed with the flu is little short of heroic.
For Susan Vidler, a small corner of the stage of the Lyceum in Edinburgh became a quarantine bay last week. While fellow performers rehearsed lines and dance moves, Vidler — the lead in The Lover, which opens on Saturday — could only watch, having returned from two days in her sick bed, where she saw off her illness in splendid isolation.
As choreographer Fleur Darkin, co-director with Jemima Levick of the sensual new production, says: “It has been a bit of a nightmare.”
Anyone familiar with the autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras, on which the new play is based, will be aware that these theatrical directors already do not have their troubles to seek. A slim literary masterpiece, The Lover was first published in 1984, when Duras was 70, and tells the story of an old woman gazing down through the decades to her schooldays in French colonial Saigon and her love affair with an older, wealthy Vietnamese man.
Duras describes how, at 15, she was wearing a sleeveless, low-cut red silk dress, her older brother’s leather belt, a pair of gold lamé shoes and a fedora, when she caught the eye of her suitor as both rode the ferry across the Mekong River. In the novel, both characters are crossing invisible boundaries: she is poor, he is rich; she is white and he is Vietnamese.
When he offers her a cigarette by way of an introduction, his hand shakes: “There’s the difference of race; he’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he’s trembling.”
Explicit and erotic, The Lover has sold more than 1m copies in 43 languages. Yet Duras had a complicated relationship with her most popular book; she later reworked it as The North China Lover to emphasise the pressure she had been under from her impoverished family and abusive brothers to indulge an affair that was to the family’s financial benefit.
When the French film director Jean-Jacques Annaud collaborated with her on the 1992 film, starring the British actress Jane March, Duras was dismissive: “The Lover is a load of shit. It’s an airport novel. I wrote it when I was drunk.” Yet the novel’s evocative prose and insights into the complexities of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, rebelling against a mother she both loves and despises and discovering the power of her own sexuality, continues to cast a spell over each new generation of readers.
“I read the book when I was 14, the age of the girl in the book, so it was profoundly strong for me and still is strong,” says Darkin, of Scottish Dance Theatre, during a break in rehearsals. Keen to collaborate with Levick, the artistic director of Stellar Quines, she gave her the book seven years ago and Levick was equally smitten.
“There are extraordinary things that define you as a person that you go through in those years,” adds Levick. “Particularly when you are 15 and up, particularly to do with your sexuality and your sense of self, but it is also to do with family and understanding what your position is within the family. The magic of this book is you have the joy of retrospection — a woman has had the chance to look back on that aspect of her life.”
The theatrical adaptation is a mixture of drama, dance and spoken word and conveying the book’s sex scenes has not been without it’s unique challenges. The Christmas break permitted Darkin to indulge in a few long, dark nights of the soul as she wrestled with the staging: “I produce dance a lot and people come up to me at the end of the show and say, ‘That was really sexy — I’m going to go home now and make love to my wife.’ It does get people’s hearts beating and they are in touch with their sensuality. But it is also a secondary by-product of something that is happening, that is an inquiry. This is the first time I’ve ever made a show where sex is the subject.
“During the Christmas break I was waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, ‘What the f***! What am I doing?’ It is so on the nose and so literal. We have had to find a language of intimacy which is iconic, and while you do know what is happening, it is also poetic and has emotion. It’s abstract — they are not having intercourse obviously, but they are on a bed, the bed’s on a platform in the centre of the stage. We were all anticipating the final scene of the virginity and the union and we have harnessed that in the show; there is the feel of the clock ticking as they inch towards it.”
I ask about the cultural prism through which the play could be viewed, in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the spotlight on abusive relationships. While accepting the culture appears to be changing, Levick insists that at the heart of the novel is an obsessive, though complicated, love story. “Obviously that is in the ether and we are living and breathing it, but the truth is this stuff has been around for ever and just because Hollywood has turned round and said, ‘We don’t like this’, we are all supposed to go, ‘Oh the stars don’t like it so we must listen’.
“Abuse and abusers have been happening for a really long time and the key to remember is that this story is not about abuse: she makes a concerted decision to become involved. The by-product of that — potential prostitution, the way her family behaves, and the cultural difference — is where the control begins to get lost. But in terms of her decision, that is not an abusive situation. I know some people will be worried about that because she is 15.”
Darkin interjects: “And a half.”
Levick continues: “Fifteen and a half — I’m not trying to brush it aside at all, but it’s been a novel, a play and film and now a dance and spoken work, so it is more complex than a 27-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl. To break it down to something as singular as that does not feel right. The story is timeless, but let’s hope [Weinstein] excites change because it’s important we understand what respect is.”
Both directors are full of praise for their leading lady. After the movie of The Lover was released, March was dismissed in The Sun as “the Sinner from Pinner”, a reference to her home town. They have no such fears for Susan Vidler. “She is unbelievable,” says Darkin enthusiastically, “a true star.”
Levick concurs: “She is brilliant, you can clear a space for her and let her do her thing. It’s going to be powerful.”
The Lover is at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, from February 3