It’s Fleur Darkin’s job as a choreographer to let her dancers’ bodies speak for themselves. That’s why one phrase leapt out when she re-read one of her favourite books, The Lover by Marguerite Duras: “When you let the body alone to seek and find and take what it likes… then everything is right.”
Letting the body take what it likes feels right to Darkin. “To me it feels so real, that we do exist with drives, hungers and libido,” she says. “Not many writers name it so powerfully.”
And by naming it, Duras seemed to be giving Darkin permission to trust her instincts. Working in close collaboration with theatre director Jemima Levick, Darkin is creating not simply a straight adaptation of the semi-autobiographical 1984 novel – and its companion piece, The North China Lover – for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum – but a dance-theatre hybrid. Together, they are thinking as much about the language of movement as the language of speech.
“You look at Duras’ catalogue of work and it’s novels, films, plays,” says Levick. “She’s so bold as an artist. She’s open to other artforms exploring an idea. I like to think she’s smiling down saying, ‘Yeah, give it your best shot, ladies.’”
A novel that is at once experimental and passionate, daring and heartfelt, struck them as perfect for a show that would draw on their respective talents. “As a choreographer, I wouldn’t normally stage a book, but The Lover is fragmentary and open,” says Darkin.
Levick adds: “Her sensibility is not to be straight-down-the-line linear narrative. It weaves in and out. She creates texture and atmosphere. That is one of the reasons it felt like it had the space to become a collaboration as opposed to a straight play.”
Set in French colonial Vietnam in 1929, The Lover is about a 15-year-old girl’s illicit sexual awakening in the company of a 27-year-old son of a Chinese millionaire. Recalled 50 years later, the affair seems as passionate, confused and intense as it ever was, not least because of the era’s divisive colonial culture and the girl’s dysfunctional family. Writer Deborah Levy called it “exhilarating, sexy, melancholy, truthful, modern and female”.
Darkin agrees: “There’s this real contradiction at the heart of Duras’ writing, because she’s keen for everyone to know she’s not sentimental, yet it has this undertow of affect and feeling. It’s a really emotional story even though she employs a lot of breaking techniques to keep you guessing.”
The choreographer read The Lover as a teenager (“the right age”) and was captivated. The two had identified it as a dream project even before they worked alongside each other in Dundee – Darkin running Scottish Dance Theatre, Levick at the helm of Dundee Rep. Only now Levick has moved to Stellar Quines have the pieces fallen into place.
Taking joint responsibility for the script and the staging, Darkin and Levick have cast both dancers and actors. Narrating the story, for example, is Susan Vidler, known for her compelling work for the National Theatre of Scotland and on screen in Trainspotting, while playing her younger self is Amy Hollinshead, a Rambert graduate who joined Scottish Dance Theatre in 2013. What mattered to the two directors were performers who were happy to cross the line between disciplines and who wouldn’t be fazed by the chopping and changing of the devising process.
“I see a lot of similarity between actors and dancers,” says Darkin. “If they’re given time, their virtuosity explodes and gives you the answers. They’re loving the exchange. And when you ask the dancers to do text, they’re phenomenal. They only dance if things feel authentic and so they speak from the same place as an actor.”
“Susan Vidler is bold, she’ll do anything,” says Levick. “She’s interested in dancing and dancers, she joins in with class and gives learning what they’re learning a go. It’s great seeing them learning from each other.” Darkin adds: “The dancers are virtuosic because they listen and they work. They’re not diva-ish. And guess what: Susan is the same. She wears her talent lightly, but when it’s in full force, she changes the air in the room.”
For their own part, splitting the work in the rehearsal room has come naturally. “We both want to tell the story,” says Darkin. “If I was to stand up for anything in terms of a dance sensibility, it would be that we don’t over-tell it. We under-tell it so that the audience have something to play with themselves. We’re always on a spectrum between everything being super clear at one end and wild imagery at the other, and we both play with that dial.”
“It’s so exciting having that other way of working in the room,” says Levick. “It’s a great way of having a look at yourself.”
The Lover is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 20 January until 3 February.