Before it is anything else, The Lover is an intriguing proposition. It is the contemporary staging of a 1984 French memoir. It conjoins music, dance, drama and spoken word. Its story caresses the surface of complex themes such as youthful sexual awakening, colonial clashes of culture and familial dysfunction. Co-created through the directorial vision of Jemima Levick and the choreography of Fleur Darkin, The Lover promises a night of unpredictable passion to beckon its audience in. But do its brave promises amount to little more than sweet nothings?
The production is cleverly and consciously presented as a memoir on stage. It is a series of dramatised and choreographed recollections spread across the lifetime of a short, sexually intense affair that took place in 1929, when Marguerite Duras, who wrote the original memoirs, was 15 and living in French Vietnam. These recollections are stitched together by the philosophising monologues of an older, more pensive Duras, portrayed by Susan Vidler. Duras’s brief entanglement with a 27-year-old Chinese man, the prodigal son of a local millionaire, plays out sensually across the stage, its erotic flow punctuated by unnerving scenes depicting the Duras family’s fundamental, destitute dysfunction.
This is a brave, adventurous piece of performance. Marriages of contemporary dance and drama are notoriously stormy: often these partners seem unable to communicate and create a confusing mess onstage that rebuffs both their usual audiences. Here, mediated by carefully designed music and sound, they support each other to tell a story where love, intimacy, and most of all sex, are revealed as refuges from a world in which they cannot last. Admittedly, sometimes the wires still get crossed: a few of the earlier dance movements add very little to our understanding of the piece, but the fusion becomes more comfortable as it progresses, reaching a thrilling peak of symbiosis in scenes of heightened tension, both the erotic and the (sadly) more familiar kind.
The play is well served by an adaptable, beautiful set that distributes light in playful and intelligent ways. The text too is delicately and thoughtfully placed, though its rich descriptions of crowded, bustling Vietnamese streets are occasionally at odds with the still sparsity of the piece as a whole.
What is truly intriguing about The Lover though, is its placement on stage today. In a world that needed #MeToo, where UK ministers attend salacious, all male charity dinners, what do we make of a play that portrays a sexual relationship between a 27-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl? European colonialism is only given a cursory examination within it; in truth, the play’s politics lie in the affair. Isn’t it exploitative? Isn’t it violent, degrading, and unacceptable? Isn’t it a thousand miles away from love? Yet it appears in sharp contrast to the implied sexual threat of Duras’s older brother. The intricacies and complexities of the relationship are explored without preconceptions. They are Duras’s memories, and there is love within them.
By its parting kiss, The Lover has shown us that the illicit relationship it examines is both desperately sad and gently healing, in a frail sort of way. It displays a male/female relationship that is based on genuine mutual desire and isn’t really about power at all. For that reason alone, it is a piece worth embracing.