L’amante Anglaise

45DS Jillian Murray features as Clare Lannes in L’amante anglaiseWhen a person has an internal injury, a medic might use X-rays to probe the area from different angles. Noting how these rays scatter, they assemble an inferred picture of the damage underneath the skin. Attempts to diagnose a woman’s mental trauma in L’amante anglaise apply a similar logic through patient questioning. Making sense of the results in this setting proves to be a much more open-ended task, and accordingly, one with much to discover.

If you don’t like longish reviews, L’amante anglaise is a perfect example of how quality theatre can stand head(less) and shoulders above the paucity of ideas and meaning in reality TV.

The novella L’amante anglaise (The English Lover) by Marguerite Duras was first presented as a play in 1968. It was based on real events around a murder in 1949. Our main concern is Claire Lannes (Jillian Murray, 2015 Green Room Award winner for this role in the La Mama production), the likely murderer of Marie-Therese Bousquet – her deaf-mute cousin and long-time housekeeper.

Marie-Therese was cut into pieces and dropped from a viaduct onto several passing trains. Working backwards from the discoveries of these pieces, investigators determined that all of these trains passed through the same point, indicating the town of the murder. All pieces of the deceased were accounted for, except her head.

The play considers what motivation Claire might have for her actions through its two acts, each a master class in theatrical minimalism. Each, is an interview between two seated people on a bare stage under Andy Turner’s unrelenting lighting that creates a clinical air.

In the first act, Murray questions Claire’s husband Pierre (Rob Meldrum) to learn more of Claire’s character and disposition. The scene gives examples of some of Claire’s eccentric or erratic behaviour. We learn of her love of sitting in her garden …  not that Pierre knew what she did there. We also hear of her limited capability to function in the world, making slips when writing so that even her beloved English mint (La menthe anglaise) becomes L’amante anglaise.

Meldrum effectively communicates a pragmatic, detached Pierre, a man who stays in the marriage much more for his own convenience than his wife’s feelings or welfare. This impression is fleshed out by Pierre’s seemingly indifferent telling of domestic tales, such as of the usual silence over dinner.

Much of this setup is important to the second act, which begins after a quick costume change. Meldrum is now the interviewer asking questions of Murray’s Claire. The mostly calm questioning elicits a range of emotions in an elastic and compelling performance from Murray. Although sometimes not answering, Claire shares another perspective on Pierre’s accounts of their daily life that gives us much greater insight into the marriage and how Claire thinks about the world.

At around 100 minutes without an interval, L’amante anglaise is a work that rewards sustained attention. This was made more difficult than expected on opening night. The theatre at fortyfivedownstairs was very warm, and the lighting was bright enough to show a certain restlessness in the audience, or some that had eyes closed and heads drooping at times. A few electric fans would surely have assisted the audience in staying with the torrent of ideas.

Direction from Laurence Strangio was effective in creating different rhythms that suited the language at certain times. My one quibble is that towards the end we seemed to load up on the pregnant pauses. For a writer as famously inter-textual as Duras, deploying these gaps at other times would have allowed a little more time to absorb a reference or think through the consequence of a revelation. This feeling was possibly exacerbated by the effort required in the warm theatre.

This is now the fourth run of this production of L’amante anglaise in Melbourne, which gives a strong indication of its quality. For all of the probing and prodding of Claire by direct or indirect means, there remains a slippery mystery to ponder. Also, there’s a meditation on time and our perception of it that’s sure to inspire good post-theatre discussion.

L’amante anglaise impresses by showing that productions don’t need lots of effects or activity to achieve powerful storytelling. Yet, the greatest trick achieved by Meldrum, Murray and Strangio is that – depending on how we filter the answers we’ve heard – we can feel a measure of sympathy for Claire’s circumstances and why she guards her mystery, despite her gruesome crime.

L’amante Anglaise   
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 8 February 2017 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 19 February 2017
Information and Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com

Image: Jillian Murray features as Clare Lannes in L’amante anglaise (supplied)

Review: Jason Whyte