Alexandre Dumas fils, adapted by Neil Bartlett
Lyric Hammersmith

This adaptation opens at the auction of Marguerite Gautier's possessions shortly after her death from consumption. The vultures have turned out, not only to bid but also to nose into the remains of the most successful and scandalous prostitute in Paris. The chronological tale of her tragic life is played out as a flashback after each of the major players has contributed his or her own recollection of the appeal that rendered her irresistible to men. These are their own impressions, each of them different, though there is one consensus: Marguerite Gautier is an icon, a Venus. But this is not what we see and Marguerite's entrance is a shock. Danielle Nardini's Marguerite is not the graceful, mysterious and erotic beauty one is led to expect; she's just a woman: a strong woman, febrile with the illness that would kill her, but a woman nonetheless, much like ourselves.

This is one of Bartlett's prime insights: in an age of surfaces, much like our own, Marguerite is successful because she markets herself well. She spends 100,000 francs a year on gowns, on her sumptuous furnishings and the lavish parties she throws to entice her customers into her web. Her rich patrons are not buying her person, nor, even, merely her body, they are buying opulence. But if Marguerite is a capitalist with her body as collateral, her business is floundering. In spite of all the gifts she elicits, she is 40,000 francs in debt. The overheads that are the cost of displaying her wares outweigh the profits. And it is these debts as much as her sacrifice for the sake of Armand's future that scuppers her chances of happiness: of being a wife and a mother.

It is difficult not to compare Nardini's Marguerite with Frances Barber whose beauty and explicit sexuality graced Pam Gems' version of the tale in 1984. Nardini is not a sexual being, but then why should she be, prostitution denies women the right to their own sexuality: another of Bartlett's insights. Only with Armand is she confronted with feelings that are a threat to her survival as a woman of business. And it is difficult at first to get to grips with this Marguerite, accustomed as we are to a romanticised tragic heroine. It is in the second act, after the intermission, that love and tragedy are intermingled in a downward spiral of misery and humiliation that leads inexorably to a moving scene of death, deserted, still writing to Armand, but never sending the letters.

Eliot Cowan's performance as an ambiguous Armand is compelling. Armand sees through the surface; he sees a woman, ill, with blood running down her chin, and is not repelled. But his passion for Marguerite is fraught with complexities, his motives clouded. Staring with compulsion into a smudged mirror, a fine metaphor for a man obsessed with looking into his tortured soul, his opening lines are: 'Any man can make a sixteen-year-old virgin love him: it's a pleasure, of course, but it's also the easiest thing in the world. But to make a whore love you - really fall in love with you - well that, that is something spectacularly worth doing, you must admit'.

Bartlett's adaptation, unlike the pared-down, clear-cut version by Pam Gems (a product of a feminist decade), enfolds the issues in a rich texture, characteristically theatrical, but precludes any escapism into a mere emotional journey. As Walter Benjamin said of Brecht's work: 'we think feelingly, and feel thoughtfully'. In places though the text could do with some cuts. Director David McVicar gives us a finely staged ensemble piece and Nicky Gillibrand's dramatic lighting and sensuous costumes complete a stage picture that is reminiscent of the barrenness of a life lived in facile, if luxurious materialism. A fine performance by Sakuntala Ramanee as the faithful Nanine is well worth mentioning.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher

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