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Cross Purpose

Albert Camus, translated by Stuart Gilbert
AM Media Productions
King's Head Theatre

Jamie Birkett as Martha and David Lomax as Jan Credit: Chris Gardner
Jamie Birkett as Martha Credit: Chris Gardner
Paddy Navin as Mother and Jamie Birkett as Martha Credit: Chris Gardner

Written in Paris during the Occupation and first produced in 1944, though Camus made some revisions later, Cross Purpose (Le Malentendu) is heavily dosed with the hopelessness of the writer’s Absurdist thinking.

He presents us with a mother and her daughter Martha running a guest house in a land-locked, wet, storm-battered country. A young man has called in earlier and is coming back to spend the night. What they don’t realise is that he is Jan, their son and brother who twenty years ago went off to make his fortune, escaping to Mediterranean sea and sunshine, and has not been heard from since. Now, returning a guilt-burdened prodigal, he hopes for reconciliation when he reveals himself.

What Jan does not know is that for years his mother and sister have been murdering wealthy solitary travellers for their valuables and money. They see him as their next victim.

Jan puts off revealing himself, trying to work how best to do so, intending to observe them to see how to make them happy. Meanwhile his mother is beginning to have doubts about this particular traveller. Jan too is uncomfortable. He decides to leave after supper and rejoin his wife who is staying in a different hotel. Before he does so his sister brings him the tea with which they drug their victims before dumping them in the river to drown.

Jan intends to help his family to escape their situation. His sister sees him as the final victim whose cash will finally finance the escape to the south which she has planned so long. As both pursue their purpose what will happen?

Jamie Birkett and Paddy Navin present us with a Martha and her mother caught in a painful, needy symbiosis but it is beginning to malfunction. Martha has been brought up to be unfeeling but, if lacking any human response to others, her own needs boil up inside her and Birkett’s impassioned playing gained her an Offies nomination for Best Actress when this production had an earlier run last autumn. Navin gives mother, exhausted by the years, a mellowing touch: she has had enough, she is not going with her daughter.

The women’s characters lie in their relationship but David Lomax is on his own in trying to make Jan believable, the script tells us so little about him. We don’t know why he left or what really made him come back. Jan’s uncertainty is paramount but there is no contrast with the women’s coldness. Even in a brief scene with his wife he seems negative in contrast with the warm humanity which Kemi-Bo Jacobs gives her. Is this all part of Camus’ bleakness?

Camus’ script describes the boarding house as “clean and tidy” but designer Jenny Gamble creates an establishment of stained, peeling wallpaper, gauze hangings and skewed paintings. Martha’s is dressed in funereal black with white face and heavily outlined eyes. Furniture and things are covered in dust. No-one would willingly stay here but it plunges us into a world of Gothick. The strangely silent elderly manservant who hovers through the play, however, is Camus’ idea. Perhaps his presence has guided Gamble and director Stephen Whitson in their approach. Leonard Fenton hovers mute and lugubrious until the very last moment, a moment which perhaps determines whether you have been watching existentialist angst or Grand Guignol.

This is a production that holds with its theatricality, although the action proceeds through a single evening and the morning after every scene seems to gradually darken under in Phil Spencer Hunter’s lighting, and Tim Adnitt’s sound design gives us what could be waves as Martha speaks of sunny coasts, rain and storms most of the time and strange noises. After the interval I began to notice that Jan’s shirt was soiled by patches of brown grease, Martha was wiping filth from her dress and even Jan’s wife Maria had a mud splashed skirt. Is this the decay of hope or are ghosts, all victims of the river’s murky waters?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton