Marie NDiaye, in a new translation by Sarah Woods
Hampstead Theatre

Promotional image

With so much critical acclaim from abroad, including the Grand Prix de la Critique award 2001-2002, I had high hopes for this play. So whatever happened when it crossed over to our shores? Peter McKintosh's set is appropriate enough; a greenhouse-like cage representing the house and, perhaps, Mrs Lemarchand herself, and set against the bleak backdrop of winter trees. I'm instantly reminded of the film Misery and the character Paul's inability to escape from the house.

The play is a psychological portrayal of a lonely upper class woman who begins an obsession with her new maid, Hilda. And that's pretty much it. The strange thing is, this begins even before she's met her. It's like she's already decided what her new obsession will be; it will be Hilda. Hilda will become Mrs.Lemarchand's new personality, someone she can mould and shape in her image. "What are her eyes like? is she attractive?" she inquires of Frank, Hilda's reluctant husband as she works her way through a list of the girl's physical attributes. Writer Marie NDiaye obviously likes these themes of people's personal vulnerabilities: "Not happy with the person that you are? Try this new one on for size."

The problem with the play, or perhaps simply the production, is that is deals with what could be a series of complex psychological issues relating to power & possession and then paints them in two shades: black and white. As an audience, you are given very little to chew on. Mrs Lemarchand is perfectly happy to spell everything out for you, including the fact that Hilda is her "little dancer in the music box", a likening to the music boxes she acquired before her marriage and also, quite obviously, to the glittery cage that represents the house, in which Hilda is encased and to which the world and her family are shut out.

The dialogue hardly seems to change: the same conversations seem to be circulating and we, as an audience, certainly don't need seventy five minutes of it. Stella Gonet as Mrs Lemarchand definitely looks the part and has a fluid articulate voice, but her tone never really changes through the play and she has a package of three emotional states: sprightly, tense and upset - there's little shading. Bo Poraj as Frank delivers similarly: he stares, he protests and he slopes off. Voilà!. Nothing abstruse here. Hardly an enigma in sight. And sometimes you just want to shake him. If he wants Hilda back so badly why doesn't he just call the police and get her out? The lure of money, we're told, is the reason; they are in debt and the extra money is proving useful. But still that pull-factor is never established and you're left asking: just where are the stakes?

We're given an inkling that Mrs.Lemarchand could be schizophrenic. I get excited. Hilda is there, she says, to protect the children, as she knows she might be capable of harming them. But this is never explored. I'm disappointed. When discussing this play, everyone mentions obsession but never the broader issues of neglect and rejection, which I feel are at the core: Hilda and Mrs.Lemarchand's neglect of their own children, Hilda's neglect of Frank and Frank's eventual rejection of Hilda. And where is the pain that should accompany this neglect and rejection? It seems altogether absent.

In a piece that has the potential to resonate on so many levels and provide us with a rich spectrum of damaged human emotion; we receive a paltry few, and so many of the dark corners are left unexplored. A pity.

The production runs until 6th May

Reviewer: Natasha Nicoll

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