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The Lovers of Viorne

Marguerite Duras
Frontier Theatre Productions
The Theatre Room

Charlotte Cornwell as Claire Credit: Oscar Blustin
Martin Turner as Pierre and Kevin Trainor as the Interrogator Credit: Oscar Blustin
Kevin Trainor and Charlotte Cornwell Credit: Oscar Blustin

"What did you do with the head?"

Actually, the central question in Marguerite Duras’s 1967 play The Lovers of Viorne is not what but why? Why did Claire Lannes, a middle-aged French woman, murder and butcher her deaf-mute cousin and despatch her body parts to various regions of France by dropping them from an overpass onto night-freight trains?

This production by Frontier Theatre Productions—newly formed by Hampstead Theatre founder James Roose-Evans to "create theatre for the Third Age", and open doors to actors, writers, designers aged over 60 who are sidelined in our youth obsessed culture—provides no answers but holds us from first to last in a relentless psychological grip.

The cast give superb performances: refined, nuanced and unflinching. Charlotte Cornwell, as the inscrutable murderer, is by turns charming and chilling. Martin Turner is her tense, sullen husband, Pierre, while Kevin Trainor is the guileful, slightly sinister Interrogator whose measured but insistent questioning feeds our own insatiable wish to probe, know and understand.

The play’s origins lie in Duras’s obsession with a gruesome real-life French murder case in 1966 and its two acts present the resolute Interrogator’s interviews with first Pierre, in a café, and then Claire, in a prison as she awaits transference to a mental asylum.

Turner’s Pierre is dour and emotionally neutral. Only a nervous facial twitch intimates an inner strain. But, as his dispassionate and seemingly guilt-free account gradually reveals his wife’s monstrosity, the Interrogator’s occasional scepticism prompts awareness of Pierre’s potential fallibility as a ‘witness’. Does he know more than he tells? Is Marie-Thérèse’s death and the subsequent imprisonment of his wife more convenience than trauma?

Trainor’s inquisitor is similarly unsettling: despite his attempts at relaxed intimacy, there is an avidness burning in his eyes that makes us ponder his intent, and his creeping, curling moustache hides facial gestures that might reveal, but also exacerbates his idiosyncrasy. He tells Pierre that he is not interested in the facts but in "what lies behind them"; but he exhibits no empathy such as one might expect of a psychoanalyst or therapist.

Turner’s recollections certainly suggest that Claire is afflicted with severe mental illness. She breaks plates, cuts up blankets and buries objects in the garden. Fiction and reality hold little distinction for her, and she has become increasingly distant, reticent and introverted.

When a clang of a steel prison door and the shadows of restraining bars (the effectively economical design is by Norman Coates, with incisive lighting by Mike Robertson) transfer us to Claire’s prison cell, her tasteful demureness, unsentimental practicality and apparent reasonableness, appear to challenge Pierre’s reminiscences. But, as her story unfolds we come to appreciate just how blind and indifferent his is to her anguish.

What is most striking in Cornwell’s outstanding performance is the jarring contrast between the cool rationality with which the extraordinary is remarked and the explosive rage of the unanticipated outbursts—more striking for their rarity—which the most quotidian of factors can trigger.

Thus, Claire shows no remorse. She is contemptuous of the Interrogator’s squeamishness about her basement butchery. Of course there was blood in the cellar: “you can’t imagine how tiring it was… I’d never have believed it.” When there is inference that her ‘methods’ are eccentric or peculiar, she replies that dismemberment and dispersal by train seemed an efficient and expedient way to get rid of a body. But, her loathing of stew—she can’t stand it when someone eats well and sleeps well—can escalate into uncontrollable ferocity and her cousin’s deafness and corpulence elicit an inexplicable fury.

Cornwell also exposes the conflict Claire experiences between a need to tell and a desire to withhold. Taciturnity and loquaciousness do battle within, reflected without by Claire’s hands, locked together, wrists twisted inwards, which are a painfully contorted reflection of the agonies of unrest and unhappiness.

Claire is unstable—by turns teasing and wrathful—but also unfathomable. Fantasy and fact are one. She tells Trainor’s probing appraiser, “there are two things… the first is I dreamed I was killing her. The second is when I killed her, I wasn't dreaming.” It seems inevitable that one day dream would become reality. But why?

The roots of her dangerous insanity seem to lie in the repressed pain of a failed love affair whose significance may be implicit in Pierre’s memory of a Freudian slip made by Claire. Duras’s French title is L'amante anglaise and we learn from Pierre that when writing to a newspaper for culinary advice about English mint, Claire wrote "L’amant" instead of "La menthe" … perhaps a sign that she was perpetually tormented by this past lover.

Indeed, Roose-Evans evokes a Beckettian dimension, in that Claire seems to be wracked by an inescapable passion whose agonies she must endure until they destroy her—what one scholar of Duras has called "apocalyptic desires". Perhaps the murder has offered an ecstatic experience?

The real power of Duras’s play—deftly revealed by Roose-Evans—lies not in its revelation of the horrors of which man is capable, or in its disclosure of the psychological pain suffered by Claire.

Instead, it is the way that Duras’s obvious compassion for Claire exposes our own prurience that is most telling. Claire’s accusation that her questioner is only interested in the grisly details of the whereabouts of the head—"have you asked all these other questions just so that you can ask that one?"—is thrown with such venom that it stings us too.

In the event, Claire and the play provide us with no motive. When asked why she killed, Claire knowingly replies, “I shan’t tell.” We would do well to mark Claire’s final, exasperated command, "Listen! Just listen!"

Reviewer: Claire Seymour