L’amante anglais (fortyfivedownstairs) – theatre review

Two actors presumably in their 60s, dressed in dark attire, sitting on fixed chairs about five metres apart, one questioning the other and then the roles are reversed … for 100 minutes without interval. No set. The audience on tiered seating on either side. Hardly what you may imagine could lead to riveting and dramatic theatre, but the power of L’amante anglais is in the brilliant writing and acting, which had me hanging on every word.

This is a brutal murder mystery and the question is why the perpetrator – who dobbed herself in – did what she did, that is killed her deaf and mute cousin who had lived with her and her husband for more than 20 years. Not only did she do so, but she dismembered the corpse and disposed of the parts by dropping them from a rail viaduct onto passing freight trains … all, except the head, which still hasn’t been recovered. All this took place in a small town in France.

L’amante anglaise was published in 1967 as a novella consisting of three interviews, but playwright Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) soon created this theatre adaptation, which was first presented in 1968. According to director Laurence Strangio, the grisly material – based on real events that took place in 1949 – was originally explored in a more naturalistic play, The viaducts of Seine-et-Oise (1958). Duras was apparently dissatisfied with the conventional form of the earlier work and hence created her own.

L’amante anglaise is a poignant and emotionally powerful portrait of lost passion and a life lived inside one’s own head. Pierre Lannes (Robert Meldrum) is controlled, detached and unemotional when questioned about whether or not he aided his wife, Claire (Jillian Murray), in perpetrating the heinous crime. He acknowledges that he once longed for her, but that was many years ago, that they led ostensibly separate lives and that he had taken a number of lovers. She – accepting but hardly apologetic – had been in love with a policeman before she met Pierre and now cared for a labourer, Alfonso. She spent most of her time absorbed in her own thoughts in the garden of their home.

For her part Marie-Therese Bousquet, the deaf and mute cousin whom we never meet, cooked and kept house for the Lannes. All we learn from Claire is that Marie-Therese was overweight and she couldn’t stomach Marie-Therese’s stew, which was a favourite of her husband.

L’amante anglais is broadly split into two halves after an initial matter of fact description of the crime and the confession. I learnt far more in the first 50 minutes than I did thereafter, save to form the view that Claire was clearly mad. It appeared that her life wouldn’t change much, if at all, in prison, save for the fact that she would be denied access to her place of retreat and respite – her precious garden. I was left somewhat disappointed that more wasn’t unearthed when Claire was being quizzed, but even her inquisitor appeared to lose interest. Then again, when one is of unsound mind, what sense can others make of their actions and reactions? So, if you are looking for a neat explanation of events that took place, you are in the wrong place.

However, if you want insight into the human condition, a look into how the inexpressible can still find voice, then look no further than L’amante anglais. Jillian Murray, the 2015 Green Room Award recipient for Best Female Performer in Independent Theatre for this role, and Robert Meldrum are equally superb in this compelling two-hander. Such is the play’s intensity and the actors’ command of their characters that you dare not look away. Having played two sold out seasons at La Mama and another at fortyfive downstairs, it returns for an encore season at 45 Flinders Lane until 19th February.

Alex First

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