A brutal murder is committed in a small town in France. The dismembered corpse is dropped from a railway viaduct onto passing trains below. All except the head.
Such is the premise of Marguerite Duras’ L’Amante Anglaise. Within the opening minutes of the play, the murder is revealed as Claire Lannes (Jillian Murray), the otherwise quiet, listless wife of Pierre (Rob Meldrum), and her victim as her deaf and mute cousin, Marie-Therese. Two central questions hang unanswered in the air, why did she do it? And where is the head?
These questions are not, however, the central concerns of the play. The phrase “inner life” has been used to describe the unveiling of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, yet Laurence Strangio’s direction positions the theme of perception as a lens for all that occurs onstage. Structured in two parts without interval, L’amante Anglaise details the questioning of Pierre and Claire, post-confession interviews mid-way through Claire’s trial.
Much has already been said about Meldrum and Murray’s acting, that this is the second encore season of the production, and Murray won the 2015 Green Room award for her performance as Claire speak volumes. It is enthralling and detailed, small movements and strong facial expressions belie the dialogue in ways that strengthen the sense of character and the themes of the play. Meldrum’s Pierre is not so much disinterested as he is disaffected, having struggled through years of the former only to arrive at the latter through an utterly self-imposed lack. Claire and Pierre’s marriage has been hollowed out, and after all this time Pierre cannot believe there was anything at its heart to begin with. This retrospective perception of experience, and Pierre so dower and blunt in his reflections, colour the whole play. Likewise, it is Pierre’s perception of his wife’s madness that initiates the tension, and that label consumers her in the minds of her husband, the audience, and even Claire herself. The interviewers (also played by Meldrum and Murray) pose their questions with a distance that implies they may cut to the heart, or even the truth of the matter, just as Claire believes the right question may elicit her motivations or the location of Marie-Therese’s head. Yet, in the absence of such a question, all the interviewers achieve is the revelation of Pierre and Claire’s muddled self-perceptions. Just as the townspeople’s perception of Claire shifted after her confession, so to does the audience’s after each question.
These constant subtle shifts are perhaps only noticeable due Strangio’s direction. The stage is tight, an acute triangle of light met on two sides by rows of audience members. Meldrum and Murray sit opposite each other, focus drawn to whoever is “in character” as it were. It is intimate, capital T Theatre that does little to draw audience members in because it needn’t; the dialogue is flowing, the acting is strong, and the audience are already willing.
L’amante Anglaise is on at fortyfivedownstairs until this Sunday, 19 February. Tickets range between $28 – $38, and are available online and at the door.