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‘Forget my appearance and content yourself with my essence,’ says the beautiful intruder to the young man who will never divine her real identity, reminding us that when watching Jean-Claude Carrière’s early play, we are floating in the dimension of existential romantic comedy. Her identity is not fixed. She is what she chooses to be: virgin, whore, a stranger, an old entry from his little black book. She is also every woman he’s ever slept with, and Everywoman. Suzanne and Jean-Jacques’s little game of bluff and banter is an allegory of every sexual relationship in which the partners struggle for dominion of space.
At first the battle goes all Suzanne’s way. She successfully takes over his home and personality, winning his love to the point when she can drop him, then gradually, as he in turn pursues her, he gets the hang of the game, sees through her wiles, and hits back, double-guessing her next move, wrong-footing her by being more reckless than she. All this might have the potential to be gripping entertainment, informed with lively dialogue and culminating in a climatic passionate event, but it is not fulfilled. The ideas are undeveloped, and the often-stilted direction does not generate the sexual and intellectual energy necessary to propel the play through its more listless passages.
This is not the fault of Susannah Harker, who infuses Suzanne with kittenish charm and erotic languor, though she leaves the darker, more ambiguous, identities of the character unexplored. Some of the production is stronger on appearance than essence: Julie Marabelle’s detailed set (though let down in a couple of instances by the furniture and props, perverting the law of theatre that what doesn’t register with the audience, does not exist) fully utilises the disproportionately wide space of the Studio. It is dominated by a fabulous transparent wardrobe where we can see more suits hanging than other men wear in a lifetime, which instantly reveals Jean-Jacques’s vanity and meticulousness. The choice of music during the scene changes puts us in the mood for Parisian cool.
Jean-Jacques’ flat has more personality than Paul McGann as its owner: he seems a sadly desiccated and weak figure to be a successful womanising lawyer, easily emasculated by the voluptuous Suzanne. Even his houseplant looks wilted. His stiffness and lack of conviction are fatal to a two-handed production. If the actors were able to spark off each other, the play, presented here in Solvène Tiffou’s new translation, might come to life. Susannah Harker is left pitifully alone to engage us with a realised performance, so her brand of light comedy defines the production to the exclusion of all other dramatic expression. Marianne Badrichani’s direction does not lead the actress or the audience to areas of more suspense. Golden-haired, silver-voiced, Harker sings her way through the play, mainly on one note. She early on establishes a relationship with the audience, sharing her mischievous irony, intimating that we are to join her in a game of moral hide and seek. But the man won’t join in, and the play meanders on, avoiding confrontation with dramatic incident, other than a coat being thrown out of a window. The opportunity to divert us with a jeu d’esprit, teasing us with shifting patterns of identity and choice at the same time as we watch the bedroom farce of Jean-Jacques and Suzanne, is missed and we are left to guess at what might have been.
C J Sheridan © 2003
Originally published on R&V 02-03-03
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