Jemima Levick and Fleur Darkin on The Lover

Ahead of its world premiere later this month, The Skinny talks to the directors of The Lover, the first stage adaptation of Marguerite Duras' classic autobiographical novel about the book, the play and the coincidences that led to its premiere

Preview by Amy Taylor | 12 Jan 2018

Traditionally, January is a quiet time in the theatre calendar, one where venues, companies and actors are either recovering from panto season, or gallantly still performing in them until the end of the month. However, this month, the Lyceum is hosting a series of firsts. For The Lover, the theatre’s first show of the new season is not only a world premiere, but also the first co-production between the Lyceum, Scottish Dance Theatre and Stellar Quines. Additionally, it also marks the very first time that two of Scotland’s leading female artistic directors, Jemima Levick and Fleur Darkin, have worked together. 

Adapted from Marguerite Duras’ 1984 autobiographical novel of the same name (as well as her later work, The North China Lover, which was published in 1991), the play tells the story of Duras’ teenage love affair with an older man, as well as her childhood in early 20th century Vietnam – then known as French Indochina –  where she was born and raised.

The plot of the book, although seemingly the tale of a youthful love affair, soon proves to be rich with diverse and important themes. “It’s from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl looking out, having grown up there, having been born there. She has a sensitivity to the different hierarchy,” explains Darkin, “and the problems of colonialism; she is herself a victim of colonialism, as the country is.”

Although Duras' relationship with an older man forms the basis of the book, it's clear that she was not the teenage victim of an older, predatory man, but the complete opposite. "We’ve just started to touch on this, right in the early days," explains Levick of Duras and her role within her relationship. "She’s the one who makes the decisions, she realises very early in this relationship that she’s the one that’s gonna make it happen, she’s the one that’s gonna undress him. She’s 15, but she’s in charge of her own destiny, in that way that you are when you’re 15. Arguably, you don’t know who you are yet, but you’re also really empowered."

“I feel like she’s heroic,” says Darkin. “I feel like the story’s heroic, and all the people in it are trapped by infallible problems. They’re heroes – not Capital H heroes, but vulnerable heroes – but again, that feels like it’s great to give our attention to that.”

The original source material – which Levick describes as “fucking poetry” – talks about familiar topics that are still somehow considered taboo, such as women's sexuality, in a bold new way. This was exceptional for a book published in 1984, and yet the topic has rarely appeared in literature since, let alone on stage in Scotland in 2018.

“She writes about sexuality and the discovery of your sexual self. I mean, how often do we talk about young women having sex and discovering themselves? Or we do it through the lens of a man, and a man tells us it,” says Levick. “This woman, she reveals all the inadequacies that come with it. Yes, the pleasure, but also that journey through virginity and to pleasure. We’re not good at talking about that, women at any age, but particularly young women and for older women as well.

“She talks about love in every way that you ever thought possible. There’s sexual, and first love, and then there’s familial, and the complications and contradictions that live in and amongst those thing,” she continues.

The book’s subject also gave Duras and the reader the chance to return to the memories of their adolescence – to look at them in a new way, through the lens of an older, more experienced person – and begin to consider memory differently, according to Levick.

“What she does with this particular novel is [give] the chance for an older person to look back at her younger self. Wouldn’t we all love to do that a little bit? Well, yes and no, but you know, she gives us a chance to reflect back and look at the extraordinariness of youth and beginnings of things. What maturity and experience does to the way you think, and your psyche, and how you’re able to look back at those experiences. So the complexity of it is incredibly rich.”

“You get this really delicious slippage,” continues Darkin of the book’s narrative. “Where you find her own uncertainty and how unreliable memory is, and how unreliable the stories we tell ourselves are about how we feel. It seems like a really strong experience that is inspiring on lots of levels: being a girl, growing into a woman, age, the contradictions of colonialism and how people are separated, the fictions of colonialism. She just seems to undercut it all, she was really wise company.”

The play’s premiere this month marks the next stage in a project that was seven years in the making, having been dreamed up during a conversation between Levick and Darkin in 2010, where they both expressed an interest in adapting the book for the stage. However, it wasn’t until a few years later – after David Greig’s appointment as the new Artistic Director at the Lyceum – that the project was pitched, and a number of coincidences, which makes it feel like the play was meant to premiere in Edinburgh, were uncovered.

“It [The Lover] was the first adaptation he did as a student,” explains Levick of Greig’s connection to the text. But remarkably, the coincidences don’t end there. Edinburgh just so happens to be home to the daughter of the late Barbara Bray, who was the principal translator of the book into English, as well as a champion of the work and friend to Duras.

“I think there is this quite strong, quite interesting connection between France and Scotland, The Auld Alliance, isn’t it? It seems random, doesn’t it, that Barbara Bray’s daughter’s here, there’s this sensibility...” says Darkin of the historical ties between Scotland and France. “There does seem to be this shared affinity that I don’t know the history of, but I think both countries are artisans, with a real commitment to art and the ideals of art, so that feels really nice.”

Coincidences aside, one of the strengths of the play, which doesn’t immediately seem apparent, is the timing. The play is the Lyceum’s first production of the new year, and one of two plays in Edinburgh to feature Vietnam at the same time (Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Miss Saigon opens at the Festival Theatre within a few days of The Lover’s premiere). But the location and its premiere in January is a key part of the play’s appeal, explains Darkin.

“Especially for us in January sat in the Lyceum, there’s summer out there, even if we’re all dying in winter. Things are dying to be born again, so hopefully there is this energy in it, this change, because a lot of change happens to her and all of us watching it.”

The notion of Vietnam being an important character, especially for an audience in Scotland in the darkest parts of winter, isn’t lost on Levick either.

“And certainly for me, the idea of coming in as an audience, and investing in this boiling hot world that’s a million miles away, that couldn’t be more delicious a thought when it’s freezing outside. You’ve spent all your money, Christmas is done, the lights have come down, the snow outside is melting. To transport people to another world completely is a really luscious thing to do at that time of year, and you need it, you really need to be thinking of the other, otherwise January is the most depressing month of all.”

The Lover, The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 20 Jan - 3 Feb