For a start, the meeting between Duras' couple has been prearranged - on the hollow pretext of discussing the disposal of some furniture in store. Anne-Marie and Michel are not on second honeymoons; nor are their new partners in evidence, except (in one case) as the recipient of a callous confession over the phone. The hotel, moreover, is the one in which the couple spent the first few happy months of their marriage, before they moved to a house where, it becomes apparent, their relationship turned hellish. As they dredge up a past in which a sense of humour and / or proportion seems to have been uncommonly absent, Michel wonders aloud that they didn't kill each other. By this stage, you are only too prepared to share his incredulity on that one.
'I can't leave you' / 'We've already parted', or, as Groucho Marx once sang: 'Hello, I must be going . . .' The play is so richly burdened with a sense of its own significance that it's hard to resist rephrasing such tragic ironies as cock-eyed comedy. My difficulty at taking the piece at its own estimation surfaced in the opening moments of Joseph Blatchley's production. To wistful music that gives the situation unearned poignancy and weight, Larry Lamb and Harriet Walter drift in through the revolving door, nocturnal mist spilling into the deserted lobby. It looks as though they're checking into some wing of the after-life rather than just a hotel, an effect that may be intentional, since on occasion they talk as though they were already dead.
At the start, Lamb and Walter communicate well, through their tight, wincing smiles, and the way they nervously stalk the room at a stiff distance from each other, the desperate awkwardness of exchanging conversational platitudes at the edge of an emotional abyss. As the couple are provoked into ever more intense confrontations, the fact that there seems to be little electricity generated between these actors begins to be a problem.
The production at Hampstead brings together Duras' two plays about the couple - separated in composition by 20 years, but with continuous action - and is so presented with a short musical interlude during which the pair sit and gaze broodingly into vacancy. Duras convinces you that both characters have suffered a great deal through allowing their marriage to go dead and then misinterpreting the way the other dealt with this (you can understand, for example, why he didn't appreciate that when he saw her in a bar apparently chatting up the barman, they were in fact talking about him). What, for me, the dramatist fails to do is excite respect for or interest in the suffering, which, lacking external motivation, comes across as cooked up by two chronically self-absorbed people who don't know the meaning of real worry. It's the lovers the pair will go back to that you feel sorry for.
Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071-722 9301).