Vive la difference

THEATRE : Suzanna Andler Minerva Studio Theatre, Chichester
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The Independent Culture
You don't absolutely have to be French to appreciate the plays of Marguerite Duras, but, by God, you feel it would help. All that wallowing in well-heeled misery, all that deadly seriousness about "l'amour". They order things differently in Haslemere. Duras's characters find their emotional states endlessly absorbing and are tone-deaf to the bathos of their declaration. My favourite line in her work comes in La Musica, a play that takes the basic situation of Private Lives (divorced couple meet in hotel and find their old passion rekindled) and turns it into an orgy of navel-gazing. The man rings up his current partner and announces with a totally straight face, "We're in the hotel lounge. We're both in despair."

The lack of any sense of proportion (or of the ridiculous) is manifest once again in Suzanna Andler, revived now by Lindy Davies at Chichester. In a wintry St Tropez, the eponymous heroine is discovered agonising over whether to rent an expensive villa for the summer. Given that her husband happens to be a millionaire, this dithering might in itself seem a bit of a luxury. But as she tarries in the empty house, it emerges that there is far more hanging on this decision than the question of where to spend August.

This 1968 play is the study of a woman struggling to take charge of her life and a portrait of a very strange marriage. Suzanna has a journalist lover (Aden Gillett) in tow, yet her heart - it becomes clear - is far more with her philandering husband, whose telephone calls she anxiously awaits, than in this first extra-marital liaison. From her confrontation with one of her husband's mistresses (Julie Legrand) and a climactic conversation with the journalist, we deduce that her husband is as emotionally preoccupied with her, despite his multiple flings, and that he not only knows about her current affair but is actually overseeing it. She had thought she was making a blow for independence when all the time she was unwittingly following somebody else's script.

The misery peculiar to being a millionaire's spouse is perhaps a brave subject for a writer of Duras's strong left-wing convictions, and the play is certainly a bracing riposte to the view, recently touted by the protagonist in Wallace Shawn's The Fever, that characters above a certain level of income forfeit their right to an audience's compassion. None the less, I remained unmoved by Suzanna's plight. With eye-swivel responses worthy of Miss Babs in Acorn Antiques and a tendency to twist handkerchiefs at moments of turmoil, Julie Christie indicates the heroine's emotional shifts with the conscientiousness of a set of traffic lights. You'd believe in, and feel for, the character's pain if more of it were held in reserve. The temptation to think of this beautiful Suzanna as the spoilt produce of her privilege rather than its victim is never quite overcome by this external performance.

Reduced to deep-voiced macho boasting about his swimming prowess, Aden Gillett communicates well the frustration of knowing that he is unlikely to supplant the husband from his central place in Suzanna's emotions, and likewise Julie Legrand nicely signals awareness of her own expendability. There's bags of "mood" with chic jazzy wind music, wintry trees and an enveloping seascape visible through the translucent walls of the shuttered house. But the divide between what is real and what is conjured up in Suzanna's mind is messy here rather than intriguingly hazy, and you sometimes feel you'd get more gripping drama from watching your fridge defrost.

To 9 Aug. Booking: 01243 781312

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