Greta Garbo thought that "in almost every woman there is a bit of a prostitute. At some time in her life, she dreams of having any man she desires."
So when she played the eponymous courtesan in the movie of Camille, she was keen to present a woman who loved her work. Actresses, in her view, had distorted the character by bringing to the part the personal baggage of having been victimised by men in their private life. Any female, she maintained, who read the original novel by Dumas, Fils, or the stage adaptation he made of it, would have to acknowledge a certain envy of its heroine, Marguerite Gautier, despite the drawback of tuberculosis.
There's a massive flaw in this argument – and it becomes even clearer when you watch Neil Bartlett's potent new adaptation of this classic scenario in David McVicar's strikingly stark production at the Lyric, Hammersmith. It stars Daniela This Life Nardini, who is decidedly odd casting for the role of Marguerite. She is built more like a prop forward than a wasting flower. If you were choosing a tug-of-war team, she'd be the first on your list but she lacks the depth of stage experience necessary for so exposed a role.
Giving the lie to the blitheness of Garbo, this version highlights the financial anxieties and absence of freedom in the prostitute's world. As in the original novel, it begins at the end with the auction of the dead Marguerite's possessions and then moves into some dark, collective cavern of memory where her acquaintances prompt each other into re-enactments of the recent past. Marvellously played by a lubricous, vampiric Beverley Klein, the role of Prudence, the pushy freeloading milliner with a keen eye for the tricky market values of the milieu, has been beefed up.
We see that, for this frenetic, driven Marguerite, there is little difference between throwing a party and throwing a tantrum. To qualify as a courtesan you have to be seen to revel in conspicuous consumption. This outlay then leaves you at the mercy of the admirers who never quite pay off the spiralling debts. The last thing you can afford is to fall in love as Marguerite does with Elliot Cowan's moving headboy of an Armand.
Nardini communicates well enough the pettish hysteria and tubercular feverishness of a woman who, in Bartlett's version, tells us that "not stopping is the only thing that keeps me going''.
But her performance operates on the nerves rather than on the heart. The heroine's self-sacrifice and subsequent decline left me wholly unmoved and, during her final screeching illness, I thought that I would have to go up on stage wielding a syringe myself, if the quack in the play didn't put us all out of our misery first. An intriguing adaptation, staged with a spare poetic beauty, but one that is scuppered by the central casting.
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