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 lives. Any female, she maintained, who reads the original novel by Dumas fils, or the stage version 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 – as becomes even clearer when you watch Neil Bartlett's potently re-jigged adaptation of this classic scenario in David McVicar's stark and striking 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 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 severe constraints on freedom in the prostitute's world. The term "sex industry" did not exist back then, but the fact of it did, however disguised by upholstery – with none of the worker empowerments such as now sometimes obtain.
As in the original novel, the story begins at the end with the auction of the dead Marguerite's effects (posthumously, as in life, she's a commodity for purchase). Then it moves into some dark collective cavern of memory where her acquaintances prompt each other into re-enactments of her life. Marvellously played by a lubricious, vampiric Beverley Klein, the role of Prudence, the freeloading milliner with a keen eye for the precarious 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 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 movingly ardent and sincere head boy of an Armand.
Ms Nardini communicates well enough the pettish hysteria and tubercular feverishness of a woman who, in Bartlett's script, militantly asserts that "not stopping is the only thing that keeps me going".
But her performance operates on the nerves rather than on the heart. Her self-sacrifice and subsequent decline left me wholly unmoved – and in her final screeching, convulsive 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 (at the end of the first half Marguerite opens a cupboard from which tumbles a cascade of withered leaves like debts and premonitions of blight). A shame that it is scuppered by the central mis-casting.
To 12 April (020-7836 3464)
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