“La Musica”, Comédie-Française

Natalia Isaeva in Paris
15 December 2016

In 1965 Marguerite Duras created her La Musica initially as a radio play for the BBC. Exactly 20 years later, she wrote a second version of the play, La Musica deuxième which expanded the characters’ personalities quite radically and transformed the action. It was during the time gap between the two versions of La Musica when Duras herself changed completely. The early Duras was mostly engaged in a kind of fine analytics of love and the intricate ups and downs of love affairs. All this disappears in her later writings: her language, formerly firm and clear, starts to break down and what slowly seeps through the fractures are neologisms, phonetic games, shattered syntax, and strange experiments in glossolalia. The action itself unfolds in much more desolate fields of smouldering passion and despair that effectively burns away most of the characters’ psychological and rational justifications. Both the first and the second La Musica were produced by Anatoli Vassiliev at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier this year.


Photo credit: Laurencine Lot.


For Vassiliev this is not his first encounter with either Duras or the Comédie-Française where he directed Mikhail Lermontov’s Bal masqué (The Masquerade) in 1991 and Molière’s Amphitryon in 2002 — nor even, for that matter, with the main actors Florence Viala and Thierry Hancisse.

When I saw the stage set for La Musica, my eye was first caught by its wide-open vastness. Never to my knowledge had the space of Le Vieux-Colombier (The Old Pigeon House), one of the three performance spaces in the Comédie-Française, been so broadly opened up and to such a boundless extent, permitting a sweep in the action and the movements and voices of the actors and accentuating the mesmerizing quality of the music.


Florence Viala and Thierry Hancisse.
Photo credit: Laurencine Lot.


Imagine a space that stretches up vertically like a kind of well, and you have the picture. It seems to be divided into the celestial world (stretching up high, up to the theatre girders: to that upper limit disappearing from view where there is a set of huge mirrors and where live pigeons and doves are cooing and murmuring in their own little house), the middle world of this earth – or, if you want, our valley of tears where most of the performance is played out, and yet a third space – some underground world of concealed, subconscious wanderings (where our heroes continue to travel and move unseen by us, where they disappear during the minutes of rage and hidden stress, or where they descend to digest the bubbling champagne of hidden dreams and memories). Those worlds are mutually permeable: even the rough, uneven boards of the stage separating the world of the story from the lower world of subconscious fears and passions are riddled with openings and gaps; through these holes and slits that de-concretise the stage floor, narrow rays of light are faintly seeping. In the distant corners of the stage, we see randomly piled furniture: half-broken pieces that bring with them old memories, dreams, and disappointments – signs of a past life, almost wiped out and forgotten.

Vassiliev opted for bits and pieces that looked vaguely fragile and oriental; he selected dozens of lacquered bamboo chairs, inlaid tables on carved legs, tiny chests with a colossal number of drawers. That ridiculous and wonderful stuff is going to be rearranged in bizarre compositions all through the performance. Hanging on the black walls are two brightly lit flights of stairs leading upwards towards a cage raised high, full of invisible pigeons; we occasionally see feathers falling from above as if some feverish and ailing angels trying to warm and comfort each other are cuddling together high above our heads. There is an old phone booth in the corner as well as a huge glass door stage right which projects quite far into the stage space; its shape closely follows the contours of the tall arched window of the ground floor living room of the black rocks in Trouville, the summer house where Duras came regularly for thirty years — at first alone and then with her young lover and secretary Yann Andrea.


Florence Viala and Thierry Hancisse.
Photo credit: Laurencine Lot.


La Musica starts simply: we have before us two relatively young people who, tired after an official divorce, pass the night together in the same hotel where they once had stayed as lovers and young spouses. It is probably the last time in their lives they will meet, and the time has come to take stock: to accuse and exchange reproaches. The dialogue and action are highly repetitious and from the very beginning all those repetitions produce a fascinating, hypnotic effect reflected in the simple geometry of movements on the site. There are always the same patterns: again and again the characters are descending the stairs to the ground floor, passing through the same point in space, assuming – with slight variations – the same positions, repeating all the familiar gestures. The same rhyming space, the same recurring themes.

This stubborn, tenacious dialogue is occasionally interrupted by telephone conversations. In a huge glass showcase we can see briefly appearing the figures of the earlier couple as idealized and naked lovers – much younger and prettier than the characters themselves as they are now. In general, oddly enough, the truly human dimension to their relationship remains sealed and secluded behind the glass, while on stage in front of us we mostly see a sort of post-mortem of their deceased love. Involuntarily, one starts to shiver, listening to those bursts of laughter caused by the most heart-rending memories: the “hell” they both lived through, their reticent half confessions (a suicide attempt by the woman, a murder plan revealed by the man). And already “Caravan” by Duke Ellington can be heard, sweeping us towards the final scene of the first act where the tall arched window is finally thrown wide open.

Act Two is textually almost identical to the content of the first La Musica, but the acting technique and the trajectory of acting is completely different. Vassiliev’s “play structures” lead us away from the painful experience of attempted candour. Characters here are no longer struggling inside a situation. It is as if the actor is now guiding his character, similarly to how a master of Bunraku theatre skilfully guides his wooden puppets so that they move forward. The real relations and genuine human feelings are forgotten. Instead, the characters play! The actors joyfully arrange all that furniture along a diagonal, in the centre of which Sixties-style music plays – Serge Gainsbourg or Yves Montand as well as innumerable Duke Ellington numbers.

Incidentally, hidden drawers in the furniture are revealed, and from them – alone in that deserted, phantom hotel – our characters take out countless bottles of wine and brandy, together with multi-coloured glasses, so that the scene develops into a secret night feast. The sense of the game, the all-embracing irony, becomes a sort of protective armour. The same words no longer hurt; they can be interpreted so many different ways. They become tongue-twisters. The characters smile and find it funny to have suffered so much and to remember, and then to suffer again and again and still to remember.

The difference which is slowly emerging here is essentially a difference in cultural paradigms. On the one hand, Duras is saying, there is the man’s position which is based on quasi-Christian ethics. He seems to be declaring that it does not essentially matter who the beloved is; it is impossible to know until the end what we stand for or what each of us is finally capable of, even if it is betrayal, crime, or murder. The man’s point of view is that the fiery connection between the two of them justifies everything. Love, this genuine relation linking them together, is the only thing that will probably continue even to the moment of death. And then, as a counterpart, the woman’s standpoint is that no relationship is possible between two loving beings. What remains as ultimate reality is just pure gaze. One is only a dissolute lonely wanderer walking through meetings with new lovers, randomly touching dozens of new bodies and searching for that single moment of passion which already carries with it the true taste of immortality.

During the short break between the second and the third acts, She (Florence Viala) undresses slowly on stage in front of the public, shedding all those colourful little bits of clothing she wore in previous acts. She looks in a mirror, chooses to wear black. He (Thierry Hancisse) returns now. He climbs onto the stage via the stairs that connect to the auditorium. He is also dressed in black. The second act was packed to overflowing with innumerable objects: multi[1]coloured bottles, sparkling glasses.

But now the actors sitting in a corner allow themselves their first real drink. They sip something from tiny liqueur glasses. Is it water? Is it vodka? They light cigarettes, and then, still smoking, they move quickly to the front of the stage to tell us something important – something that they themselves have only just realized.

Twice they are interrupted by phone calls. This time, they do not talk with naked beautiful lovers in a glass window off the balcony but with the dematerialized disembodied voices of Marguerite Duras and Yann Andrea. To get to that phone, it is necessary to climb the wooden staircase on stage that goes up, up – closer to the pigeons. Our characters start to compose little poems in prose. Each word is allocated its own independent place, where they are especially accentuated and separated by Vassiliev’s famous “affirmative intonation”.

Both He and She tell improbable stories about things that never happened and could never happen in their real lives. They chant, recite; they indulge in declamation. Finally, totally exasperated, He sits down at the piano in the corner and starts singing cabaret songs – lyrics by Duras, musical variations of Duke Ellington. The dovecote that previously had been hanging in the wings is now firmly set in the middle of the stage, and the pigeons happily join along, cooing and murmuring their own little verses to the audience. From time to time, we can hear a gong.

Finally, we see these two lovers closely pressed to each other, intertwined in a tantric embrace, continuing their conversation while assuming hieratic, iconic postures. And now the final words echo in resonance with a repetitive, shimmering tune of Steve Reich’s coming up from below the stage. The temple gong rolls on, and the monologues continue. They are frightening in their naked openness; we hear the scared human voice torn to pieces but still telling us something important about love and passion. The impulse is to overcome fear by firmly believing that our eyes will see a different light and a different space.

The play concludes with all the colourful clothes safely packed into a suitcase by the woman. The man remains on stage. And only then – the promise fulfilled! – the dovecote which had been raised and lowered several times throughout the performance with great effort is suddenly lit from the inside and flies up easily to the lighting grid and out of sight. It feels like a miracle, an epiphany revealing immortality.