La Musica’s powerful and wordless transmission

November 2, 2015

A recent trip to the Young Vic left me thinking. La Musica, written in 1965 by Marguerite Duras, raises the question of how often the fear of abandonment manifests into control and punishment. How the fear of being open and vulnerable inadvertently destroys our communication and relationships.

The production of La Musica, directed by Jeff James, has an enigmatic and unforgettable design by Ultz, who won an Olivier Award for Best Set Design for the Royal Court Theatre production of Jerusalem in 2010.

The set is stark modernity; and the performance is a promenade. The audience is warned they may have to move during the evening.

Meanwhile, the story is timeless: Anne-Marie and Michel have met in a hotel lobby somewhere in France to finalise their divorce, as they both prepare to remarry other people. They share secrets and trade intimacies, but for half the play, their backs are to the audience. They sit side by side, like travellers waiting for a train. Their faces however are displayed on huge screens; every twitch, every half-smile is shown large to the audience. No nuance is hidden. With the actors’ backs to the audience, we feel even more strongly the sense of isolation and disconnection.

For the second half, the play is performed in the round, with the audience moving and sometimes standing. The actors are now at the geographical centre of our attention; gladiators in a Colosseum. The actors repeat their lines, which are almost identical to those in the first act. In the crowd, their powerlessness, and inability to connect with each other, is even more deeply felt. We witness their frustration as well as the traces of their early chemistry. We can feel their anger, and experience the slights and hurts which broke the marriage down. The Guardian reviewer warns: “Misery scents the air.”

We all know that relationships can be lonely. Friedrich Nietzsche said: “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

Duras’s divorcing couple demonstrate this clearly enough. We do not have to see them stare into each other’s eyes to know that this was once a loving marriage. We do not need their body language to be dramatic. The cold nearness of their un-touching hands; the frigidity in their stiffly held backs; these physical absences wax as lyrical as their constant words do.

In La Musica, it is sad to see that loneliness and defensiveness can create an energy capable of masking that deep desire to connect, of inhibiting the restoration of the love which used to be shared between the couple.

I wonder if perhaps the couple could have owned their own emotions, recognised their own fear and need, then their communication could have been so different. The conflict would have become opportunity for growth rather than for destruction and heartache.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation