Prostitution has been around almost as long as sex has; and the theatre - ever fascinated by sex - has long been attracted to providing portraits of the ladies (as well as occasionally gentlemen) of the night who live by selling it, from plays like Mrs Warren's Profession to musicals like Sweet Charity.
The scandalous autobiographical 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, La Dame Aux Camellias, has provided the inspiration for numerous plays, films and even an opera on the subject.
But as Dumas' story reaches the stage once again, Lyric Hammersmith artistic director Neil Bartlett, who has adapted this new version, reminds us: "It is one of those stories that people think they know even if they don't", and goes on: "Too often, when it is retold, the myth obscures the social reality. To put it bluntly, it is perfectly possible to watch the Garbo film or to listen to La Traviata without knowing that anyone in it is either a prostitute or a prostitute's client."
While Bartlett may in the process make the implicit far more explicit, the fragmentary narrative he builds around it doesn't illuminate this tale of sexual obsession and need with much dramatic vigour. His excellent introduction in the published script is actually more interesting - and mercifully briefer - than the endless traffic on the stage, which is sometimes so slow moving that you feel like you're stuck on the Hammersmith roundabout outside at rush hour.
Set in 19th-century high society Paris, a young aristocratic man Armand Duval (Elliot Cowan) makes the mistake of falling in love with a notorious prostitute, Marguerite Gautier (Daniela Nardini), and she with him - a taboo that ignites the ire of his father Georges (Paul Shelley) who proceeds to drive them apart. "When you're going to die young," Marguerite says early on, "you've got to live fast". Sadly, in this version, I only wished she would die sooner and live faster.
As austerely rendered on a stage decorated only with a few bits of furniture, a piano, a painted curtain and an oversized wardrobe, David McVicar's production is all mood and atmosphere, but through the murky gloom of Paul Constable's lighting, it is oppressive rather than impressive.
And in the central role, while Nardini - returning to the stage for the first time in a decade - exhibits a radiant, worried beauty that makes sense of Camille's appeal, she lacks the necessary tragic stature and most importantly, voice projection as she swallows many of her words. The result is a production that, instead of being overwhelming, is more often merely irritating.
- Mark Shenton
Camille opened at London's Lyric Hammersmith on 11 March 2003 (following previews from 6 March) and continues there until 12 April 2003, then tours to 24 May, visiting Bath, Newcastle, Glasgow, Malvern, Blackpool and Oxford.