It’s a sad sign of the current state of French theatre that Hilda, a radio play by the Franco-Senegalese novelist Marie NDiaye, should have won a major critics’ prize three years ago while another play of hers was the first piece by a contemporary author to be admitted to the Comedie-Francaise. This play went from radio to the Paris stage in a triumphal progression that might have convinced Anthony Clark, Hampstead’s artistic director, that he had another Art on his hands.
If he ever did, Sarah Woods’ pedestrian translation does not prove as persuasive a text as did Christopher Hampton’s of Yazmina Reza’s hit play. There are vague similarities. As in Art, the dramatic situation is one of triangular tensions between people who define themselves by the way others see them.
A rich lady, who brandishes her socialism like a chiffon scarf, hires the unseen Hilda as a nanny for her children and gradually, we understand, devours and possibly destroys her. Mrs Lemarchand (Stella Gonet) wants to improve Hilda’s life of servitude by giving her books and clothes. She also wants the woman who looks after her children to be as clean as she is. And she wants to control Hilda’s husband, Franck (Bo Poraj), when he calls by to witness the sinister process of domestic imperialism.
At the same time, Franck is drifting into a relationship with 22 year-old Corrine (Sarah Cattle), who is exercising her own plan of command. No wonder, then, that NDiaye cites Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and Jean Genet’s The Maids as among her favourite plays.
The director Rachel Kavanaugh, recently appointed as Jonathan Church’s successor at the Birmingham Rep, places these shards and splinters of shifting alliances - the play is a very long, dull, mere 70 minutes - in a cold, antiseptic atmosphere that militates against the actors reaching any kind of emotional deal with the audience.
The house, designed by Peter McKintosh, is a lavishly expensive glass monument that revolves against a projected backdrop of trees and necessitates a dash to the open stage at the side whenever Franck comes to call.
The ethereal, Gallic aspect of Mrs Lemarchand is beyond the earthy intensity of Stella Gonet, a fine and powerful actress; the role demands someone like Catherine Deneuve at her haughtiest and most mysterious. Instead, the only mystery here is, yet again, Hampstead’s choice of material.