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La Musica (Young Vic)

Maguerite Duras's play is an intricate study on love

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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A divorced couple meet in a hotel, three years after their split, to finalise proceedings and hand over paperwork. Anne-Marie and Michel have both moved on, into other relationships and onto other things, but life is never as clean cut as that. Love is never as clean cut as that.

Marguerite Duras's intricate two-hander – so carefully constructed it might have been put together with tweezers – is one of the finest studies of love in the past tense ever written. It is a total heartfuck. Tartare raw. As Anne-Marie and Michel talk, old wounds re-open and old feelings rekindle. They can go nowhere. It is painfully sad.

Actually, La Musica is two of the finest studies ever written. Twenty years after writing the original, Duras added a second half that loops back on the same conversation, only with slight slippages and differences. Is it set later that evening – ex-lovers going over the same ground, records on repeat – or is it rather a parallel encounter, an alternate version of events, different but the same, the same but different?

Such is Annie-Marie and Michel's meeting: all the old feelings repeated, the same but different second time around. Their love, it turns out, was not practical. It didn't fit into life. They were fine when they lived in this hotel – a bedroom being all they needed – but the moment they tried to settle down, the moment they moved into a place of their own, the moment they married, their relationship fell apart. Love and the structures we build for it are not the same thing.

Anne-Marie and Michel worked as people, but not in practice. She had an affair. He very nearly killed her. She considered suicide when they split. He didn't know that until now. This is the agonising paradox: they feel so strongly for one another precisely because they cannot be together. They can only love from afar.

Their new partners are both a comfort and a curse: each has moved on, but so has the other and, as such, each feels replaced and supplanted. Their relationship – so unique and so absolute – is undermined by the plain fact that a new one is possible.

All this simmers out of Jeff James's eloquent ache of a production, which uses the play's shape to tease out its meaning. James has assisted Ivo Van Hove. It shows: this is theatre as sculpture, pared back and infinitesimally precise.

Designer Ultz splits the two halves with different stagings, reconfiguring the space to draw out the differences. First, Sam Troughton and Emily Barclay sit side by side on a bench, backs to us, silhouetted as they stare out at the real city, their reflections doubling up in the window. Their faces appear, in close up, on two cinema screens. They look in opposite directions from separate screens, and we see every tiny flicker of feeling, every involuntary reaction. They're cut off from the world too, on a platform with no way down. We watch from a distance. They are an image to us, anonymous and unknowable, just as they are to one another: memories, made fictional by time and distance, not the real people.

The second scene plays in a scrum: the audience huddled around the actors. We rub shoulders and clash elbows, close enough to smell one another. This time, Troughton and Barclay lock eyes and lock horns. They dance around one another, flirting and fighting and growing frustrated with themselves and each other, with their hearts and their impossible situation. As the lights go up, they see one another in full and they know they have to part ways. As I say, ‘Oof.' Loved it.

La Musica runs at the Young Vic until 17th October.

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