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A CurtainUp London Review
Conversations After A Burial
By Lizzie Loveridge
When my mother died I was six … When my father died I was eleven … From that day and ever afterwards, I confronted life, bristling with spines from head to toe, stainless and icy. -- Nathan reading at the graveside from a diary written by his father
Yasmina Reza wrote Conversations After A Burial,, which is receiving its British première, in 1987. Thus it predates her award winning play, the gloriously witty Art by seven years and was her first published work. It won several French awards at that time for best new talent and a Molière award for Best Play. She has only written two plays since Art of which only the coldly receivedThe Unexpected Man has been produced in England. Recently she has had two novels published but we have yet to see a new play from Reza which measures up to Art. People going to Conversations After A Burial in the hope of seeing another Art will be disappointed.
The new play has a very French feel to it. It is as much about atmosphere as developing characterisation or plot. People gather for the funeral of their father and brother and slowly the tensions emerge There is some humour too but much more pain than laughter.
Unlike most "funeral dramas" which often involve a dénouement as to the character and relationships of the deceased, in Conversations After A Burial we are given the impression of a father who was more censorious than loving. (He was disappointed that Alex, a literary critic, did not become a famous writer and that he disapproved of Edith's boyfriend, leaving Edith unmarried and afraid of being alone). There's a surprising revelation that he seems to have had a sexual relationship with his chiropodist, Madame Natti and to stir matters up there's an unexpected funeral guest -- Elisa (Clare Higgins). Seems that there's a triangle situation that no one has acted on. Though she was Alex's mistress, Elisa now announces that she's been obsessively in love with Nathan for some time. Nathan has not let the relationship develop out of loyalty to his brother. Uncle Pierre's new wife is out of her depth with this complex family and thus fills the silences with prattle. In true French style, Nathan buys the ingredients for a "pot au feu" a French stew of meat and vegetables and the whole group sets about peeling the vegetables but the real menu here is the relationship triangle of Alex, Elisa and Nathan.
The performances are excellent: David Calder is a blustery but reasonable as Pierre. Claire Bloom is at once awkward and flirtatious. Paul Higgins' temperamentally explosive young man is offset by Matthew Marsh's solidity. Clare Higgins delicately shows the indecision of a woman trapped by her emotions.
Howard Davies' direction inspires confidence and Rob Howell's creeper covered old brickwork set nicely conveys both indoor ad outdoor scenes.
Skilled as Christopher Hampton is as a translator, there were moments when I felt that I was listening to something written in another language. You know how you can tell the dubbed dialogue of a film even with brilliant lip synch? Some of this may have to do with French body language -- for example, the Gallic shrug which is replaced by short interjections like "Yes. . ." and "No . . ." and "Ah . . ."
The dialogue generally is non-expansive, with very concise sentences than are black and white statements rather than qualification and equivocation. This leaves you either admiring Reza's economy of language or wishing that she had given us more about the father figure rather than merely hinting at why his children are at why his children are unable to form good relationships. The family being united at play's end and their issues resolved makes for a tidy but implausible ending.