JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE DRIVER’S SEAT at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 20.6.15.
4 stars ****
IT’S ONE OF THE MOST THRILLING aspects of theatre that it can plunge us, almost instantly, back into some neglected corner of our own shared history; and with the lightest and most chilling of touches, that’s precisely what happens in The Driver’s Seat, the National Theatre of Scotland’s new stage version of Muriel Spark’s great 1970 novella, adapted and directed by the company’s artistic director, Laurie Sansom.
It’s not that there are any glaringly obvious period details in the show’s early moments, as the heroine Lise leaves her office in some unnamed north European city, and sets off for the airport. Once she takes her place on the plane, though – and is immediately pawed by the unpromising-looking man in the next seat – we begin to realise we are in a subtly different social world, where a single woman in her Thirties is far more psychologically alone, and subject to censorious comment from other women, than she would be today.
Although it contains a classic Spark strain of waspish social observation, though, The Driver’s Seat ione of her darkest novels, the story of a woman seeking her own death, and finding it; and it’s in evoking the shifting brittleness of the reality through which Lise moves, during her last day in an Italian city, that Laurie Sansom’s production excels, re-creating the story in a single, fluid and sustained 90-minute movement of set, sound and seven-strong acting company. Morven Christie delivers a wonderfully contained and yet inwardly desperate performance as Lise, a woman who at one level fulfils every ugly male fantasy of the willing victim, but at another seems to be saying something truly radical about a world where a lone woman can only gain agency at the point where she is ready to sacrifice her own life.
The result is not an uplifting evening; its effect is dark, disturbing, thought-provoking. Yet it’s also a superb piece of 21st century theatre, in which layers of time shift uneasily across Ana Ines Jabares Pita’s darkly functional set, and live close-up images of the characters haunt the walls of the space. In the final moments, we see Lise look back at the work of her final hours, lost in thought. What is she telling us? Perhaps only that she is the subject, not the object; and that however darkly horrifying her tale, she finally had the satisfaction of shaping it herself.
Lyceum Theatre until 27 June; Tramway, Glasgow, 2-4 July.