The Driver’s Seat: Muriel Spark’s darkly surreal novella: the world premiere by National Theatre of Scotland
At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009, Laurie Sansom directed a 5 star production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark’s pin-sharp, poetic character portrait of her former school mistress – stylishly staged at the Assembly Hall.
Described as a “metaphysical shocker,” Spark’s surreal thriller of a novella, The Driver’s Seat, has now been adapted by Sansom into an exhilarating, intimate play for the National Theatre of Scotland.
“By 1937 some of my friends were getting engaged, even married. I longed to leave Edinburgh and see the world. It was on 13 August, 1937 when, alone for the first time in my life, I sailed on the Windsor Castle, to Cape Town, the first lap on my journey” Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae.
Spark’s anti-heroine- protagonist in The Driver’s Seat is Lise, a 34 year old woman, is also desperate to experience a foreign adventure.
Clearly she does not belong in this grey-toned environment with its daily dull routine. Slamming her hand on the stapler like a cry for help, her boss suggests she takes time out and prepare for her holiday.
The stage set is economically designed to denote an open plan office space with desks, tables, chairs, shifted in an instant to represent a kitchen, boutique, airport lounge, aircraft, hotel lobby, taxis, department store, police station.
We observe Lise as she purchases a summer dress arguing with the shop assistant about stain-resistant fabric – ‘Do you think I spill things on my clothes?” she barks at her. Back home in her flat, she meticulously packs her handbag with passport and airline ticket, a faint smile playing around her lips, knowing she is about to escape.
And so her journey begins with a flight from this northern city to an unspecified destination in southern Europe. At the airport, she is fashionably dressed in her new geometric, rainbow-coloured dress and striped jacket, attracting immediate glances from passengers.
But then, we hear the shocking news: “She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.”
The action then follows the next 24 hours, like a reconstruction on Crimewatch or Countdown to Murder TV documentary. A large Perspex screen stands centre stage with the word VICTIM beside images, photographs, street maps and names of witnesses.
Flashback: now at her hotel in Italy ( Rome perhaps), she encounters Mrs Fiedke, an elderly widow whom she takes under her wing to go shopping. Lise explains that she is meeting her boyfriend later, at least will find a man who will be her type.
‘Will you feel a presence? Is that how you’ll know?’
‘Not really a presence,’ Lise says. ‘The lack of an absence, that’s what it is.”
We can sense that Lise is an unreliable narrator; her name is an anagram of Lies, a web of which she spins with carefree abandon in her distorted fantasy world.
Morven Christie is simply superb, her ice-cold detachment and manipulative behaviour reveal a manic, yet curiously enigmatic personality.
Her sense of glamour, vivacity and femme fatale charm attracts three men during the course of this, her final, day. Lise has a premeditated quest to experience alienation from reality as she takes over the driver’s seat on a journey of self-destruction.
The time-travelling scenario is vividly dramatised by the excellent international ensemble cast, many playing diverse roles. With live close-up cameras, film backdrops and an electrifying, atmospheric sound track, Laurie Sansom has adapted and choreographed this bleak, satirical tragi-comedy with subtle pathos and theatrical, dreamlike vision.
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, 13 – 27 June 2015 – lyceum.org.uk
Tramway, Glasgow, 2 – 4 July, 2015 – tramway.org