Marianne Oldham, Nat Ramabulana
Craig Higginsons previous play, the acclaimed Dream of the Dog, dealt elegantly and intelligently with the complex past and present of his native South Africa.
His latest play, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, a co-production between Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Newcastles Live Theatre and South Africas Market Theatre, is narrower in focus, concentrating on the increasingly intense and co-dependent relationship between an attractive young English teacher and her student.
The play takes the form of a two-hander, inspired in part by Ovids Echo and Narcissus.
Celia, the teacher, is in her late twenties and is clearly more than comfortably off, living on her own in a stylish, minimalist Parisian apartment. Her student, Pierre, is an affable, young French Congolese man who is keen to improve his English.
From the start it is apparent that Pierre has not sought her out solely for tuition. His interest in her runs deeper, to the point where he admits to having shadowed her in the streets and once followed her all the way to the Sacre Coeur. This both unnerves and excites her. Celias world is a measured one; she is cautious and accustomed to being in control, but she is also curious and is attracted to the idea of who she wants Pierre to be, something exotic, something other.
Director Malcolm Purkey is successful in creating a tense, somewhat heightened atmosphere that helps coast over some of the plays more implausible lurches in tone. Celia is both attracted to and wary of her student. Pierre is charming and charismatic but also single-minded in his desire. Both appear to have deep reservoirs of secrets. Celia has a difficult and damaging relationship with her brother and Pierre tells stories about his refugee past.
Higginsons play uses this relationship to explore the potency of language: how it gives people the means to communicate and connect, to express themselves but also to expose themselves, to tell stories about who they are and who they might be. It also uses the couples interactions to reflect on how class and race can still create walls between people, though it does this less deftly.
Played out in five acts, the writing is, at least in the initial encounters between student and teacher, tight and charged but it goes off the boil considerably once their relationship becomes more overtly sexual. The whole set up feels somewhat forced from the start and in the end its down to the cast that keep things on track. Both performances are strong with Marianne Oldham, in particular, really shining as the beautifully brittle Celia. She moves seamlessly from a state of composure and control to one of utter exposure, crouching before him, raw and trembling on the floor. As Pierre, Nat Ramabulana is engaging and charming and yet there is something appealingly ambiguous about him. Together they both convey a strong sense of inner contradiction, the potential that something within them might at any time snap.
The Girl In The Yellow Dress is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, until 29 August; then at Live Theatre, Newcastle, 7-18 September; and Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 21 September-9 October.