Dominique Blanc brings a sparse intensity to Marguerite Duras's semi-autobiographical second world war memoir at the Theatre de l'Atelier, Paris, France
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 4 Octuber 2011
Marguerite Duras pictured in 1990, six years before her death. Théâtre de l'Atelier's production of La Douleur incorporates extracts from her war notebooks. Photograph: Jean Mascolo/Sygma/Corbis
A woman is there, waiting. Seated at a table, her back to the audience, in a grey light. The woman turns and for a brief moment we glimpse the young Marguerite Donnadieu, with her great, heavy-lidded eyes.
Dominique Blanc did not want to be Marguerite Duras.. That is not the point of La Douleur (translated as The War). So very soon, in an imperceptible metamorphosis, she resumes her usual appearance (in other words, as for any great actress, a sensitive plate on which shadow and light constantly play). Donnadieu (aka Duras) disappears, leaving a woman, any woman, racked by the uncertainty of not knowing whether her husband will come back from the war.
The beginning of the play hinges on this expectation, the fear, the obsessive images of death that the woman tries to foil with various pastimes such as emptying and sorting the contents of her handbag or peeling an apple. The opening scenes set the tone of the whole play, bonding personal feelings and historical events in a way that is spare and every bit as intense as Duras's words.
Blanc is alone on stage but she conjures up a whole world: the Gare d'Orsay in Paris, for instance, where prisoners of war returning from Germany were sent in spring 1945. With her implacable lucidity Duras only needs a few sentences to explain how De Gaulle's supporters were taking hold of France.
Then her husband Robert Antelme returns, weighing just 35kg. For months he had eaten nothing but grass and earth. "Had he eaten solid food on returning from the camp his stomach would have ruptured under its weight." Blanc transforms these pages of The War, among the most extraordinary ever written on this return from hell, into a struggle for life that seems to play itself out before our eyes.
The actress and director Patrice Chéreau have added a few extracts from the author's war notebooks, in particular this quote: "We belong to the same race as those who burned in the crematoriums, but we also belong to the same race as the Nazis. This is going on in Europe. It is here that millions of Jews are being burnt." With The War, Duras created in extraordinarily physical, concrete terms her own human species.