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A CurtainUp London Review
For when I think of her, or when I speak of her,
in the middle of a thought, in the middle of a dream,
I am forever – a boy of fifteen
--- Carl, as an adult reflecting back thirty years
Last year Richard Nelson won an Olivier for “best new play” for his work Goodnight Children Everywhere and a Tony for the book of a musical, for James Joyce's The Dead. His latest play thus would have attracted some attention in any event but not as much as it has, because it stars the well known child actor, Macaulay Culkin. Now 20, Culkin was the little boy who battled against devious burglars in the hit film Home Alone. Since then his real life battles against his abusing father have preoccupied him. Looking much younger than his twenty years, pallid and fragile, Culkin is credible as the fifteen year old in this play. Like Goodnight Children Everywhere, but set in 1966, Nelson's two themes in Madame Melville are the American-European divide and sexual awakening. (He is an American who lives and works in Europe.)
Culkin plays a boy at the American School in Paris. Fascinated by his teacher of literature, he contrives to stay behind after class. He is lonely and isolated in Paris, having been uprooted from Ohio. Paris and Parisians make him feel stupid, and he does not communicate well with his parents. Claudie Melville, his teacher, played by the French actress Irene Jacob, is in, maybe, her early thirties. She is drifting -- having an affair with a married man. Together, teacher and student have something in common: she needs to pass on knowledge, he needs to absorb it and what starts as an interest in literature, moves through music and art to his induction as her lover.
The teacher is direct and candid. One of her first observations is that Carl should brush back his hair which falls over his face. This has him pushing back his hair continually throughout the play. Carl is shy and charming, his delivery understated, but he has that determination not to leave. He sticks to Claudie like glue, soaking up all she has to tell him about sex and literature, sex and art, sex and jazz. She relates how her teacher took her to an art gallery and then had sex with her. Carl spends his time nervously looking around, unsure of himself but excited at the emotions this encounter is to unleash. Irene Jacob gives a very confident performance as the quixotic teacher, herself unsettled and unfulfilled. Madeleine Potter plays Claudie's friend, Ruth, another American, a violinist who has left her American husband -- here serving as a stereotype of an American discovering all that Europe has to offer, including catching crabs from a casual encounter.
Nelson is directing his own play here and his direction makes me wonder why it's not a radio play. It is a very personal and lyrical account of a first love, but I did not find it very interesting, although all three performances are excellent.
The beginning of the play is a long monologue from Carl, now supposedly in his forties, setting the scene of the Sixties. But the Sixties pass him by -- all he gains is some slight sexual experience: “free love,” not any political ideology. Claudie, sometimes moody and unstable, seems unaware or unconcerned about her lasting impact on this vulnerable child. We do not hear how Claudie shaped Carl's life, what difference she made, only that this was how he lost his virginity and that the period and place are evocative for him and maybe encouraged him to become a writer.
I was at an art lecture in the States some years ago and showing us a portrait by John Copley Singleton, the lecturer said an American audience wants to know how much it cost, how long it took to paint and then about the artist's skill, whereas a European audience wants to talk about what it conveys about the sitter and what they feel about the painting. Madame Melville would want to know whether the artist had just made love to his subject.
The play takes place in the confines of a box set, an apartment full of books, with a door and windows suspended high above but I'm not sure why. The play has descriptive passages of what would be termed pornography and at one point Claudie and Carl try for a position out of the Karma Sutra against the wall which looks extremely strenuous for Carl. I found this more gratuitous than erotic but then 15 year old boys are not my thing.