Les Parents Terribles
Dundee Rep, until Sat 21 Jun
The repression of our natural sexual urges was, in Freud’s view, a necessary step in the production of a civilised society. Mention this along with his theories on the Oedipus complex, and you can expect uncomfortable dinner party conversation. With themes of sexual infidelity and unusual familial bonding, Jean Cocteau’s tragi-comedy caused a similar stir among 1930s Parisians, and retains the capacity to cause more than a little uncomfortable seat squirming.
Twenty-two-year-old Michael’s (Kevin Lennon) unusually close relationship with his mother Yvonne (Ann Louise Ross) is tested when he announces that he has fallen in love with Madeleine (Emily Winter). Unfortunately for Michael, Madeleine is also his father George’s (John Buick) mistress, a fact that scheming Aunt Leo (Irene MacDougall) swiftly turns to her advantage.
Creating the role of Michael for his lover Jean Marais, Cocteau suffused his play with elements not only of Marais’ life, but also his own. After the death of his father, Cocteau’s mother became the dominant figure in his life, and it’s this sense of an overbearing matriarch that rightly dominates in Stewart Laing’s new production. Half-lit, Yvonne’s cluttered bedroom of expressionist greens and oranges evokes visions of Cocteau’s Orphée, providing the cloying sense of claustrophobia so necessary to this uncommonly close familial setting. So convincing is Laing’s design that it threatens to stifle the production, each actor straining with repetitive movements, willed to break through the restrictive balustrades that form imagined windows. And yet it’s the design that ultimately triumphs here as Madeleine’s apartment – white, sterile and organised – is revealed.
The Kubrickesque simplicity of the 60s-styled flat allows Michael’s newly discovered freedom to wash away the memories of his mother’s sexually charged smothering, before he, like Orphée, must travel back to the intense underworld until he can finally be free. Kevin Lennon’s cheerful exuberance as Michael is matched by his creditable despair, but it’s Irene MacDougall’s turn as a Cruella De Vil-styled Machiavelli that thoroughly impresses in a funny, farcical and uncomfortable musing on sexual morality that’s well worth a look.