NOTHING DILUTES scandal better than time and sentiment.
When the Alexandre Dumas fils novel "La Dame aux Camelias" first appeared, Parisians were shocked by its tale of lust, greed and doomed romance. More than 150 years later, the tell-all novel is getting its punch back, thanks to a new adaptation by Neil Bartlett, making its American debut at Round House Theatre Bethesda. Director Blake Robison says, "What better way" to open the season "than to take this classic story that's appeared in so many forms -- on stage, in movies -- and frame it in a whole new way."
With this production of "Camille," Round House's new artistic director is launching the Literary Works Project, which he says "celebrates language with new adaptations of classics and contemporary literary works. . . . There is a great value in reclaiming these classics in 2005. They speak to different cultures and different generations."
Dumas's classic story has been interpreted and reimagined in many ways since the author first wrote the thinly veiled account of his failed love affair with a Parisian courtesan. Guiseppe Verdi turned the story into an opera, "La Traviata," and Greta Garbo played the tough but tubercular Marguerite in the 1936 film "Camille." More recently, movies as varied as "Pretty Woman" and "Moulin Rouge" have drawn inspiration from the story: A young man, Armand Duval (Aubrey Deeker), falls in love with dying courtesan Marguerite Gaultier (Angela Reed), whose sacrifice for him ultimately leads to her tragic death.
British playwright Bartlett's take on the story is really more of a return to Dumas's original text than a modernization. With all the talk of carriages, aristocrats and consumption, one can't mistake the setting as contemporary. What Bartlett has done, though, is update the language while returning to the nonlinear narrative of Dumas's compelling tale.
Robison says Bartlett made the story "vibrant and accessible for a modern audience, and he does it through the language. The characters talk like you and I talk, they behave the way we understand modern people to behave. . . . Bartlett simply freed up the language and put it in the modern idiom."
Hence the swearing -- and the sex scenes. At first it is jarring to hear the actors, dressed in sumptuous period costumes by Rosemary Pardee, cursing up a storm. It is fitting, though. In the Signet Classic edition of "Camille," Dumas himself describes Armand's shock when he sees Marguerite "drinking, talking like a porter, and laughing the more loudly the more scandalous was the joke."
Previous adaptations have shied away from depicting Marguerite's life as a prostitute. Dumas only hinted at it. "In Dumas's day you had to treat the subject of sexuality with a light touch," Robison says. "We no longer have the same social mores. You can turn on HBO and Showtime and see all kinds of racy stuff." Bartlett's translation "allows the story to be played out in a very sexually frank and emotionally honest way."
Accordingly, the Round House Marguerite is a tough-talking, proud woman whose tuberculosis demands more than a delicate cough. As Robison notes in an August press release, "How many of us think 'Camille' and begin to feign a delicate cough into an imaginary hanky?" Under his direction, Reed hacks violently during her coughing spells -- yet one more indication of Round House's indecorous approach to the Dumas novel.
After the show on Friday, members of the Washington National Opera's Young Artist Program will perform selections from "La Traviata," which Verdi wrote only a few years after the novel appeared. "We're always looking to partner with other community groups and arts organizations," Robison says of the performance, which may shed light on the differences between Bartlett's script and earlier interpretations of the story. In particular, he says, "the opera's ending takes artistic liberties so that [the lovers] can have that romantic -- with a capital R -- moment."
"Over the years, the Camille story has become a costume drama, a melodrama, the Harlequin romance of its day," Robison says. "What Bartlett has done is stripped away 150 years of interpretation to get down to the blood and guts of the story." He adds: "It's still a romance but seen through the prism of sex, power and money. . . . By addressing the story in that way, he frees it up and makes it relevant to us in different ways."