Guilt, fear and desperate Dan

The set for Fatal Attraction at the Pieter Toerien Main Theatre at Montecasino, Johannesburg. The play runs there until May 6.

STAGE: Fatal Attraction – Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Johannesburg (until May 6)

WHEN it was staged under Trevor Nunn’s direction in London four years ago, James Dearden’s stage adaptation of his hit screen thriller, 1987’s Fatal Attraction – a film nominated for six Oscars, including that for best picture and best actress – did not fare very well.

To jog the memory, the tale of obsession and revenge involves a married man, lawyer Dan, being increasingly traumatised by guilt and fear after the souring of a weekend affair with a woman he meets in a pub while his wife is away. The “other woman” is Alex, a book editor who becomes obsessive and dangerous when Dan breaks the news to her that their fling is over.

Some London reviewers didn’t like the clutter of the play’s set;  it was generally felt there was little new on stage to warrant the screen-to-stage transfer; and there was some eye-rolling at the pretension of the increasingly unhinged Alex, played in the film by an overly hysterical, wild-maned Glenn Close, being obsessed with Madama Butterfly.

Since then the stage drama, which focuses more on Dan’s culpability than Alex’s hysterics, has been reimagined in a Dutch production in which the set has become stylish and minimal, characters more nuanced, the action a lot less overwrought than in the film, and in which the Madama Butterfly connection, thankfully, has been scrapped.

An English version of this acclaimed Dutch production, deftly and imaginatively directed by Belgian Paula Bangels, is what we are now seeing in South Africa – and it works such a treat that whispers are that it might be mounted in other countries soon.

Ashley Dowds and Jazzara Jaslyn in Fatal Attraction.

I was fascinated by Marjolein Ettema’s stylish set – a simple, white dais framed in a large, box-like structure of suspended wooden slats, concealing enigmatic images. Some have considered it too spartan, too clinical, but I loved it and find it contributes as much to the production’s success as the fine performances from a cast of five.

Former Durban actor Ashley Dowds, in very good shape and on fine form, is a standout as desperate Dan, who becomes increasingly jittery after he allows temptation to pave the way for the possible ruin of his happy marriage to Beth (Jenny Stead).

Beth is in the country with their (unseen) eight year-old daughter, looking for a new family home with earthy estate agent Joan (Jo da Silva), when Dan has his affair with Alex (an impressive Jazzara Jaslyn). But the characters soon meet as the tension mounts and Alex kicks into revenge mode.

My biggest quibble is that much of the interaction of characters takes place via cellphone calls, various sections of the set being used to suggest different locations at a moment’s notice. It requires the audience to use their imagination and, while slickly directed, takes a bit of getting used to. It is also a ploy used a little too often, the actors often talking to us in the audience rather than face to face. That said, the tension still builds well.

Fans of the film, in which Dan was played by Michael Douglas, should note that Dearden has altered the ending for his play, and I believe it works better. It is also good to note that characters are more fleshed out here than in the film, particularly that of Alex, who is revealed as more than just the psycho monster she was in the movie.

Oh, and if any film fan is expecting gruesome moments, note that the film’s famous “bunny ” scene is handled with subtlety.

Special mention must go to director Bangels’s orchestration of the sex scenes, choreographed to music, and a pat on the back, too, to Faheem Bardien for atmospheric lighting in a production that also features a charming Alex Tops, who provides much-needed comic relief as Dan’s newly divorced pal, Jimmy.

Fatal Attraction’s South African premiere has been produced by Pieter Toerien in arrangement with Robert Fox and Patrick Ryecart.

The play runs without an interval and is in Johannesburg until May 6, following a season at Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay. Performances are at 8pm Wednesdays to Fridays, 4pm and 8pm on Saturdays, and 3pm on Sundays. Tickets range in price from R100 to R200.

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