On the surface a play that’s inspired by the writing of Florian Zeller, fellow Gallic director and playwright Gabrielle Silvestre has crafted in Des Fleurs a tale that touches on the ‘Nancy Sinatra’ notion of ‘living twice’: having one life for yourself and one for your dreams. Set in a back garden that’s approximately two hours from London, the play begins with Judith (Harriet Whitbread), a widow who is remembering events from decades before. Visiting her that day are her pregnant daughter Emma (Naomi Hyatt-Golding) and her son Samuel (Nadav Burstein), who are as different in temperament as can be. Aside from Judith, the other perennial presence in the household is Faye (Laima Helena Vanaga) – the sister of Judith’s late husband. It doesn’t take someone to be very perceptive to notice Judith’s annoyance at Faye ‘fussing’ around her.
Emma’s news of moving to Edinburgh with her husband leaves Judith visibly upset (who thought living two hours away from her daughter was bad enough). But it is Judith’s increasing lapse of memory that has everyone else concerned and talk of her Alzheimer’s necessitating a move to a care home meets resistance. But if Judith’s children really knew her or the root of her distress, they would realise their ‘happy family’ was built on sacrifice and the subjugation of a secondary dream.
It could be argued there will always be a disconnect between the younger generations and their forebears, because of their inability to comprehend the cultural values of yesteryear and choices that were made by those living then. Within the play, Judith’s ‘true’ nature is discussed by others, but the palpable tension that can be felt derives not from grief over her husband John, but for another ‘goodbye’ – one that was twice ultimately within her power to reverse.
As a gay woman living decades ago, Judith had to choose between her dream of being a mother and staying with the love of her life, Georgia (Libby Boyd). A side effect of her fractured memories is her ability to visually replay past events and see her younger self (played by Sophie Macdonald) interact with her late husband John (Samuel Hoult) as well as her former lover.
One of the virtues of Des Fleurs is the way that the audience’s sympathies oscillate between the characters. There are times where we can see the point of the children if we remember they are not in full possession of the facts and that they face one of the hardest of choices an adult has to make: what to do when your parent(s) exhibits dementia. However, for 75% of the time, the audience (who are privy to the bigger picture) is on the side of Judith.
Firstly, Judith is unilaterally, without her say so, being evicted from her own home for decades and the care home her children have lined up for her won’t realistically be visited by either of them. Secondly, even though it isn’t a primary consideration, there is a question of who will own the house when Judith leaves. To the casual observer, ‘getting rid of’ Judith to sell the house is a plausible motive. And finally, there is the main reason why we feel for Judith. The house contains the last resting place of Des Fleurs – the eponymous flowers that are a reminder of Georgia’s visit and Judith’s last precious memories of her. There is a saying: ‘As long as we remember a person, they’re not really gone’. But if Judith’s memory is contingent on living where she has an emotional attachment, her ‘exile’ will not only result in Georgia ‘dying’, but the grand sum of Judith’s memories and emotional core will too – leaving a hollow husk.
If Judith’s family (Emma especially) seem single-minded in their goal to relocate Judith to a ‘home’, the play shows Judith exhibiting the same trait in other matters and sometimes very curt. The most important matter, however, is what led Judith to choose having children over having an open, long-term relationship with Georgia. Judith, however, is non-plussed when Georgia says goodbye for good. Georgia’s final visit showed the couple still had chemistry and that Judith still had intense feelings for her. Yet Judith turns down Georgia’s offer to leave with her and one-year-old Emma, preferring the relationship status quo. For Georgia, having the ‘leftovers’ of Judith isn’t enough, but this points to a universal truth: if you’re the one making the decision, it’s easier to say “Goodbye” than the other person who has no leverage.
While most of Des Fleurs is played ‘seriously’, the character of Faye brings moments of levity deriving from ‘awkward’ conversations about the weather. And far from being an albatross to Judith, in her own way, Faye is the one constant source of feminine companionship in her life, hidden in plain sight and keeper of Judith’s deepest secrets…
By the play’s end, a Chekhovian ennui hangs in the air, as there is a general understanding that this is the ‘end of an era’. However, there is an absence of consensus on what’s right for the future. Such a degree of uncertainty leaves the audience to ponder on the answers and what they would do in the characters’ shoes.
© Michael Davis 2022
Des Fleurs ran at The Space Arts Centre from 25th to 29th October, with a livestreamed performance on 27th November. It returns digitally on demand on 12th November.