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I’ve been on a theatre binge

January 19, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s time to have a little chat about theatre as I’ve been on a theatre binge lately. I’ve seen four plays in a month.

The first one was Vie de Joseph Roulin by Pierre Michon, directed and played by Thierry Jolivet.

I’ve never read Pierre Michon but I know he’s a praised French writer. When I picked this play, I thought it would be the opportunity to discover a new author. The theme of the book is interesting: Joseph Roulin is the postman in Arles who befriended Van Gogh. (His portray is now at the Boston Art Museum) Michon explores the friendship between the two men, who were drinking companions at the local café. Roulin was not an educated man and knew nothing about art. Van Gogh was his friend and a painter, a poor one. He didn’t know he was living next to a genius and the text questions who gets to decide that an artist is good or not and when. That’s the idea and it’s a fascinating topic to explore.

Unfortunately, Michon’s text is too bombastic for my taste. It could have been a vivid succession of scenes from the postman’s life and its interaction with the artist and his art. Jolivet chose to tell the text on a monotonous tone, like  rap music without the rhythm. Behind him, pictures of Van Gogh’s painting were projected on the wall.

Photo by Geoffrey Chantelot

It was supposed to be hypnotic, I guess it worked since I kept dozing off and so did my neighbor in the theatre. Such a waste of a good idea. The text and the direction were a lethal combo for me, I disliked both.

Fortunately, the second one was Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï by Fabcaro, directed by Paul Moulin and it was a blast.

How do you make a BD* into a theatre play? Paul Moulin did it marvelously. Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï is a man hunt in a dystopian world. A BD author, Fabcaro’s doppleganger, forgot his loyalty card at the supermarket. Before security takes him away, he runs away and becomes the most wanted man in France. Everything about this man hunt is absurd and huge fun. (For more details, see my previous billet here.)

Paul Moulin used a very efficient trick to transpose the BD into a play: it becomes the recording of a radio show. The actors are behind lecterns, with headsets and play the different roles as if they were recording it for the radio. On the side of the stage, actors do the sounds effects, again, as if they were recording.

It is an excellent way to transpose the atmosphere of the BD and it is hilarious. It lasts 50 minutes and the public had huge grins when they came out of the theatre. It was a wonderful moment and highly recommended to anyone and especially to teenagers, as it is a way to show them that theatre plays are not always stuffy Corneille affairs.

The next play I went to was Le Porteur d’Histoire written and directed by Alexis Michalik.

The title means The History Carrier and it was tagged as literary treasury hunt. How could I resist? It’s a contemporary play that won two Molière awards in 2014. The play opens on Martin Martin getting lost on his way to his father’s funeral. They were estranged and he never visited his father’s new house in the French Ardennes. When he takes care of his father’s belongings, he finds a mysterious notebook and an extraordinary quest will take him across continents and History.

It’s a wonderful text inspired by Alexandre Dumas and his compelling stories. I can’t tell much about the plot because it would spoil the story and the biggest charm of the play is to let yourself be taken away by the storytelling. It’s like a fairytale where some djinn takes you on a magic carpet to travel the world and live fascinating adventures. The text is an homage to the 19th century novels that were published in newspapers as feuilletons, with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter to push the reader to by the next newspaper. And it works.

The direction is a tour de force. The spectator is thrown in different places, in different times and follows the story with eagerness, wondering where it will take them to. It lasts more than one hour and a half and I was captivated from the beginning to the end. This is another the kind of play to take teenagers to, to give them the theatre bug.

The next play scheduled in my theatre subscription was Lewis versus Alice, adapted from Lewis Carroll by Macha Makeïeff. The play is a succession of scenes that alternate between key passages from Lewis Carroll’s works and moments of the writer’s life. Macha Makeïeff showed us how Carroll transposed some of his life’s traumatic experiences into literature. The show went back and forth between his literary world and his life, including his sad years at Rubgy, his questionable attachment to Alice Liddell and his work as a teacher. The play showed Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man hidden behind his penname Lewis Carroll.

Lewis versus Alice is tagged as musical show but it’s not a musical. The cast of actors were French and English speaking natives, all speaking in both languages. Some passages were in English, repeated into French. There were songs and acrobatics. Among the cast was Rosemary Standley, the singer of Moriarty who sang two of their songs. The text used some excerpts from Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. The staging was clever, taking us from Alice’s wonderland to England in the 19th century.

Photo by Pascal Victor

It was delightful and brightly played and well-served by excellent actors/dancers/singers/acrobats. It’s a joyful show, a wonderful homage to Carroll’s imaginary world and an attempt to better understand how this man ended up telling these stories.

What’s next? Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. I expect it to be good as I’ve heard about the book and Eribon’s take on it. (It’s available in English under Returning to Reims.) I’m looking forward to it.

And guess what! There’s a new theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary and directed by Stéphane Freiss! I’d love to see it but it’s in Paris…

PS: Glossary for new Book Around the Corner’s readers: BD is a French acronym for Bande Dessinée. It is a generic word which covers comics and graphic novels.

  1. January 19, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    I will never see a play but I enjoyed these reviews. Perth has a million people but I don’t think I could see four plays in a month, well except during the Perth Festival and Fringe when I suppose I could see four in a night. Sometimes we adults forget just how well Lewis Carroll wrote, and it is always a joy to be reminded.


    • January 19, 2020 at 4:24 pm

      We, French, tend to forget how lucky we are. According to the yellow pages, there are 42 theatres in the Lyon and its suburbs. And the Métropole de Lyon has 1.3 million inhabitants. Theatre and culture still have an important place in our country.

      I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland but after seeing this play, I want to.


      • January 19, 2020 at 9:00 pm

        Yes read it, but then read Alice Through the Looking Glass which is more surreal


        • January 19, 2020 at 9:37 pm

          I didn’t know about Alice Through the Looking Glass.


  2. January 19, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    Theatre can be so magical. It’s a shame about Vie de Joseph Roulin but the others sound wonderful, and some great plays to look forward to as well!


    • January 19, 2020 at 4:26 pm

      It’s always a great pleasure to watch a theatre play. Nothing compares to seeing a play live.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. January 20, 2020 at 3:40 am

    How I envy your access to the French theatre scene. In San Francisco we’re lucky to get an occasional reprise of a Sam Shepard play or occasionally something French; otherwise we’re pretty much stuck with The Lion King. And of course it’s horribly expensive to attend theatres here, since the arts are not supported by the state (and, incredibly, the U.S. can’t even conceive of having a position like “Ministre de la Culture.” Most of the people one sees at the theatre are older and affluent. When Toni Morrison’s Desdemona played in Paris tickets were available for 12 Euro; when the same cast put it on at Berkeley Rep the price was nearly $100/person (and even the student discount tickets were something like $80).

    However, one brilliant ray of light here is the tiny theatre at the Lycée Français, where the director somehow manages to attract theatrical pieces direct from Avignon, Paris, etc. – with the original casts. And that’s how we got to see Le Porteur d’Histoire, straight from Avignon, and which I thought was terrific. We also saw a spectacular production of Joseph Kessel’s Les Cavaliers.

    Curious to know if Zai, Zai, Zai… is playing in Paris. We’ll be there for a few short days soon, but for personal reasons (good ones!) that will probably not allow us the time to go to the theatre…


    • January 20, 2020 at 9:58 pm

      We are lucky that culture is still supported by the state, even if it’s less than before. Well, lucky isn’t the right word: we accept to pay high taxes and can’t imagine a government without its Ministre de la Culture.
      I didn’t know about the theatre at the Lycée français, that’s a good opportunity to see plays. Maybe you’ll see Lewis versus Alice as it was also played at Avignon.
      I’m not sure about Zaï Zaï Zaï in Paris but I’m sure that there is La Promesse de l’aube and I heard it’s fantastic.


  4. Vishy
    January 21, 2020 at 11:25 am

    Wonderful play reviews, Emma! ‘Le Porteur d’Histoire’ looks so wonderful from your description! I want to watch that! Hope you get watch ‘Promise at Dawn’. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts.


    • January 21, 2020 at 9:40 pm

      Thanks Vishy. I really love going to the theatre.

      I’ve already seen a play adaptation of Promise at Dawn but I still want to see this one.


  1. September 22, 2021 at 9:06 am

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