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Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Bernhard – Horrifying

March 9, 2022 14 comments

Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Berhnard (1979) French title: Avant la retraite. Translated by Claude Porcell (Original title: Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele)

I’m not a total novice with Thomas Bernhard’s work. I read and enjoyed Concrete, a novella I tagged as “a beautiful grumpy rant.” I’ve seen the play Elisabeth II, where Bernhard makes fun of the Austrians and their eagerness to welcome Queen Elisabeth II in Vienna. I’ve also seen André Marcon play the main role in The Theatre Maker, (Le Faiseur de théâtre, in German, Der Theatermacher.)

The three have in common the long monologues, the rants, the old cranky man irritated by everything and everyone and especially his fellow Austrian citizen. He despises them and his characters’ rants are so outrageous that they turn out funny. Berhnard has a scandalous and dry sense of humor.

I expected the same of the play Eve of Retirement, directed by Alain Françon, with André Marcon as Rudolf, Catherine Hiegel as Vera and Noémie Lvovsky as Clara. The three actors are known to be excellent, and I was keen on seeing Catherine Hiegel on stage.

The actors and the direction were incredible. You don’t have the impression that they play a role and the direction fit perfectly with the text. Nothing superfluous, it just enhanced the power of the text and boy, how uncomfortable we felt.

We’re in the 1970s, somewhere in Germany. Rudolf Höller is a ex-SS Officer lives with his two sisters, Vera and Clara. Vera is both his mother and his lover while Clara has been stranded in a wheelchair since the war. She’s bullied by her incestuous siblings. The play happens on a single day, the 7th of October, the most important day of the year for Rudolf as they celebrate Himmler’s birthday. He’s Rudolf’s hero and everything must be perfect. This year is even more special as Rudolf is retiring from his position as president of the tribunal of their Land.

The nausea starts right away in the first act. There are only Vera and Clara on stage and as Vera describes the preparations of the clandestine festivities of the day, the spectator’s mood sets to horror. Vera casually points out how she gave their deaf-and-dumb servant her day off and why it is mandatory for them to only have deaf-and-dumb servants. They can’t afford anyone to know what’s going on in their house.

The horror grows as the play unfolds: the special diner in Himmler’s memory reenacts the “good old days”. Vera carefully closes all the curtains so that no one can peak in and see the décor of their living room for the evening. They are in hiding, well aware that their continuous fidelity to Nazi ideas is not proper anymore.

Vera chatters away, thinking ahead of all the details needed for Rudolf to have a perfect evening. She lovingly irons Rudolf’s Nazi uniforms. She’s serious when she explains to Clara that she should be happy that this year she doesn’t have to wear a deportee’s uniform. The word vomiting that comes out of her mouth is terrifying and yet normal for her. The sideration grows as Rudolf comes out as a human monster. He has absolutely no remorse, remembers with Vera how he hid during ten years in their basement, until the authorities stopped looking for him, how he changed his name and became the respected president of the tribunal.

Clara is the only sane person in the household and she’s at her siblings’ mercy because she can’t live on her own. It is awful to enter into the intimacy of a man who sleeps with his sister and is nostalgic of the Nazi regime.

As always, Bernhard writes to rip off all illusions and to show facts in their naked ugliness. Indeed, this play is based on true facts. He hates hypocrisy and bending to social standards. He wants to dismiss false historical narrative and put people in front of their actual responsibilities.

Bernhard’s play shows what a true Nazi is and why this word shouldn’t be used lightly to qualify someone or another country’s political regime. Words have a meaning. Rudolf is both ruthless and childish, which painfully reminds us that inhuman behaviors are one side of humanity’s coin.

Paintings, theatre, music and books.

December 12, 2021 29 comments

As the pandemic once again rears its ugly head, I feel like the last few weeks of activities have been on borrowed time. I’ve been to a wonderful museum-thon in Paris with my girlfriends. We managed to pack four exhibitions and a theatre play in a two-day stay in the capital. How I love Paris. There’s no other city like Paris, except maybe Rome.

Our first visit was to my favorite museum, the Musée Jacquemart-André. It is boulevard Haussmann, where Proust used to live and where the great department stores always make me think of Ladies’ Paradise by Zola.

At the moment, the museum hosts an incredible exhibition, Botticelli, artist and designer. I’m not a great art connoisseur but I’ve never stared at a painting in awe as much as I have in front of The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. No printed or screen reproduction can give justice to the colors that leap out of the canvas, the fineness of the fabrics or the details in the hair and jewels. Look at his Portrait of young woman, (La Belle Simonetta in French.) *sighs with happiness*

We had lunch at the museum’s café which makes you think that Robert de Saint-Loup might stride into the room at any time for a chat with Marcel.

Different museum, different painter and a leap across the centuries: a major Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Centre Pompidou.

I always find this museum rather cold with its modern architecture and it has the worst waiting line management I’ve ever seen. The exhibition was worth the hassle though as they displayed paintings from all of O’Keeffe’s career. I’ve been to her museum in Santa Fe, so her work wasn’t new to me. We all know about her colorful and flower paintings and her later New Mexico period. I thought about books by Hillerman, Doss and Kingsolver.

Taos Pueblo by Georgia O’Keeffe.

I also enjoyed her New York paintings. They reminded me of Manhattan Transfer by Dos Passos and I wanted to hop on a plane and to go New York.

East River from the Sheldon Hotel by Georgia O’Keeffe.

The day after, we visited the Fondation Louis Vuitton that currently hosts an exhibition about the Morozov collection. It’s like the Barnes collection, for Russia. It is the first time that that this impressive collection of Impressionist art travels abroad. The Morozov brothers, born around the same time as Marcel Proust, bought paintings from all the major artists of the time. I discovered several Russian painters I’d never heard of and was grateful to know, like Valentin Serov who painted this portrait of Morozov.

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov

He’s leaning towards us, as if he were going to speak to us. I’d never heard of Aleksandr Golovin, Konstantin Korovin, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Natalia Goncharova or Ilya Mashkov and it was a marvelous discovery.

We went out of the museum, stars in our eyes. What do we owe to these art afficionados who collected paintings and sometimes helped painters survive! I am grateful for the Morozov, Vollard, Barnes or Shchukin of this world. And also to the Jacquemart-André who left their town house and their art collection to be a museum.

Our trip to the Musée d’Orsay brought us to another art collection, this time by Paul Signac. This is him, on his boat, painted by Théo Van Rysselberghe.

En mer, portrait de Paul Signac by Théo Van Rysselberghe

Signac owned up to 400 paintings, thanks to his family’s money and through exchanges. His collection favors Impressionism, Fauvism and Divisionism.

Between the Morozov and the Signac collection, I came across several painting of my favorite area of the French Riviera, the Estérel massif and the Maures massif. It brought me back to holidaying there, hiking in the hills with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, the scent of warm pine needles and other aromatic plants mixed with the iodine from the sea, the heat of the sun and the sound of cicadas.

Les roches rouges de l’Estérel by Louis Valtat

Although we had been on our feet all day, our evening was at the Théâtre Hébertot to see The Importance of Being Earnes by Oscar Wilde. The Théâtre Hébertot is one of the old theatres of Paris. It dates back to 1838 and was named the Théâtre des Batignolles at the time.

Maybe Lucien de Rubempré and Oscar Wilde went there, and Balzac and Hugo. There’s always a kind of magic to see plays in old theatres, as if the generations of spectators and actors had left their imprint on the walls and in the air.

The play was directed by Arnaud Denis, Evelyne Buyle and Olivier Sitruk.

I had read the play and knew we couldn’t go wrong with Wilde and no matter how many kilometers we in our feet, we wouldn’t fall asleep in the theatre. Happy to report I was right.

Everything was perfect: the text, of course, served by a vivid production and an excellent set of actors. Their acting did justice to Wilde’s sense of humor. He’s quick at repartee and the actors’ tone and acting enhanced the text beautifully. It’s French vaudeville laced with Irish sense of humor and the mix is explosive. I wonder if Wilde thought about The Game of Love and Chance by Marivaux when he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. There are similarities in the devices used in the two plays: quiproquos, change of identity and the question of honesty between lovers.

We laughed, we felt energized and had an amazing time.

Literature was also on my mind when I went the concert of Stephan Eicher, a Swiss German singer who was very famous in the early 1990s.

His album Engelberg, sang in English, French and German, was a huge success in France in 1991. This was the tour that partly celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of this album and like most of the audience in the theatre, I bought when it went out.

I loved this album and the songs in French written by Philippe Djian who is probably my favorite living French writer. He started to be famous in the 1980s with novels like 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), Echine and Maudit Manège. The songs Déjeuner en paix and Pas d’ami (comme toi) are representative of the atmosphere of Djian’s books at the time.

I was in my teenage years and Djian’s books were something new. First book with a gay couple in a book whose focus was not homosexuality. They happened to be gay, that’s all. First book with a man and woman as best friends. A lot of references to American literature, happening at the time 10:18 started to publish a lot of American writers in paperbacks, thanks to their director Jean-Claude Zylberstein. On top of this, this friendship between Eicher and Djian, some sort of modern Montaigne and La Boétie. They are still friends and Djian wrote the lyrics of Eicher’s latest album in 2019.

This concert was a trip down to memory lane, a sunny path surrounded by good music, lots of reading and bonding with my Mom over Eicher and Djian. My love for American literature started there, with a French writer who worships Carver and a publisher who brought Jim Harrison and many others to French readers. Maybe it’s time for a reread of Echine or Maudit Manège.

I hope that vaccines continue to do their jobs to give a bit of respite and leave us a rather free access to culture because we really need all the beauty we can get in this world, be it brought by artists born 500 years ago or by contemporary ones. Happy Sunday everyone!

Theatre: The Island of Slaves by Pierre de Marivaux

November 1, 2021 19 comments

During a weekend in Paris, I had the opportunity to go the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse and see The Island of Slaves by Marivaux, directed by Didier Long. It is a play written in 1725 and one of the most widely studied in French schools. I couldn’t find any free online translation, so you’ll have to make do with my translation of quotes.

The opening of the play is the outcome of a shipwreck. Iphicrate and his valet Arlequin, Euphrosine and her maid Cléanthis run aground an island. Iphicrate and Euphrosine are two Athenian noblemen. Iphicrate soon understands that they have arrived on The Island of Slaves.

The leader of the island is Trivelin and he soon explains to the four castaways that on this island, new comers switch roles. Masters become servants and vice-versa.

Therefore, Iphicrate becomes Arlequin’s valet and they exchange their names and their clothes to make it more real. The same thing is done between Euphrosine and Cléanthis. The idea is to do a “live-my-life” experiment and force the masters to improve.

The rule of the island is simple and as Trivelin explains what is going to happen to the deposed noblemen.

Nous ne nous vengeons plus de vous, nous vous corrigeons ; ce n’est plus votre vie que nous poursuivons, c’est la barbarie de vos cœurs que nous voulons détruire ; nous vous jetons dans l’esclavage pour vous rendre sensibles aux maux qu’on y éprouve ; nous vous humilions, afin que, nous trouvant superbes, vous vous reprochiez de l’avoir été. Votre esclavage, ou plutôt votre cours d’humanité, dure trois ans, au bout desquels on vous renvoie, si vos maîtres sont contents de vos progrès ; et si vous ne devenez pas meilleurs, nous vous retenons par charité pour les nouveaux malheureux que vous iriez faire encore ailleurs, et par bonté pour vous, nous vous marions avec une de nos citoyennes.We don’t take revenge on you, we fix you. We are after more than your life, we want to destroy the barbary in your hearts. We throw you into slavery to make you aware of all the ills that one feels in these circumstances. We humiliate you for you to see in our arrogance your past behavior and have regrets. Your slavery, or I should say, your class in humanity will last three years. After that, we let you go if your masters are happy with your results. If you don’t improve, we keep you here, out of charity, to prevent you from doing more harm and out of kindness, we marry you to one of our citizens.

Iphicrate and Euphrosine are horrified. After they have taken their servants’ clothes, Trivelin questions Arlequin and Cléanthis to make their masters understand that they were cruel and disrespectful to their servants. While working on the masters, Trivelin also works on the servants and warns them against taking revenge and abusing of their new power.

Souvenez-vous en prenant son nom, mon cher ami, qu’on vous le donne bien moins pour réjouir votre vanité, que pour le corriger de son orgueil.My dear friend, in taking his name, remember that we give it to you more to cure him from his pride than to satisfy your vanity.

The play is a comedy and the scenes are vivid and played brightly but it deals with very serious issues.

It is not acceptable to be cruel to one’s staff. It points out that most of the masters don’t possess the qualities that they require out of their servants. The new slaves want the new masters to pity them but they can’t since their former master didn’t have any empathy for them.

The question of the servants’ behavior, now that they have the power, is important too. Trivelin explains to Arlequin and Cléanthis that they must refrain from being mean to their former masters and from inflicting on them what they had to endure. It’s hard to let go and not take advantage of one’s newly gained power.

Trivelin works on both sides. He drives the confrontation between Iphicrate and Arlequin on one side, Euphrosine and Cléanthis on the other side. He believes that people can be reformed and he will do his best for Iphicrate and Euphrosine to acknowledge their past behavior, truly understand the error of their ways and change them into better masters, better persons and people better fitted to be in power.

The play was written in 1725, 64 years before the French Revolution. It’s easy to see a political message behind it. Those in power shouldn’t humiliate their people because they never know, things might turn around. Imagine translating this in the corporate world with managers switching with their subordinates. It all comes down to a simple question: how to handle power?

In addition, Marivaux tells us that one’s worthiness shouldn’t be linked their status, their name or their position but should rely on their qualities as human being.

Il faut avoir le cœur bon, de la vertu et de la raison ; voilà ce qu’il faut, voilà ce qui est estimable, ce qui distingue, ce qui fait qu’un homme est plus qu’un autres.One must have a good heart, be virtuous and reasonable. This is what is needed, admirable and worthy. This is how a man is better than another.

I couldn’t help noticing the misogynistic tendency of the author. Iphicrate is quicker than Euphrosine to admit he was in the wrong. Arlequin is more willing to forgive his master’s past actions. The men seem to have an honest conversation, a real acceptance of their equal value as humans and reach an agreement for the future. I thought that Iphicrate had learned his lesson and that he’d change his ways when they got back to Athens.

The women seem more devious. Euphrosine is really reluctant to accept her faults. Cléanthis isn’t quite on board with “no retaliation” rule issued by Trivelin. They seem to patch things up as a façade, it’s a means to an end for Euphrosine who wants to go back home but needs Trivelin’s approval for it. Women are more fickle and pettier.

As an audience, we didn’t have the same opinion of the outcome. My husband and son thought that the noblemen were hypocrites who said what Trivelin wanted to hear in order to leave the island and go back home. In their opinion, nothing would change for the servants. I was a bit more optimistic about Iphicrate and Arlequin’s future, they seem genuine in their good resolutions.

An excellent play I highly recommend and for Tom’s pleasure if he reads this, I included the cover of one of those school editions he loves so much.

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 28 comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

Back to the theatre! Yay!!!!

September 22, 2021 14 comments

I’ve wanted to write a billet about how happy I am to be able to go the theatre again. Nothing compares to sitting in a theatre and watching a play and I missed it dearly. I usually have a subscription to the theatre in Lyon and go to ten to twelve plays during the season. In 2020-2021, almost all plays were cancelled due to the Covid crisis. As soon as the theatres reopened, I bought tickets. I hope theatres will survive these long months they had to keep their doors closed.

I started end of June in Paris, with St Ex in New York, a play written and directed by Jean-Claude Idée. In France, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is nicknamed St-Ex, hence the title of the play. It focuses on a special time in Saint-Exupéry’s life.

We’re in 1942, he’s living in New York with his wife Consuelo, who has an affair with Denis de Rougemont. Saint-Ex has an American mistress, Sylvia. He’s writing Le Petit Prince and he’s hitching to go back to France, enroll in the army and fight in the war.

The four of them fight, discuss art, writing and try to discourage St Ex to go back to Europe and risk his life at war. I didn’t know much about St Ex’s life, except for his experience as a pilot. I knew nothing about his temper, his relationship with his wife or anything else. Phew! If the play is accurate, he and Consuelo were like oil and water, fighting, making up, hurting each other and all in the name of love. The play shows a St Ex who’s not happy to be far from combat but is also pressured to give his support to the Général de Gaulle.

Le Petit Prince stems from this time and I understand that the temperamental rose is actually Consuelo in real life. The play was vivid and it showed an interesting moment in St Ex’s life.

End of August, I was in Paris again and went to see Le Cercle des Illusionnistes, written and directed by Alexis Michalik.

This play won several Molières, the most prestigious prize for theatre. Michalik has the knack for embarking you in his unique brand of storytelling. I’d already loved his Porteur d’histoires.

Le Cercle des Illusionnistes opens in 1984, it’s a football championship and Décembre steals a handbag in the metro. He contacts its owner, Avril, a pretty young lady because he wants to get to know her.

He starts telling her the story of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, watchmaker, magician and illusionist of the 19th C. He was before Houdini and invented lots of techniques that are still used by conjurors. He was also a creator of automatons, ran a theatre in the heart of Paris.

The play goes back and forth between 1984 and the 19th century and we discover Robert-Houdin, his life and his heritage. It’s the kind of play that removes you temporarily from your life, puts a smile on your face and just makes you happy. Most needed in these stressful times.

Yesterday was the beginning of my new season here at the theatre in Lyon. It opened with Skylight by David Hare, directed by Claudia Stavisky. The play dates back to 1995 and was translated into French by Dominique Hollier.

We’re in the 1990s in a poor neighborhood in London. Kyra lives in an old apartment building, it’s cold because the central heating isn’t good. Tom comes to visit her, uninvited. He’s in his fifties, a successful businessman whose company was just listed on the stock market. Kyra teaches mathematics to underprivileged children. They were lovers and Kyra left him when his wife Alice discovered their relationship. They still love each other but butt heads over their past.

They confront their present, what they want to do with their lives. Their path differed. Kyra comes from a rather wealthy background, lived and worked with Tom for a while, left him to earn a lot more and live modestly. Tom came from a poorer background and became a successful and rich businessman.

The play questions the power of love and what we can accept and compromise for it. Love isn’t enough to build a solid and healthy relationship. These two still love each other but can’t live together.

The play also explores social issues. Tom and Kyra have different stances on money. Kyra despises money in a way that only people who grew up without money worries can afford to. Tom knows better and enjoys the perks money brings him. What’s more meaningful or valuable? Teaching mathematics to underprivileged kids and help them move forward through education or founding and running a successful business that provides jobs for people? Are the two approaches irreconcilable?

Hare’s text is excellent, alternating between feeling and debating, between emotion and humor. The actors, Patrick Catalifo, Marie Vialle and Sacha Ribeiro, who plays Tom’s son were outstanding. We were in this apartment with Tom and Kyra, eager to know how things would turn out for them.

It’s a relief to resume watching plays live. Stay tuned, next week I’m going to see L’Ile des Esclaves by Marivaux, a play were masters and servants reverse their roles. 18th century magic.

Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

March 29, 2020 12 comments

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais.

In your mother’s love, life makes you a promise at the dawn of life that it will never keep. (Translated by John Markham Beach)

End of February, I spent a weekend in Paris and went to the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse to see a theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary. This is the second time I’ve seen this novel made into a play. The first version was by Bruno Abraham-Kremer and my billet about it is here.

Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was in his forties and more than a memoir, it is an homage to his overbearing Jewish mother. It has also the insight of a man who has lived several lives, had time mull over his childhood. It’s a beautiful tribute to his mother but there’s no hiding from the scars he carries from her overwhelming love. He also wrote Promise at Dawn at a crossroad of his life, he had just met and fallen in love with Jean Seberg. His married life with Lesley Blanch was about to end, just as his career as a diplomat.

Mina was quite a character, full of ambition for her son. She emigrated from Vilnius to Nice, worked hard to raise him and breathed all kind of crazy ambitions into her son’s ears. She loved France. He was to be a great Frenchman. A poet, a writer, a musician, ambassador of France, a war hero. He was destined to grandeur, she knew it, they just had to find in which field he would be famous in. Dance? Music? They settled for literature. And of course, he was to be a great lover.

She smothered him with love. She was never afraid to tell the whole world how famous her child would be. He had bad grades in math? She thought that his teacher misunderstood him. She was embarrassing and touching. She jeopardized her health for him, never complaining and he gradually discovered the sacrifices she made for him. She was a force to be reckoned with, a long-lasting fire that fueled her son his whole life.

Freiss decided upon a very sober direction. He was alone on stage. After a quick introduction to the text and his love for it, the show started. Made of literal passages from the novel carefully stitched together, the whole play focuses on the relationship between Gary and his mother Mina. Other parts of the novel are set aside, it was wise not to try to embrace it all.

Photo by Pascal Victor / ArtComPress

Freiss is Gary’s voice, turning into his mother sometimes to replay the dialogues between mother and son. There are excerpts here, in this YouTube video.  Freiss shows how Mina shaped her son, built him up, supported him, challenged him and love him enough to dare anything.

We hear Gary’s distinctive literary voice. He has this incredible sense of humor, slightly self-deprecating and pointing out the world’s absurdities, the kind of humor you find in Philip Roth’s work. Freiss adopted the appropriate ironic tone and switched to tender and emotional in the blink of an eye.

It’s an excellent ode to mothers and to literature. I’m happy I had the chance to see the play before the current lockdown. The theatre was full and probably full of Gary book lovers. Memoirs translate well into plays. The theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen was incredible. I’ve also seen an adaptation of Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, where this sociologist comes back to his hometown and blue-collar family. The direction was less intimist but lively and powerful.

The opening quote explains the title of Gary’s memoir. For a better vision of his writing, I leave you with the entire paragraph around this quote. It’s translated by John Markham Beach and he took a bit of license with the text. Since this translation dates back to 1961, there’s good chance that Gary read it and approved of it.

I’ve been on a theatre binge

January 19, 2020 11 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.

Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

December 1, 2019 11 comments

November was German Lit Month and a total miss for me. I still couldn’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz and didn’t have time to read anything else. But! I finished this month on an excellent note. I saw the play Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins, a majestic theatre in Lyon. This Life of Galileo (1938) was directed by Claudia Stavisky and Galileo was played by the great actor Philippe Torreton.

Brecht relates Galileo’s life from the moment he figures out that the Earth rotates around the sun and subsequently destroys Aristotle’s vision of the cosmos. The play shows a Galileo who unknowingly works on the foundation of modern physics by putting emphasis on experimenting and demonstrating concepts. We know what happened, the Catholic Church felt threatened. Religions in general work on the basis of certainty and “absolute thinking”. They know the truth, which automatically means that what they say can’t be challenged and those who don’t think the way they do are in the wrong. And here we have a man who preaches doubt as a way of thinking: challenge everything you take for granted, you might be surprised. It can’t go well for him. Religions also hold their sacred texts as the truth and sometimes take them literally. How to reconcile the Bible with science? That’s another question.

Brecht’s point is also that the Catholic Church is an instrument in the hands of princes and kings to keep the people under their yoke. Don’t worry if your life is miserable, you’ll go to heaven and eternal life is way longer than this earthly one, so why bother. If the Church has to acknowledge that the Aristotelian vision of the world was a mistake, then it means that what they taught was wrong. It will undermine their power on the little people’s minds.

Galileo also believed in the democratization of knowledge. He wrote books in Italian instead of Latin because he wanted them to be accessible. That was another thorn in the Church’s side. (Remember that the mass was in Latin until 1962.)

The holy trinity of theatre was met for Life of Galileo. First we have a brilliant text by Brecht, easy to follow and engrossing. Then we have Claudia Stavisky’s wonderful direction. She managed –again—to give a contemporary vibe to a text and inject liveliness in something that could have been a dry argument. (Read here how she turned a play by Corneille into a fun rom com without betraying the original text). And last but not least, we have Torreton’s exceptional acting skills. I’ve seen him several time on stage, like in I Take My Father on My Shoulders by Fabrice Melchiot or in Cyrano de Bergerac and I’m always in awe. He’s on stage as if he were in his living room. His speech seems effortless and for the public, it’s magic. We’re catapulted into the story because he sounds real, not staged.

For the anecdote, I noted two small anachronisms in the text: once a character mentions “cm3”, when the metric system came with the French Revolution and another time, a character says “Versailles” to refer or France but Louis XIV moved permanently in Versailles in 1682 and Galileo died in 1642.

So, if you’re in France and you see La vie de Galilée in your theatre, hurry up and buy tickets for this play, it even has subtitles in English. As far as German Lit Month is concerned, maybe I should stick to reading plays, I enjoy Brecht and Bernhard.

Earlier in the theatre season, I also saw The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. (In French, it’s translated as Les Sorcières de Salem). Miller wrote this play in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism. While I disliked the hysterical parts when the witches behave as if they were possessed, the process leading to the wrongful condemnation of twenty innocent people was implacable.

The play shows what happens when people are impervious to objective reasoning. It explores how quickly a community becomes suspicious and falls under the spell of people who are affirmative, who shout louder than the others and stir up our basest instincts.

It also pictures well how greed comes into the equation and how the witch hunt becomes an opportunity to put one’s hands on someone’s property. The play dissects the fight between Reason and Religious Belief. Here, Religion presses the buttons of intellectual laziness: nothing needs to be challenged and the scriptures are always right. Plus, you have to believe first and think after. The Crucible shows how difficult it is for sensible thinking to engage swords with objective reasoning. The mechanics of the trial is unstoppable and until the end, the spectator of the 21st century expects that the truth wins, that such a blatant mistake cannot be hold as the truth. But of course, that’s not what happened.

These two plays echo with our times. Social networks are an open agora where everyone’s opinion has the same weight. Opinions are the great influencers of our century. How long will real journalists and honest scientists have voices strong enough to be heard over the mayhem of unruly tweets and intellectual dishonesty? Seen from my European corner, the battle seems lost in the US. Sandwiched between an opinionated trash TV, a president who spouts nonsenses on a daily basis and loud fundamentalist Christians, is there room left for rational thinking? If Galileo came to visit the 21st century, wouldn’t he be distraught to see creationism taught in some schools?

But Europe is not out the woods either. These are hot topics here too. The fact that theatre directors pick these plays proves that it is a preoccupation. J’accuse, the film about the Dreyfus Affair made 0.8 million of entries in two weeks. (4th in the French box office) It is the breathtaking relation of the Dreyfus trial and the long way to his rehabilitation. It sure doesn’t show France into a favorable light, something Proust describes thoroughly under the apparent lightness of society life. Zola and Voltaire are pillars of our national Pantheon because they fought for someone trialed and condemned, not fort their acts but due to the biased functioning of the courts. Dreyfus for Zola, Calas for Voltaire. J’accuse coming out in 2019 is not a coincidence. We see extremists raise their ugly heads again and it is a cold reminder of what happens when they worm themselves into the workings of administrations.

It all comes down to safeguarding the concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille – A rom com from the 17th century

May 26, 2019 5 comments

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille (1634)

Yes, you have read the title of this post correctly. I put Corneille and “rom com” in the same sentence. I know the guy is mostly known for verses like O rage! O despair! O inimical old age! Have I then lived so long only for this disgrace? (*) Corneille, the classic playwright is not exactly famous for being fun. But La Place Royale, written in 1634, three years before Le Cid is definitely a rom com.

Let me you tell why and describe this play in modern words. Once you dust off the alexandrines, forget about the old-fashioned language, the weird names, you start picturing a rom com. First of all, the plot is paper-thin and is all about “he/she wants me, he/she wants me not.”

Alidor is dating Angélique. Cléandre is Alidor’s BFF and has a secret crush on Angélique. He hides it by hanging out with Phylis, Angélique’s BFF. Doraste, Phylis’s brother is pining for Angélique, who knows it and has no patience for it.

Alidor and Angélique have been dating for a year and need to take their relationship to the next stage, which means marriage in the 17th century. But Alidor is a commitment phoebe and is totally freaking out. He needs a plan to get out of this relationship without breaking up because he can’t find a reason to break up except the fact that he doesn’t want to be tied up forever to one woman.

His brilliant idea is to find his replacement in Angélique’s heart. No harm, no foul, she’ll move on and be happy with someone else and Alidor will be free. And who can you ask to take that bullet for you? Your BFF, of course. Cléandre is happy to oblige as he gets the girl in the end.

Alidor puts his stupid scheme into motion and of course, nothing goes according to plan. He makes Angélique believe that he cheated on her and he pisses her off enough for her to reject him. Cléandre is on board, ready to woo and win her.

As Angélique feels vulnerable after Alidor’s betrayal, Phylis steps in and gives Doraste an opening. The poor guy becomes Angélique’s rebound. He’s on the verge of marrying her when Alidor realizes that he can’t lose her and convinces her to leave Doraste the night before their wedding and elope.

The elopement goes wrong, Cléandre ends up kidnapping Phylis and they discover they are very much in love with each other. They have their HEA. Doraste decides he deserves better that being a rebound and is happy to leave Angélique to Alidor. That’s when you remember you are in a French 17th century comedy  and not in a Hollywood sugary movie because Alidor and Angélique do not have their HEA. He doesn’t put his head out of his ass soon enough to get the girl, she doesn’t forgive him, she swears off men forever and makes it final by joining a convent.

See? Almost a teen movie. And the characters seem to come out of an American rom com.

We have the central power couple, Alidor and Angélique.

Alidor is more than annoying, he’s a jerk. He makes speeches and babbles about fading beauty and fickle love. He raves about his precious freedom and how he doesn’t want to give it up. But he’s also a giant coward who doesn’t have the guts to be honest with Angélique and would rather weave a tangled web of deception than make a clean break.

Angélique is more mature than her boyfriend. She knows she’s in it for the long haul, she loves him and doesn’t play games. She’s genuine, devastated when their relationship ends but she’s not desperate. More importantly, she’s not a doormat.

Cléandre is the classic BFF. He’s second best to Alidor who seems to be the biggest fish in their dating pond. He won’t do anything about Angélique because she’s dating his friend but he’s happy to take on Alidor’s offer to take his leftovers if he gets Angélique.

Phylis is probably the most interesting character of the play. She’s outspoken and wild. She’s a shameless flirt, treating every beau the same way, not getting attached to any of them. We’re in the 17th century and she argues that she’d better not fall in love with anyone because in the end, her father will dispose of her and marry her off to the man he chooses and not to the man she loves. She’s protecting herself against heartbreak.

Doraste is the good guy, the one who will nurse a sore heart in the end.

So, we have the typical characters of a rom com but we also have some of the key scenes. The boy talk between Angélique and Phylis. The wallowing-in-my-misery scene in Angélique’s bedroom. The only reason why she wasn’t binging on Ben & Jerry is because it wasn’t invented yet. The plotting scenes between the Alidor and Cléandre. The opening scene where Alidor gets cold feet and decides to get out of his relationship.

Even the French vocabulary of the time matched today’s American ways. I hate the expressions she/he is mine, I belong to him/her. We don’t say that in French anymore but in Corneille’s time, we did. And that’s the most infuriating part of this play. It callously shows that women are properties, goods to be exchanged between males. Nobody should belong to anybody but themselves.

Phylis chooses to giver herself freely and her attitude is the most modern of the play. And more importantly, Corneille doesn’t judge her for it. He gives her speaking time in his play to explain why her frivolous way are a defense mechanism. It’s her attempts at regaining some power over her body and her life before she has to give in to her father’s decision. Women don’t decide for themselves. The only decision they can make is to enter a convent.

I found that Corneille was more progressive than I thought. Molière was the progressive one for me, not Corneille. The women in La Place Royale are not deceitful creatures who play games. They are the honest and mature characters. The men are the ones who, in a way, have all the flaws usually attached to female characters: they don’t play fair, they toy with feelings, they lack courage. Corneille shows compassion and empathy for the women of his time.

I have seen La Place Royale at the Théâtre des Célestins. It was directed by the brilliant Claudia Stavisky. She casted young comedians who reminded us how young the characters of the play are. Their acting was lively and right from the boy talk scene between Angélique and Phylis, I knew I would love this play the way Claudia Stavisky staged it. They brought the alexandrines to life, they moved around like 21st century people and it worked. They played in such a way that it felt like a contemporary play without betraying the original. The modernity of Corneille’s play pops out and I never knew Corneille could be so funny. I went into the theatre, tired by a gruesome week at work and hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep on Corneille’s alexandrines. Stavisky’s direction of the play kept me awake, amused and I had a grand time.

For French readers, if this comes to your city, rush for it and buy tickets. Highly recommended.

___________

(*) Le Cid by Pierre Corneille (1637) translation by Roscoe Mongan.

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 10 comments

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

Theatre: I Took My Father On My Shoulders by Fabrice Melquiot – a contemporary play

April 20, 2019 4 comments

I’ve been swamped by work lately and I didn’t have time to share my thoughts about three theatre plays worth seeing.

The first one is J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules by Fabrice Melquiot, directed by Arnaud Meunier. (I Took My Father On My Shoulders) It’s a contemporary play, written for this director. The author and the director wanted to produce a play about the French working class and today’s France.

We are in a council flat in a suburb. Roch lives with his grownup son Enée. They are unaware that they are both involved with their gorgeous neighbor, Anissa. She loves both men and can’t make her mind between the two.

After an introduction by Anissa, the play opens on a scene where Roch comes home and said he bought some meat as it was on sale and now, they have to cook it. A banal scene in appearance but Roch’s clothes, the décor of the apartment and the fact that meat is rarely affordable tell us that we are in a poor household. The two men barely make ends meet. They get along fine, have a good father and son relationship and Roch is like Enée’s rock.

So, when Roch calmy announces that he has cancer, Enée is shaken up. The play depicts Roch’s illness, his relationship with Enée, Anissa, his friend Grinch and their neighbors Bakou, Céleste and Mourad. We are in a banlieue, with its council flats, its kebab restaurant and its inhabitants of mixed origins.

Photo by Sonia Barcet

They represent today’s French society. A black woman, Céleste. A Muslim of North African origin, Mourad. An older man with his loneliness, Grinch. They have low paid jobs. They feel left behind, not represented by politicians and institutions anymore. They make do and hope for a better future, as far as Anissa and Céleste are concerned. Even if it’s not easy. Grinch is crippled by loneliness and there’s a very moving scene where he explains how he’ll find himself a nice woman to live with.

Roch’s health deteriorates and this patched up family knits a love and friendship safety net around him and Enée.

It’s a powerful play, often spot on to describe today’s France. It was written before the Yellow Vest movement but the people featured in this play belong to the social class that feeds the movement. They come from the same world as the characters in the last Prix Goncourt, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Matthieu. (upcoming billet about this one) It’s as if the French literary world rediscovered the need to give them a voice.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders is loosely based upon The Aeneid by Virgil. The title comes from the second book of The Aeneid, when Aeneas (Enée in French), leaves Troy with his father Anchises on his shoulders. Enée is not a common name in French and if a character is named like that, it’s an obvious reference to Virgil. Like The Aeneid, the play is split in two parts. The first one tells Roch’s fight against cancer and the second is about a trip that Enée will take with his father. I thought that the second part was weaker than the first and that it was superfluous. But that’s a minor flaw.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders could have been bleak but it’s not because the friendship and love between the characters make up for the gloom brought by Roch’s cancer. The text is empowered by a company of excellent actors. Philippe Torreton plays Roch and he’s a natural, the trademark of a great actor. He never shouts but is always heard. He speaks on stage like he’s chatting with friends but has a perfect diction. I go to the theatre frequently. I’ve come to the conclusion that outstanding actors are the ones who are on stage and don’t seem to be acting. You watch them and it’s like they’re living their real life.

Torreton isn’t the only gifted actor here. Rachida Brakni, who plays Anissa is excellent as usual. Vincent Garanger is a true to life Grinch. Maurin Ollès holds his own as Enée, a character often on stage with the master Torreton. The other young actors Federico Semedo, Bénédicte Mbemba and Riad Gahmi were on a par with the more seasoned actors. (And it must be intimidating to play with Torreton and Brakni)

Even if it was a little too long, I Took My Father On My Shoulders is a good play written by a living playwright and for a director who wanted to bring our attention to a certain part of the population. It’s served by an excellent set of actors. For French readers, if this play is on tour in your city, it’s worth buying tickets.

Theatre : a crime fiction vaudeville and a musical fantasy

February 24, 2019 8 comments

I just love going to the theatre. There’s something incredible about seeing actors perform live and imagine all the practice, constant organization and talent to direct a play and be on stage night after night. I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon but I also go to other theatres when I have the chance.

 

I had the opportunity to go to Paris and stay a night. I booked a seat at the Théâtre Le Palace to go and see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. (2016) translated into French as Le gros diamant du Prince Ludwig. This comedy originally created in London won the Molière prize for Best Comedy in 2018.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a crime-fiction vaudeville. Yes, this genre exists. Its playwrights have also written The Play That Goes Wrong, a disaster whodunnit I had the pleasure to see at the Théâtre Saint-Georges, also in Paris. At the time, it helped me realize what a well-oiled machine a theatre play must be.

Set in Minneapolis in 1958, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery has a rather simple plot. The Prince Ludwig of Hungary is coming to Minneapolis to retrieve the big diamond he left in the custody of the city’s bank. The perspective of this huge diamond whets the appetite of the local criminals, confirmed or amateur. Take Mitch, who escapes from prison with Cooper in order to steal this priceless diamond. His first stop in Minneapolis is for his lover Caprice, the daughter of the bank’s director. She’s a crook who lives off her charms, not as a hooker but more as a kept woman. When Mitch arrives, she had just sunk her claws into a new prey, Dave. He’s a lowly pick-pocket whose mother Ruth works as a teller at the bank but she thinks he’s rich and has a bright future.

Imagine a play where Dalton-like characters try to rob a bank. Ruth looks like a provincial Marylin Monroe. She and Caprice are the femmes fatales of the play, Ruth using of her charms on the bank security team and Caprice manipulating Mitch, Dave and her father’s long-life intern.

The whole thing is farcical with all the usual tricks of a laugh-out-loud comedy. The production was innovative, especially for the scene where Mitch, Cooper, Caprice and Dave are in the ventilation ducts, trying to find out where the strongroom is. It’s fast-paced, funny, full of mistaken identities and people hiding in faulty fold-up beds and cupboards. It respects the codes of crime fiction with the guy embarked in criminal activities for the sake of a woman (Dave), a hardened criminal on the run, ready for anything except failure and going back to jail. (Mitch) The parallel work of two femme fatales from two different generations, middle-aged Ruth and young Caprice, keeps the action going. You never get bored with this entertaining play, its twists and turns and characters that are so stupid that they are hilarious.

Highly recommended if you’re looking for an evening of fun. It’s still on at the Théâtre Le Palace in Paris and it’s on tour in Ireland and the UK. It’s appropriate for children too.

The week after, I booked seats to see Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat by and with Ivan Gouillon, produced by the Théâtre Comédie Odéon in Lyon. (I looked it up, there are more than fifty theatres in the Lyon area).

According to its program, Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat is a musical fantasy. Accompanied by a pianist, Igor the Magnificent tells his story as an artist on transatlantic cruises, starting with how he survived the Titanic shipwreck. Our mythomaniac but friendly narrator takes us through the twentieth century, mentioning Proust, Churchill, Fitzgerald and others. He seems to have survived all the great shipwrecks of the century, befriended people who became famous and unintentionally inspired masterpieces and political events. I bet you didn’t know that The Great Gatsby was meant to be The Great Igor but since Igor and Fitzgerald had fall-out, Fitzgerald eventually changed the character’s name. The whole show is like this, taking us down memory lane with a pleasant character who obviously lies but is still charming. There are a lot of famous songs in the show illustrating the times Igor is telling us about. They are standards the public knows well and we spend quite a pleasant evening in Igor’s company. He’s a cabaret artist, mixing singing and comedy.

It’s a feel-good show. Igor’s story is unrealistic and his adventures are deliciously farfetched. He’s probably nothing more than a bathroom singer who dreams a little too much. But he takes us with him on this fanciful journey, leaving our worried at the theatre door to sing along with him.

Next theatre episode will be: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Theatre: Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes. Simply brilliant

October 21, 2018 9 comments

Scapin the Schemer by Molière. (1671) Original French title: Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Theatre evenings have resumed! My season started beautifully with a version of Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes and played by actors from the Comédie-Française.

For foreigner readers, a few lines about La Comédie-Française. It’s an institution, a theatre founded by Louis XIV in 1680. Molière had died in 1673 but it is still considered as his legacy, as Molière’s house. According to Wikipedia, it is the oldest still-active theatre in the world. It works differently from others with actors being permanent members of the troupe. It’s prestigious to be a member of this troupe.

La Comédie-Française is in Paris, of course but the troupe has been touring in Province this autumn and I had the chance to see their latest version of Scapin the Schemer. It’s one of the last plays Molière wrote in 1671. At the time, his usual theatre was closed for renovations and he wrote this play in prose for the good people of Paris and not for the court of Louis XIV.

It’s a comedy, based on the commedia dell’arte tradition. Octave and Léandre are two young men. Octave has secretly married Hyacinthe and Léandre is in love with Zerbinette. Their respective fathers Argante and Géronte were together on a business trip and now they are back. They have decided that it would strengthen their business if Octave married Géronte’s daughter. Problem? Octave has married Hyacinthe without his father’s consent and Léandre doesn’t know how to break the news about Zerbinette to his old man.

That’s where Scapin comes in. He’s Léandre’s valet and well-known for his audacious schemes. If he sets his mind on helping the two young men, he might just solve all their problems.

Scapin the Schemer is one of Molière’s most famous plays. It’s also one of the easiest ones. We usually read it in school when were twelve or thirteen and it’s often our first Molière. It’s a comedy of errors where Scapin lies to Argante and Géronte to get some money from them to help their sons’ love lives. He manipulates the two old men for his young masters’ sake but also seeks some revenge for himself. It’s the play with the famous Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère ? (What the devil was he doing in that galley ?)

Denis Podalydes has made a masterful production of Scapin the Schemer. I’ve seen it before and it was set in a house. Podalydes decided to set the story in the Naples harbor, where it is actually set in the play. It’s a 17thC classic French theatre play: there’s one location, one plot and one timeline. The décor of the harbor was sober and allowed a lot of movement and range of action to the actors.

Les Fourberies de Scapin, Scénographie Eric Ruff © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

Podalydes thrived to give the play its original feeling. It was written for the small people and destined to be played on the street. It was not meant to be played in a silent theatre and the atmosphere was probably closer to Guignol than to anything else. Podalydes recreated that, making Scapin interact with the audience, making us participate to his cockiest scheme when he beats the hell of Argante.

The costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix and were the right mix of 17th century fashion and contemporary sobriety so that they did not get in the actors’ way.

And as for the acting, it was perfect. Benjamin Lavernhe was magnificent in Scapin. He had everything: the quick pace of a scoundrel, a perfect diction, facial expressions to make the public laugh out loud. He managed to blend contemporary moves into the 17th century text and story. Gilles David was Argante and Didier Sandre was Géronte. They were excellent in their interpretation of two frustrated fathers who see their plans derailed by their unruly sons.

Gilles David (Argante) face à Benjamin Lavernhe (Scapin) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

The whole play was alive with raw energy, giving back what I think was Molière’s goal: to make a great spectacle for everyone with comical twists and turns. Podalydes managed to bring us back to the original spirit of the play and spectators were grinning in the corridors of the theatre when they left the premises.

Last but not least for us in Lyon. The Théâtre des Célestins is one of the oldest Italian theatres in France, along with La Comédie-Française and the Théatre de l’Odéon. It has been operating for more than 200 years. It was a treat to see this play with this troupe that perpetuates Molière’s spirit in this old theatre.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

Theatre : George Dandin by Molière

March 18, 2018 11 comments

George Dandin by Molière (1668)

George Dandin is a play by Molière, created in 1668, the same year as L’Avare (The Miser) and Amphitryon. It’s a comedy about George Dandin, a rich peasant who married Angélique, the daughter of an impoverished gentleman, Monsieur de Sotenville. They wanted the match for the money, he wanted it to become a gentleman. It’s a miserable marriage for him because his parents-in-law despise him and Angélique was forced to marry him. They humiliate him any time they want and Angélique is being courted by a neighboring gentleman, Clitandre. He slips her love notes (billets doux!) through their respective servants, Claudine and Lubin. George Dandin learns about the affair and tries to make his parents-in-law aware of their daughter’s behavior but each time he tries, the tables are turned against him and it only results in more humiliation for him.

Molière wrote a comedy with a dark side that leaves no character unscathed.

Molière is not kind for Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. They are small nobility from the country, like the Bennets or the Lucas. They are ruined and their situation was dire enough to accept this marriage. They are insufferable snobs, they are sure that their linage and the good education of their daughter are intangible assets that have more value than Dandin’s very tangible properties. Seeing how petty and narrowminded they are, how flirtatious her daughter is, I’m not sure their asset would successfully pass any impairment test. They certainly don’t throw any goodwill in the transaction. They are conceited and vapid, relying on their daughter’s purity to secure their financial future. When you come down to it, they’re not so different from their son-in-law, selling their daughter to an older stranger as if she were rare breed of cattle.

In appearance, George Dandin is the victim of proud and insensitive noblemen that consider him as a non-entity. It’s true and I’d feel a lot sorrier for him if he weren’t an oaf. He reminded me of Charles Bovary. His wife and her parents show him no respect but his attitude doesn’t concur to a change of heart on their side. He’s loud, brutal sometimes and totally lacks finesse. He’s dealing with people for whom appearances, customs and traditions are crucial, their only asset, the only thing they have left. Instead of playing the game and respect the rules, he doesn’t want to change. But then, what was the real aim of his marriage? You’d think he’d want to absorb anything he can from his wife’s family to try to fit in his new social class, a pass he paid a steep price. Not at all. He lacks social intelligence and instead of learning the codes of his new milieu, he wants Angélique to fit in. Instead of taking the social elevator up, he wants his wife to hop in the carriage with him and take the lift down.

This play was first shown in Versailles, in front Louis XIV and the court. I suppose Molière had to create a ridiculous parvenu. It would have been too harsh on the nobility if the man they constantly humiliate was good and intelligent.

Molière drew up Angélique as a cunning and frivolous young woman. She gets around her husband’s back and is ready to anything to keep on seeing Clitandre. She’s unfaithful and doesn’t hesitate to lie to his face, to her parents and let them humiliate Dandin. But Molière is fair to her as he lets her speak her heart and tell that she didn’t want this marriage. Nobody asked for her opinion, her parents married her off to the highest bidder and her wishes and happiness were never taken into consideration. Does she have to live the rest of her life buried in a house with an older husband she never chose? I thought that it was very modern of Molière to point out how society treated women.

The lover, Clitandre, is also a living proof that good manners don’t always go with a good personality. He uses his good manners to ridicule Dandin and his title as a viscount to silence Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. And he’s hitting on a married woman which is immoral in itself. But in his eyes, is she really married ? Dandin is such a non-entity for him that he probably doesn’t think it’s dishonorable to court her.

Dandin is considered and treated as a citizen of second zone. Actually, in this era, the idea of “citizen” didn’t exist. The concept became popular during the French Revolution. Going out of the theatre, the violence toward Dandin was such that I couldn’t help thinking “Not surprising that 120 years after, the Sotenville of this world had their heads cut off”. We have racism, antisemitism, sexism, homophobia but I don’t think we have a word to qualify the action of writing someone off because they come from a lower social class. The Dandins of the world are dismissed. The idea that they could be intelligent, kind and worthy of acquaintance never crosses the Sotenvilles’ minds. Try to imagine a girl from high bourgeoisie bringing home someone from a lower income neighborhood. See if they behave well to this newcomer.

George Dandin is a thought-provoking play and as often with Molière, these deeper thoughts are wrapped up in comedy. It’s fun, in the text and in the comedy of manners. It’s a lively play even if it’s terribly sad.

The names of the characters enforce the comic side of the play. Angélique is far from angelic. Her parents are named de Sotenville, which could be translated as Sir / Lady Sillytown. In the 15th century, a dandin is a simpleton who has no composure, something the audience knew and something that fits George Dandin like a glove. He also gets knighted as George de la Dandinerie after his marriage, which means something like Sir George the Strutter. Since être le dindon de la farce (literally, to be the turkey of the farce or in good English, to be the fall guy) evokes what happens to George Dandin and seeing how turkeys walk…

I saw a very good version of this play. It was directed by Jean-Pierre Vincent. Dandin was dressed as a would-be nobleman, with an outfit that seemed to match Molière’s costume for this role. (He was the first Dandin and the description of his clothes was found) Vincent Garanger was an excellent George Dandin, with a great acting palette. His impersonation of the character felt right, not excessive, with the appropriate touch of pathetic, obnoxious and stupid. The other members of the cast were well in their roles as well. The two domestics brought out the comic in their scenes, bringing lightness to alleviate this George Dandin bashing.

Three theatres, three plays

March 3, 2018 10 comments

As regular readers know, I love going to the theatre and I have a subscription at my local theatre. I choose the plays early in June for the next season. Needless to say, unless the play is a classic or based upon a novel I know, I never remember what I’m going to see when I go to a play I scheduled so many months before. Keep this in mind.

My local theatre, Le Théâtre des Célestins, has two stages, a big one à l’italienne and a small one called Célestine. Usually the big one is for classics and plays with a large audience and the small one is for contemporary plays. The big stage is this gorgeous historical stage.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

The small stage is such an intimate setting that you can almost see pimples on the actors’ faces. Keep this in mind too.

A few weeks ago, I went to see Cooking With Elvis by Lee Hall with my sister and my sixteen-years old daughter. It’s an English play with the atmosphere of the film The Full Monty, with this very British mix of social misery and comedy. In Cooking With Elvis, we’re in a broken family of three. The father who used to be an Elvis impersonator had a car accident and is now paralyzed. His (unnamed) wife and daughter Jill are left to deal with the aftermath. His wife tries to cope and to live again by being frivolous. She goes out, drinks and has one-night stands. His daughter Jill cooks all the time, trying to bring her father back by cooking his favorite meals. With such a different approach of how life should be going on, it’s not a surprise that mother and daughter fight all the time. Comes Stuart, a young guy who started as one of Mother’s fling but stuck with her and quickly moved in with the family. He was still living with his parents, his age is between daughter and mother, he’s barely more mature than teenage Jill. It is a rather sad setting with an impossible situation for the two women: the man of the family is a vegetable and there is no hope of recovery. The mother looks for affection and sex to escape her reality and as she points out, she’s only 39, her life isn’t over. Plus, her marriage wasn’t that wonderful and she’s not really missing out. Jill will have to accept that the father and Elvis impersonator she loved so much isn’t quite there any longer.

It’s sad, of course but it’s also funny. The director chose to have the father raise from his seat and sing Elvis Presley songs in all his impersonator glory. It diffused the tension and also helped seeing what Jill misses and how irritating it could have been to be married to such a man. It’s a play about sex, food and rock-and-roll.

Now, remember what I told you before about not remembering the play’s blurb, about the pimple-seeing sized stage and The Full Monty reference? Imagine you’re sitting by your daughter and this Stuart character keeps shedding his clothes on stage? Not just prancing in his boxer briefs, that would be too easy, no, showing his full package was apparently necessary. If there was any mystery left for her about male anatomy, there’s none now. I was so embarrassed I think I missed out on the fun. True, it shows well how poor Jill must have felt in real life with her mother’s lovers strutting in the apartment. But was it really necessary? So many times? And the blowjob show? Kuddos for the actor and his courage to play this character because the audience was very close. I’m so glad I wasn’t in the front rows.

I don’t think I’m a prude but I also don’t think that all this nakedness was necessary to serve Lee Hall’s play. Has anyone of you seen this play? Did the director make the same choices about the Stuart character? The topic of a family shattered by an accident was alsi the main theme of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. Same pitch totally different approach.

 

The next play I saw was in the great Italian room and it was totally different. It’s called Petit Eloge de la nuit. The publisher Folio has this collection of “Little tribute to…” and Ingrid Astier wrote about “the night”. Little Tribute to the Night is made of vignettes about the night in all its forms. It was made into a play by Gérald Garutti who chose Pierre Richard to be the narrator/actor. He’s on stage, sharing Astier’s visions of the night. Dressed in white and tanned, he looks like a explorator ready to take us to a journey into the night. It has literary references but not only. It explores what the night can be: magical, disquieting, fun and full of partying, the kingdom of dreams and nightmares, the host of our anxiety, a moment to stare at the starts, a moment to rest and think.

I wanted to see Pierre Richard on stage, he’s a marvelous actor who’s over 80. He still has a spring in his steps that I hope I’ll have if I reach that age. The direction was good, poetic at times. I thought there were too many videos and pictures on the large screen on the scene. Including videos and picture slide shows seems to be fashionable in theatre these days. Sometimes it fits well with the play and sometimes it just seems lazy. Here, I’m not sure it was always welcome but maybe it allowed Pierre Richard to rest. After all, he’s 83 and he was alone on stage. It was a lovely evening and if you’re in France, it’s worth going to see this play.

 

Last play I saw was The Rivers and the Forests by Marguerite Duras, directed by Michel Didym. It was in another theatre Les Ateliers, a small stage where the play was transferred because the Célestine was damaged by the recent floods.

Duras created three characters who meet on a street in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, a very posh neighborhood. They were on a crosswalk when a woman’s dog bit the calf of a man and another woman witnessed it. The characters aren’t named, they’re strangers that are thrown together because Zigou the dog wanted a taste of the man’s calf. They start talking and the dog’s owner would like to take the man to the Institut Pasteur were he can be tested for rabies. As the dialogue unfolds we understand that the dog’s owner killed her husband, that it’s not the first time that the dog bites a passerby and that she’s so lonely that she enjoys spending time at the Institut Pasteur where the concierge comes from the same provincial town as her. The other woman is stuck in a loveless and maybe abusive marriage and the man is also lonely.

Duras manages to show loneliness in big cities in her quirky and dry language. She also portrays two female characters who weren’t good marriage material in their parents’ eyes and who were pushed into marrying the first man who paid them a bit of attention. The fact that one was much older that their daughter or that the other was violent didn’t deter them from the match. It’s all hidden in little sentences thrown here and there, among acid jokes and apparent absurdity. But when you think back about what you’ve seen, it’s there, this statement about women’s condition in the early 1960s. (The play was written in 1964) The actors were excellent. Charlie Nielson looked like he has been picked from a 1950s movie. Brigitte Catillon and Catherine Matisse were perfect impersonations of 16th arrondissement bourgeoises. The set was nicely put, an exact replica of a Parisian street. My daughter was with me this time too: no naked men to report, only a cute dog.

Next play is Georges Dandin by Molière. A safe bet. (I hope. But you never know. I once saw a Hamlet version where the actor ended up naked too)

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