A critic in every port: O brave new France Essay

Published: 2021-07-11 06:50:05
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MONTREAL: <> (Welcome them!) ran the slogan on Board of Tourism billboards and subway placards all over Montreal during this summer’s sixth Festival de Theatre des Ameriques. Even the weather complied, as the early June days were perfect for ranging over the city. At the botanical gardens the insectarium had beauty and revulsion fixed on pins. The charm of vieux Montreal was unalloyed; a highlight, the chapel of Notre Dame de Bonsecours with its St. Marguerite de Bourgeoys museum–40 miniature dioramas depicting scenes from the saint’s life in the chapel’s basement. Les Expos tossed the old horsehide around Olympic Park, but nothing could compare with the fever generated by the Canadiens du NHL. It was the occasion of the 100th anniversary of hockey’s Coupe Stanley, and the Habs were on their way to yet another crown. I left town before the riots.
Amid all this there was theatre–lots of it.
The Shakespeare cycle of Robert Lepage, the gosse prodige (that’s French for wunderkind, sort on of Canadian theatre, generated the most feverish anticipation. But a production of Roberto Zucco, a play by Bernard-Marie Koltes, was actually the crown jewel of artistic director Marie-Helene Falcon’s festival schedule. Koltes, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 41, has rarely been produced in Canada or the U.S., but a steady stream of productions in Germany and his native France (including mountings by such distinguished partisans as Peter Stein and Patrice Chereau) have earned him rank with the best French-language playwrights of the past 20 years.
For completeness of the theatrical world he creates, and for sheer force of imagination, Koltes resembles no other playwright so much as Shakespeare. (A 1988 translation of The Winter’s Tale is one of only seven full-length plays Koltes finished before his death.) His writing is at once muscular and lyrical. Fascinated by issues of social stratification, Koltes, who remained all his life a denizen of the underclass, writes characters on the fringe of society–whores, squatters, thieves, kept-women, homosexuals, immigrants and murderers.
Roberto Zucco (1989) was his last play. He based the story of the eponymous anti-hero on an actual newspaper clipping about a young man who murdered his parents. Set in a Gotham-anonymous metropolis, the play follows Zucco, literally mercurial, as he passes like water through the sieve that is the escape-proof prison where he’s been locked away for the murder of his father. From there, this boy “with the face of an angel” goes on to murder his mother, a boy in a park and a police inspector, whom he shadows around <>–the redlight district. Finally brought to justice by the betrayal of a gamine, who traded him her virginity for the knowledge of his name, Zucco ends the piece mounting to the sun and falling–an attempted escape.
Montreal’s Nouvelle Compagnie Theatrale had presented Roberto Zucco, a coproduction of Theatre Ubu and the festival, as part of its 1992-93 subscription season, so it was no wonder that Falcon’s press office was promoting it full force; they knew what they had. I was initially wary of their insistently heavy praise. In 1991 I had seen a production of Roberto Zucco at France’s National Theatre in Lyon–where, though much-ballyhooed, it proved to be woefully wrongheaded at every turn, from casting to design to mise-en-scene. But in Montreal director Denis Marleau and his gifted ensemble and production team never put a foot wrong. Sculptor Michel Goulet fashioned an atmosphere–cold and impersonal, metallic and liquid–that effectively serves the play’s fabulous disregard for convenience of setting, from prison to bordello to subway station and back to prison (to name but a handful of the dozen-odd different locales). The acting company style is boldly of a piece–presentational and finely tuned to both the poetry and the ironic humor coursing through the text. It would be difficult to imagine a better ambassador for Koltes or the festival in the U.S.
If Koltes remains unjustly unknown in this country, New Yorkers have been fortunate this season to have had access to the work of Quebec’s Robert Lepage–in December, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented his solo-turn Needles and Opium as part of its Next Wave festival, and his brooding Freud-inspired productions of two operas, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, came to BAM in January.
Lepage specializes in what can only be called coups de theatre, and the Shakespearean landscape seems the perfect playground for a man with such a bent. The effect quotient of Macbeth and The Tempest (I wasn’t able to stay for the opening of Coriolanus) is extraordinarily high: an airy dagger that expedites a soldier’s way to dusty death; a trio of weird sisters conjuring with the offal of exotic beasts; a tempest that wracks all but harms none; a sprite everywhere at once, until momentarily confined for contrariness within the trunk of an oak.
The setting for Lepage’s production of the Scottish tragedy perfectly reflects the barbarism of the play’s world while managing to avoid cliche. (Nina Reichmann’s costumes, replete with Bedrock-inspired ornamental fur, are not so fortunate.) Comprised only of a dirt floor, a great stone wall and a rampart above planked gates with alternately recessed boards (that are later utilized as zoetropes), the set was 100-percent Lepage-friendly, which comes as no surprise–Lepage designed it.
After the witches, wrapped in inky gauze that undoes gender and individuality, have wound their charm “firm and good” and announced his entrance–“a drum, a drum/Macbeth doth come”–Macbeth, followed hard by Banquo, “rides” into the scene. Preset, lying on one of the planks of the rampart, Gerald Gagnon (Macbeth) and Normand Bissonnette (Banquo) slowly sit up to the sound of hooves–and appear to be riding over the crest of a hill. The audience’s appreciation for the ingenuity of the effect and its slightly irreverent humor is audible from all over the house. The tone has been set.
The dagger speech is typical of the leaps Lepage is capable of without gadgetry. Having bid Banquo and Fleance goodnight, Macbeth dismisses the porter, who shuts the gate. Then, as the thane of Cawdor speaks the monologue, all the dramatis personae file silently backward past him, finishing with the porter, who, upon the final word of the speech, shuts the gate this fancy of Macbeth’s heat-oppressed brain has taken place in an instant.
Other spots of illumination admit no question as to Lepage’s gift, but the whole was not equal to the some of its parts–the play eludes Lepage, the text outstrips him. Every so often, Lepage seems to have thrown up his hands and said, “Close enough for Shakespeare.”
La Tempete a play about which I should confess an innate distrust, even in English (call it the Prospero problem) also lacks a certain luster. Lepage’s conceit a rehearsal of the play with the director assuming the role, of course, of Prospero is promising, but ultimately binds him more than helps him. The opening is the imaginative high-water mark. In the rehearsal hall, readied for a readthrough, the director sits at two large oak tables with green laminated tops playing with a small origami sailboat. As Prospero describes the tempest, actors beneath the tables rock and raise them, propelling the skittering little boat across on its rough, green laminate sea.
The rehearsal hall with its mirror, ballet bar, lockers, tables, chairs and fluorescent pool-room-style light, where Ariel is relegated for the better part of two-and-a-half hours, serves for the set until the last scene, when sumptuous red velvet curtains cover all the but fourth wall. Costumes are finally added. Too much, too late. Perhaps Lepage should have contented himself with conflating those parts of these two plays that have clearly ignited his imagination Lepage et le Bard, a sort of greatest-hits deconstruction.

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