They do these things differently in France. The thing in this case being not exquisite cuisine or bristling political protest, but how to approach their national tragic playwright.
Last week I went to Oxford to see Cheek By Jowl's bracing, nervy production of Racine's 1667 tragedy Andromaque on its British tour (there's a brief review here). The production opened at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris in 2007, and the French reviews I've read seem surprised by director Declan Donnellan's liberties - not so much the updating (the aftermath of the Trojan war becomes the bleak years following World War Two), or even the fact that he brings on stage Andromaque's son, unseen in the original, even though his survival is at the heart of the play's emotional blackmail. More than anything, it's the tone that is distinctive. With its callously mathematical purity of conception (A loves B, who loves C, who loves D, who loves her son and will do anything to protect him), the tragedy might easily become solemn. I imagine sonorous French performances, rolling Racine's mighty alexandrines like massy stones at the mouth of a tomb.
Donnellan's fine French cast sound quite different - they mutter, tensely, as if afraid of being overheard. They coo, spit, tantrum their lines. They are serious, with nerves like piano wire, but far too agitated to be solemn. What they are not - and this surprised me - is funny.
Funny? Could, should Racine be funny? Yes, actually. Humanity at the extremes, people behaving with appalling and helpless self-interest, is among many other things piercingly comic. One of Donnellan's masterstrokes when he produced Andromache in English in the 1980s (a production that helped give the young Cheek By Jowl its distinctive identity) was to identify a blackly sardonic humour. The 1940s setting allied the play with the bitter tragicomedies of film noir and postwar European cinema. It's a very English thing, possibly, but these classical adults who behave like emotionally incapable adolescents were horribly amusing.
Hermione, for example, a don't-mess princess who never saw a pedestal she didn't like, is a monster of amour propre. Even when she plans to leave the island, she doesn't intend to go quietly: 'When I leave here, I want all Epirus in tears.' I couldn't help smiling when that came up on the surtitles last weekend - give her a mink stole and some extra blusher, and she could be Joan Crawford - but it wasn't clear from this weekend's performance that this was expected.
Maybe I'm not hearing the nuances - I'd be fibbing if I claimed that I could catch quiet little ironies in French (English defeats me pretty often). But perhaps a sarky response to their great native tragedian would be a liberty too far for the French? Who knows what Helen Mirren, a performer for whom scalding rage, hurt and take-no-prisoners wit come easy and often simultaneously, will make of Racine's Phèdre at the National Theatre later this spring? If anyone can twist together tragedy and espresso-black comedy in Racine, it could be her.
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