Diplomatic niceties


Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont (1728-1810),  le Chevalier d'Éon, was a career diplomat, in addition to being a part-time soldier and an amateur spy. But it was only the last of these that attracted the difficult-to-categorise Canadian art/performance producer Robert Lepage. For d'Éon, says the programme for the performance called "Eonnagata" (at Sadler's Wells recently), "was probably the first spy to use cross-dressing in the pursuit of his duties." I doubt this, but can't cite from memory a Homeric or classical counter-example. The same note says that he incurred the wrath of "Louis XVI, who forced him to wear a dress all the time." In the end d'Éon appears to have been so used to his frocks, that no one really knew his sex.

Sometimes he claimed to have been born a girl, but brought up as a boy so that he could inherit. In exile in London he normally wore his dragoon's uniform, but rumours circulating that he was a woman caused a book to be opened and bets accepted on the London Stock Exchange. Following the death of Louis XV, he petitioned to be recognised as a woman; and Louis XVI agreed, but only so long as he always dressed as a woman. "She" died in London, but doctors who examined the corpse said it was a male. (Possibly s/he had Kallmann syndrome, in which puberty never occurs, and the secondary sexual characteristics are arrested.)

Enter Mr Lepage, who saw parallels between "Eonism" and onnagata, the male Kabuki actor who is trained exclusively to play female roles. Sylvie Guillem and her regular stage partner Russell Maliphant wanted to work with Lepage, ever since Ms Guillem saw his "Andersen Project" in Sydney, and Guillem had the real genius to suggest that Alexander McQueen design the stunning costumes. The final piece of the puzzle was that she also persuaded Lepage to dance with them. Each of them takes the part of the Chevalier, and it has to be said that the most amazing thing about the staging of the piece was that Lepage's dancing was way beyond adequate. Indeed, you'd have thought he'd been dancing all his life. Michael Hulls's lighting effects were a big part of the spectacle, too.

Each of the three has a small speaking part, with extracts from d'Éon's letters and the like, but these are not easy to follow, and pretty inessential. More to the point is the sword-play and twirling staves, plus McQueen's take on 18th century kit: crinolines, periwigs, greatcoats, uniforms, and under-garments galore, plus kabuki-inspired billowing sleeves that catch the light and your eye. This mad mixture of catwalk and collaged music, stage pictures involving strange furniture, gymnastics and - sometimes - pure dance, was so popular with its audience of balletomanes, fashionistas and many, like me, just curious Lepage-ophiles, that it is being repeated in June.

Diplomacy is also a theme of major television scriptwriter Ian Kennedy Martin's new play that premiered this week at the Hampstead Theatre. "Berlin Hanover Express" is a play that explores the Republic of Ireland's neutrality in WWII. Of course lots of us didn't know that Ireland never entered the War, but President Eamon de Valera hated Britain, both for exploiting Ireland at least since Cromwell, and for partitioning it and keeping the six counties of Northern Ireland as part of the UK (which they are to this day). He probably did admire Hitler for having the balls (or the one, if you credit the British schoolboy song) to take on Britain. And there was, in Catholic Ireland, as in the Vatican of the time, a more than casual anti-Semitism that contributed something to their ability to ignore the existence of the camps - even in late 1942, when this play is set.

This four-hander, directed by the former artistic director of Hampstead Theatre, Michael Rudman, is a play of ideas, and not very action-packed. However all four actors are excellent - Sean Campion as Mallin, the Irish consular nerd with an over-developed sense of duty that matched some of those found guilty at Nuremberg; Peter Moreton as a loathsome Nazi who bribes the diplomats with food and drink; and Isla Carter as the German cook/maid of all work to the Irish consulate in Berlin, who has a secret it's hard not to guess. Owen McDonnell makes the fourth of these characters really come alive. He plays O'Kane, the Irish chancer who owes 1) his job in the foreign service to his father's friendship with de Valera, and 2) too much money to the bookies. My 26-year-old daughter, whose grasp of WWII history is that of her generation, was gripped by the play and the issues it raised, and had her curiosity piqued about the War in general. Quite a compliment to Ian Kennedy Martin, I'd say.

March 13, 2009 6:33 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on March 13, 2009 6:33 PM.

He's a Hollander, and He's OK was the previous entry in this blog.

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