We all thought it was over, that winter would finally give way to (a rather grey but still sometimes sunny) spring. We were wrong.
Today, Saturday March 17, 2018, it snowed. Big, fluffy snowflakes. Just plopping down from the sky in little ploofs. Silly mocking ploofs. Thankfully, I didn’t really have anywhere to be until later this evening when I met up with friends for dinner at Ahssi (see photo of sizzling pork bibimbap above), so I got to glare at the fluffy white puffs from the inside of my warm apartment. With tea. A big mug of it.
Enough of that though. On to this week’s theatre recap.
I honestly feel like I’m just going to go ahead and add the Théâtre de la Bastille to my list of theatres I’ll be focusing on for my thesis just based on the mere fact that I really like going to shows there. Yes, the set-up is essentially frontal and whatever, but the sheer immensity of the stage and its almost lack of separation from the (at least to me) smaller audience space lends the whole room a sort of intimacy and coziness that I haven’t really seen replicated in other theatres here yet. Really, it’s almost as if the actors are standing right on top of you, as if at any moment any semblance of a line between their space and ours as audience members is blurred, prodded, torn, and just generally fucked with. I love that.
And to tell the truth, I wasn’t expecting to like this show. Actually, I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect, as the only thing I knew going in was that the director (who is Portuguese, I believe) had quite a good reputation. Judging from the very packed house on Monday evening, I’d say I’d agree with that assessment.
Instead of being a direct adaptation of Madame Bovary (a novel that, I will confess, I am not a fan of), this play takes as its starting point the trial over the book’s publication. As we filed in and took our seats, the actors were already on the stage, scattering about pages of Flaubert’s manuscript, the words that soon were to be put on trial for their potential to incite immoral thoughts and disturb the public order.
Funny how some things never change.
Anyway, the actor playing Flaubert eventually spoke, reciting a letter sent to a friend that at the same time acted as a direct address to the audience. It was here that he specified that during his own trial, he would not be allowed to speak to defend himself (only his lawyer could do that). Instead, his words, the text, the words that came from his mind onto the page would speak for him – the novel as both direct descendant and link to the author (Barthes would have a fucking field day with this one). And this is how the story of Madame Bovary was woven in. Quite frankly, the retelling here was much more raunchy, dark, disturbing, sad and exciting than what I remember reading in class. Then again, as Flaubert remarked in another letter to his friend towards the last third of the play, the prosecution was right: this book is full of quite a bit of naughty things. Maybe our focus – in the act of ignoring the naughtiness to try and ‘rise above’ it or prove a ‘moral high ground’ – has just been slightly off.
I don’t know if I can put into words completely what it was that made me really like this, so I’m just going to copy (and translate because this conversation was happening in French) below what I sent to my boyfriend when he asked me why I liked it so much:
“The energy, the humor [and oh yes, this play was indeed very funny]…there was just this ludicness about it all that I really appreciated [side note: at one point, someone’s cell phone started ringing. Instead of carrying on and trying to ignore it, the actors started rifling through their pockets, as if to check and see if it wasn’t one of theirs that had gone off. Result: not only have they now officially brought forward the very plural nature of their position on stage – existing, as they do, in between our present and the fiction in the process of being constructed, one foot in each but never completely one nor the other – , they have also enveloped us as audience in it. Yes, the relationship remains essentially frontal between ‘us’ in the house and ‘them’ on stage, but our worlds converged in that moment. That’s one of the things I mean when I reference the possibility for intimacy in this space.]
“Indeed the whole thing basically played with a certain kind of plurality that is very specific to the world of theatre – that makes theatre what it is. Actors are on stage in the process of becoming their characters (Madame Bovary et al are called up and (re)created in the course of the trial), but at no point is there any attempt at temporal ‘vraisemblance’ or cohesion. That is to say, there is a constant back and forth between the narrative in the novel, and the trial itself. The actress who played Madame Bovary, for instance, at times would directly call out Flaubert for what he wrote about her, for how he – her ‘creator’ – crafted her story. And then Flaubert, who was denied the right to speak during his own trial, could only ‘speak’ through his novel, itself the product of his ‘act’ of writing. And of course, throughout all this, they are very aware that there is an audience in front of them, watching.”
Audience awareness took on another meaning on Friday night with Wajdi Mouawad’s newest creation, Notre Innocence at La Colline.
The premise here: a group of about 20 actors – all between the ages of 20 and 30, so…millenials – gather together the morning following the suicide (through jumping out of a window) of one of their classmates at their acting conservatory. Questions abound: what was her motivation? Did anyone know she was thinking about this? Did anyone provoke her? What was to be done about her 9 year old daughter? Etc. Tensions are high. The group begins to tear at the seams, ripping apart over accusations not just of who – if anyone – could be held responsible, but over everyone’s individual attitudes, and how the girl, Victoire, should be mourned (or maybe she was too flawed to be mourned right away and thus had to be torn up again, verbally, first…grief does interesting things to people).
This, however, wasn’t the most interesting part of the show. No, the most interesting came at the very beginning when all the actors were on stage speaking in unison for about a half hour. Imagine 20 voices chanting at you in perfect synchronization, the closest thing to a classical chorus I have seen in recent memory. And just like a chorus, they are a reflection of the polis, or at least a part of it. Namely, people my age…those of us who sometimes think we are a new lost generation thanks to the actions of the generations before us. We, as the chorus chanted, have to deal with the possibility of never being extraordinary, the impossibility of reaching mythological, legendary status, of becoming something beyond ourselves. We were robbed of that, in a way.
And this bit might make more sense in the French context because while in the States, whenever the question of millenials gets brought up, it’s almost always done in comparison/contrast with the Baby Boomer Generation – the generation that made the mess we have to deal with. The generation that left their mark so brutally in both extraordinarily good and extraordinarily bad ways that to surmount it is unthinkable. And yet, we are often asked why we cannot be like them, why we cannot reproduce the same gestures they did, knowing full well that the world can no longer sustain those gestures. That we need something different.
In France, the generation that was taken to task that night was that of May 1968. The former revolutionaries…actors of a movement that some say succeeded in some ways, but that many also say ultimately failed, becoming a shadow, a myth of what it really was. Imagine being in this room, this room filled not just with other 20/30-somethings, but with those who were definitely part of that movement 50 years ago and hearing this wall of words, of criticisms come at you. Talk of the ‘revolution’ is sick if you use it to refuse to acknowledge the complete bullshit engrained in the whole act of reminiscing over how ‘wonderful’ and promising everything was then, how wonderful you all are in your political acts compared with this new generation who is seemingly so ‘unaware’ about everything. This generation is not unaware. This generation has been betrayed. The wall of twenty voices pushed outwards into the house, and for a moment, in sensing the energy around me as the barrage of insults (that were quite frankly, not that far off) kept coming, I thought that, should this keep going, and going further, it might end up inciting something.
It didn’t though, and then after a bit, the narrative described above took over. To be honest, as much as I found moments of the main narrative interesting, I feel as thought the thing could’ve just stopped right after the insults were done and just left us with that. That’s it. No lesson to ponder, no possible solutions to put forth. No moral to think on. I mean, the play itself closes with Victoire’s daughter, Alabama – who may or may not actually be real, and instead be a sort of allegorical stand-in for all children, that is, the future generation waiting in the wings to see what ours is doing – claiming her ascendance to the rise of ‘mythical’ figure, reminding the group of friends around her that she and those of her generation were watching them, that we have, in a way a responsibility to them.
And I really wish this bit was ironic – hell, maybe it was and I just missed the point – because for one thing, if anyone wants to talk about theatre and ascendance to figuration, Genet has probably some of the best examples of this, and another, why does this moralizing need to happen when the whole first third of the piece (rightly) called out the very dangers of this sort of intergenerational relationship and behavior?
So anyway, yeah I guess you could say I liked the first half better than the second.