I’ve been thinking a bit about biases recently, especially in regards to they can affect my own approaches to a critique of something I’ve seen. Those types of situations don’t come up terribly often, but when they do, they generally arise from stagings that tackle certain themes or discourses that, at least from my point of view as an American (and more specifically, as a very left-leaning, educated American) should have been covered already.
More often than not, what these pieces deal with–in one way or another–is the topic of race, and specifically the intersection between this and questions of national identity and the (completely nonsense) notion of colorblindness.
Unlike the United States–which, let’s be clear, still has a very long way to go on this regard–where discussions of race/racism/white privilege/structural inequalities/etc have been going on for several years now, and have solid footing outside academic circles, France has only started tackling these questions relatively recently, and to put it briefly, such discourse has had some difficulty sticking here. This isn’t because it is unfounded–it absolutely isn’t, and to those who think racial and ethnic bias doesn’t or cannot exist in this country, I invite you to take this little pin I’m going to hand you and burst the bubble you’re currently ensconced in. I don’t have time to get into this too much now, but in brief, I would argue it has more to do with the fundamental set of ‘universal’ values the country is founded on. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, yes, but we should also add Laïcité in there, as that one in particular has led to the greatest amount of nonsense. You can see its effects in the 2004 law to ban the wearing of the hijab/veil in schools/government jobs, as well as in the backlash over the birkhini a few years ago. Those laws very clearly and disproportionately targeted Muslim women (hell, with the latter one, that point was made even more obvious when some people rightly started pointing out that nuns had been visiting the beach in their habits for years, and no one gave a damn then), yet of course that was repeatedly brushed under the rug in the favor of maintaining a certain image of ‘unity’ of ‘laicity’, of ‘we are all equal citizens even though daily occurrences prove almost embarrassingly that this isn’t even remotely true’.
All this is to say that the time is ripe for France to have a reckoning with itself.
Said reckoning was very much at the center of the first of the three plays (more precisely, two plays and one operetta) that I saw this weekend, Myriam Marzouki’s Que viennent les barbares at the MC93 on Thursday evening. The title is in reference to the poem “Waiting for the barbarians” by Greek poet Constantin Cavafy, and, much like the poem, the piece tackles the question of an imagined ‘other’, and more specifically, the necessity of this ‘other’s’ existence in order for the dominant group to maintain its power. Interestingly, the piece also frames this question within the context of American discourses on race–and more specifically, discourses following the the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of the 1960s. This begins early on with a scene in which an actor playing James Baldwin speaks to a French reporter about his views on race relations in the United States, as well as addresses her (incredibly naive) line of questioning that stems from a thought of ‘but the movement’s over, what more could/do you want?’. He fires back a question at her about the situation in Algeria–and France’s treatment of Algerians pre- and post- Independence–and thus the discursive link between the United States and France is established. Contrary to popular imagination, the racism, othering, discrimination thought to only have occurred ‘over there’ (the United States) was also happening at home, that it wasn’t as ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ a comportment as previously thought.
A similar link is made in a later scene featuring another actor in the role of Muhammed Ali giving his own interview to another French journalist–and to be quite frank, I’m not entirely sure if the repetitive nature of this scene really did much other than emphasize the didactic nature of the piece overall–, and it was at this moment I started to question my own biases as a spectator. Everything that was being said seemed obvious to me. Of course structural inequalities still existed. Of course black Americans had the right to create their own safe spaces away from white Americans, of course the parallels with France had been and still are there. But, I am not a French spectator; in other words, I am not who this piece was made for. What seemed didactic or expected to me may very well have been brand new information to any of the number of people in the room with me. I’m still wondering how to grapple with this. I’m still wondering if the didactic approach, of speaking and explaining the metaphors, the connections, the lessons relatively clearly rather than allowing more space for the spectator’s critical capacities to make those connections themselves was the best way to go, even for unfamiliar territory. At one point, during a scene in a sort of immigration processing office, a woman enters from upstage in a cloud of mist, the French flag draped over her in a way echoing that one Shepard Fairey poster featuring a Muslim woman in a hijab made of the American flag. She didn’t say anything. She appeared, came downstage, paused, then slowly exited.
Don’t get me wrong though; there absolutely needs to be more theatre, more art, more articles, more…everything written in France/accessible in French that allows for the inciting of a dialogue around these issues. I’m just starting to ask myself to what degree I should be writing about them at this particular stage in my own journey as an American-educated academic.
Anyway, onto the next thing.
Le Direktor (d’après le film de Lars von Trier) dir. Oscar Gómez Mata, Théâtre de la Bastille, March 15
Full disclosure: Lars von Trier isn’t really a director whose films I know particularly well (hell, I think I’ve only managed to watch Antichrist all the way through…tried with Melancholia, ended up falling asleep and not bothering afterwords…meh). But, the promo photos made this seem like a good time, and so I went into this hoping for some high energy to counteract the vast majority of things I’ve been seeing this year.
And oh man was I right.
This piece is silly. Very silly. Absurdly silly. And I like absurdly silly, especially when it involves poking fun at theatre, at the pretentiousness that the form gets sometimes, and at its conventions–especially the whole ‘suspension of disbelief/these actors are in their own little universe separate from the one we in the audience occupy’ thing.
The basic premise: a man (Ravn) is the head of an IT firm with a staff of 5 other employees who are nice but…incredibly naive and possibly incompetent. But they mean well. He, on the other hand, had gotten in the habit over the course of his ten years at the company of saying that all his unpopular decisions came from a hereto unseen ‘head director’, thus successfully managing to shift blame from himself and staying relatively popular. When the play opens, Ravn has the opportunity to sell the company for a very hefty sum, but to do so, the contract must be signed by the company Director, which, as far as literally everyone else knows, he is not. So, he hires an actor to play him, one who is very ‘into his craft’, so to speak (god the number of people I could recognize in that portrayal just made the whole thing soooo much better). Naturally, hijinks ensue, especially as the actor finds himself integrated even further into the company.
What I loved about this piece, however, were the amount of overt references to the ‘play’ part of acting that were integrated into the text. Often, Ravn and his hired actor would spring from the edge of the white flooring that indicated the limits of the office space to the edge of the stage, left bare and black, a kind of non-space, an in-between space, a space where they could also play with us sitting in front of them, with our knowledge of their fakery, of how they go about producing it. This kind of thing can get a bit kitsch at times, but the tongue-and-cheek of it all here–especially coupled with the very clipped rhythm the show moved in–kept things more or less fresh. Of course, all this was later related back to the whole business of management as well (there was a short interlude that discussed an actor’s capacity to elicit certain emotions/emotional responses from spectators through acts of manipulation that seemed to contain easy to spot links to the whole notion of running a business), but honestly, I was just too busy letting loose and laughing a bit (dear god comedy is such a hard thing to get right, especially absurdist/satirical comedy) to really care about the greater thematics that evening.
The last piece I saw this weekend, however, was decidedly less ludic, but this had more to do with certain imageries and juxtapositions in the staging than the piece itself.
La Chauve-Souris (Die Fledermaus) de Johann Strauss, dir. Célie Pauthe, MC93, March 16, 2019
I know what you all may be thinking: ‘Opera? Really?’. Yes, really.
This show is actually being put on in partnership with the Academie de l’Opéra de Paris, and simply put, I quite like the idea of taking opera and moving it out of the city and into the suburbs for a bit (and for much lower prices too!). Makes it more accessible, if nothing else.
Anyway, the operetta. The piece itself can be summed up as a farce involving a man who is meant to turn himself into prison where has been sentenced to an 8-day stint, deciding to skip out on that to go to a party with his friend, his wife (in disguise) and the chambermaid showing up to the party as well, and everything just being silly. Act II closes with an ode to champagne. Silly.
No, what’s more interesting about this piece is that during her research, the director discovered that it was performed by prisoners at a concentration camp not far from Auschwitz. This camp was known for housing artists and creative types–basically anyone whose absence would have potentially caused a slight media stir–, and as such, often the prisoners were forced to perform for the guards. I don’t know what or how much can be said about the particular kind of torture that this represents that isn’t stinking of a cliché, but what cannot be denied is the fact that at times, performance became both an act of survival as well as a sort of act of resistance.
This connection was reflected very openly in the stage design, which consisted of a set of walls, bare except for the lower stage left corner on which was printed an image of one of the interior corridors of the camp (I was a bit too far away to confirm, but there is a chance that the photo itself may have been taken following liberation in 1945). Periodically, video footage of the director’s 2018 visit to the camp would be projected on the walls as one of the characters performed a solo, the lights dimming down from their usual warm glow to signal the presence of this ‘memory’ in the show’s history. Costume and prop design also nodded to the late 1930s/early 1940s, the lack of overt ‘opulence’ in the décor and objects further harkening back to the tragedy the piece is intertwined with.
This production also contained a sort of aside that broke the fourth wall, so to speak, with this one further functioning as a means through which the connection between the play and the Holocaust would be more pointedly thrust forward. At the start of Act III, just as everyone had settled back into their seats following intermission and the house lights turned off, the stage lit to focus on a man sitting on a table center stage, with a small screen behind him. What ended up getting projected on this screen was a propaganda video made by the Nazis of prisoners in the camp living what appeared to be a blissful life in nature, with leisure activities, excellent medical care, food, cultural programs, etc. Of course, this was all completely fabricated, and the actor on the stage made that point very clear several times. What is striking, of course, about this footage is the knowledge of the horrific tragedy and torture looming over it. There is a sort of weighted, heavy presence hanging over the–to us, who know what really happened in those camps–supposed bliss and joy on people’s faces.
It is easy to see the connection between this and a piece whose main plot centers around a party, around good fun, silliness, but which was performed under circumstances of incredible duress.
I’m not sure if I’m going to end up writing about any of these pieces in further detail for my dissertation, at this point, I have a meeting on Friday with my advisor (finally!) to talk about things and maybe even lay out a game plan for where I go from…wherever I am right now. But where February was relatively quiet theatre-wise, March is going to be absolutely packed. Let’s hope my fingers (and my brain) will be able to withstand all the typing.