Back to Genet (and turning 30…)

 

So, I’m actually writing this while balancing my laptop atop two large rolls of paper towels, minding the first layer of a carrot cake I’ve got baking in my oven. This is the first time I’ve actually made my own birthday cake (because why not), and of course I’ve decided to be ambitious(…ish).

 

 

But more on that in a minute.

 

 

After a (very) quiet October, my theatre-going has ramped up again, with, as a little bonus, a return to a writer (and a play) that not only largely defined a large part of my graduate work from my first masters all the way to—and even through practically the first half of—my PhD.

 

 

Les Bonnes by Jean Genet, directed by Robyn Orlin, Théâtre de la Bastille, November 9, 2019

 

I find it almost amusing that, despite having written a good part of my first masters’ thesis on productions of this play, I had never—until this performance—seen it live. Despite that, and just based on the sheer number of recordings of live productions I’ve watched, I went into this half-expecting it to fall into a trap that is not necessarily present in all of Genet’s pieces, but, I would argue, is very much a factor here: pacing.

 

 

Generally, when first getting introduced to Genet, one of the first things that comes up is his pointedly ritualistic aesthetic. While this is of course very evident in his writing—and this goes for his novels as well as his plays, what with their constant repetitions of gestures/phrases, circular structures, and evocations of the divine or a process of ascension towards a moment of transcendence in the lowest, most abject of settings—, what it has also led to is a tendency to almost always literally translate that to the staging. Les Bonnes (The Maids) is only one act long but is often stretched to close to 2 hours or more, in part because of the tendency to really “amp up” the ritualistic aspect.

 

 

 

I mean, I can remember at a certain point during my research, after watching the I-can’t-remember-which-number version of the piece, thinking ‘We get it. It’s meant to be precise and de-li-ber-ate. But is there really only one way to evoke this…?’

 

 

 

Thankfully, this version did not fall into that trap.

 

 

It also—and this is a rarity for this piece, despite it actually corresponding more closely with Genet’s original intentions—featured an all-male cast.

 

 

Yeah, funny how this need to emphasize ritual makes exceptions for certain things. Then again, this piece did originally premier in 1947, and back then the biggest issue was people not believing that their maids would ever speak of them in the way Claire and Solange—the maids of the title—do of their mistress (who is only ever referred to as Madame).

 

 

Different times.

 

 

 

Anyway.

 

 

What may have partially contributed to this piece’s divergence from the “standard” aesthetic was Orlin’s background as a choreographer. That, and the fact that she grew up in South Africa. With the dancing, the influence was seen in, of course, the way the performers moved and carried themselves, but more significantly (for me, at least) was its effect on the overall rhythm of the piece. Namely: it actually had one.

 

 

This isn’t to say that the piece was sped through, but more that there was both a sense of reverence AND a sense of urgency in play (often tricky things to try and strike a balance between, but also elements that underscore a number of Genet’s dramatic works). Honestly, it was almost like seeing the piece with fresh eyes.

 

 

As to Orlin’s origins, these, according to her director’s note, had a more direct influence in her approach on the casting. Though her version still highlights the commentaries on class division and the sometimes ambiguous dynamics of dominant/submissive relationships, Orlin (who is white) chose to integrate an additional element through her casting of two black actors in the roles of Claire and Solange and a white actor in the role of Madame. It’s a move that evokes the apartheid-era South Africa Orlin grew up in, as well as the very much still-present racial disparities not just in South Africa, but in much of the West as well (including France).

 

 

 

And the way she has the public confront these disparities is rather fascinating, in that it is based in a way of consuming media and information that is both familiar and yet, when it is transposed to a theatre setting, rather destabilizing.

 

 

 

The stage at the Bastille was rather bare, save for a clothing rack stage right, two stools upstage center with a small camera propped on a tripod in between them, and a DJ booth stage left. A video screen on the back wall played scenes from a 1970s film version of the piece, first as a sort of way to set up everything that happened before the opening scene (mainly the arrest of Madame’s husband, the appropriately-named Monsieur, based on a false tip letter sent by Claire to the police, which is brought up several times in the course of the piece), and then, through the use of freeze frames, as a sort of virtual scenic design.

 

 

 

As for the camera, the actors—especially in scenes featuring only Solange and Claire—spend a good chunk of their time when on stage playing to it rather than facing out and playing to the audience. What this meant was that, physically, their backs were facing us, yet at the same time, the projection of their faces on the screen—and therefore in the environment of the ‘virtual space’—meant that they were still performing to us. Yet, this manner of performing, and more precisely of consuming performance, through a video screen (as though on a Youtube channel, or, perhaps more relevant here, through camming) is both isolating and voyeuristic. Isolating in that it evokes private moments at home when one streams a new video from a Youtube content creator or adult cam performer. Voyeuristic in that there is the sensation that we are not meant to be seeing this. Indeed, we can’t be seeing this because if Solange and Claire’s roleplay sessions as Madame in the latter’s absence become exposed, the two are, for lack of a better word, fucked.

 

 

 

But then, when Madame does eventually make her entrance, she pulls out an iPhone and, after filming Solange and Claire in close to extreme close-up, turns the camera on the audience commenting on some pieces certain patrons were wearing. It was a moment very much anchored in camp—Madame’s coat made up of a bunch of child-size pink puffer jackets attached together added delightfully to this effect—with an added palpable threat. Madame could loosely slap Solange or Claire’s visors (worn as part of their uniforms) to the sides of their faces, sometimes swiping at their dreadlocked hair in the process, without even the hint of a potential rebuttal. She, in the end, is more powerful than perhaps anyone wants to let on.

 

 

And I think before I move on from this, I just want to say that should Orlin ever decide to stage another of Genet’s pieces, I would be one of the first in line to buy a ticket.

 

 

 

Actually, to be perfectly honest right now, I did not get a good amount of sleep last night (oh hi winter cold and your nonsense), so my brain is having a bit of trouble concentrating/remembering things. Though this could also have something to do with a big milestone that I’m going to be hitting tomorrow, November 16.

 

 

 

Turning 30 is something that, even up to now, seemed both inevitable and so far away. Though I think I’ve been able to avoid most of the absolute ageist nonsense that is often marketed toward women regarding reaching this particular birthday, I have nevertheless spent the past week or so reflecting on the last decade of my life, trying to figure out the best way to summarize it.

 

 

Because I went through—and did—a LOT over the last ten years.

 

 

I graduated from my undergraduate program, then 2 masters programs, and started my PhD.

 

 

I lived in so many different places: Irvine, Paris, Boston, and now back in Paris again.

 

 

I visited new countries I’d never seen before, both solo and otherwise:

 

  • Czech Republic (Prague)
  • Spain (Barcelona)
  • Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh)
  • Poland (Krakow)
  • Iceland (Reykjavik)
  • Canada (Montreal)
  • Italy (Rome and Bari)
  • Croatia (Dubrovnik)
  • Sweden (Stockholm and Uppsala)
  • Germany (Berlin)
  • Hungary (Budapest)
  • Belgium (Brussels)
  • Netherlands (Amsterdam)

 

And I saw more of the countries I call (and called) home, as well as the country I call my homeland.

 

 

Speaking of the homeland, I also got my Greek citizenship and with that, a passport that has changed my life in more ways I could imagine.

 

 

 

I ate so many delicious things, discovered my love for red wine, whiskey and bourbon, and upped my tolerance for all things spicy.

 

 

But with that I also had to learn (and am still learning) how to cultivate a healthy relationship with my body. Developing an actual love for working out (and discovering HIIT training) when I was 24 helped.

 

 

I fell back in love with theatre again. I performed on stage fewer times than I would have liked, but I also saw shows (Hamilton in London, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in Boston, and Bovary and Sopro in Paris come to mind) that reminded me why I love theatre in the first place.

 

 

And with all the moving and show attending and studying and starting over, I found my independence. I learned that, yes, I could do things on my own. I could move to a new country, a new city and figure out my life, deal with apartments that were absolute shit, live in dorms and realize that what mattered there was less the accommodations and more the people I was sharing the space with, and find a sense of determination and stubbornness that would help me deal with almost any “no” that came my way.

 

 

And I learned how to advocate for myself.

 

 

Hell, I travelled by myself.

 

 

And as for love, I felt love—and loved—and knew love in many ways, two of them more significant than the rest. And there was heartbreak. But there is also hope. And there is the feeling of telling someone you care about them, and knowing you’re cared for in return. And there are also those things that still haven’t changed: like getting the courage to open your heart up to someone. But then there’s also that feeling of being held, of feeling someone pull you into them, steady you for a moment, and knowing that maybe being vulnerable wouldn’t be such a bad thing sometimes. That maybe someone will be there to catch you.

 

 

I laughed a lot—so many more times than I can even remember. Yes, there were tears too (and oh god with a PhD there are always tears), but it’s the laughter that stays.

 

 

I still feel like I barely know what being an adult is, but at the very least, I do have an ever-growing list of recipes to keep me well-fed while I figure that out.

 

 

 

So, with that, farewell to my 20s. You were, in the ups and downs, truly wonderful.

 

 

Now bring it on 30.

 

 

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