Technically right now I should be working on prepping a talk from my somewhat scattered notes for a conference this Friday, but the need to jot down some thoughts on the first show I saw this season has taken precedence in my already very full brain so…here we are.
And anyway, I’ve still got tomorrow (Sunday), Monday afternoon and all day Wednesday to deal with organizing my notes.
So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to it. The return of theatre commentary / critique for the 2021 – 2022 season begins, as it should, with a return to the Théâtre de la Bastille:
Illusions perdues (d’après Honoré de Balzac) dir. Pauline Bayle. Théâtre de la Bastille, Sept. 16, 2021
Before getting into the details of this, I want to open with a conversation I was having yesterday that more or less captured one the thing that’s been nagging me about this piece since I left the theatre. In brief, the initial topic of conversation was the upcoming Spielberg remake of West Side Story, but this later evolved into a larger questioning of the ubiquity of revivals and remakes in (especially) the American theatre and film industry – that is, the use of already established IP as an assurance of returns on investment – versus the focus in France (at least in the public theatre where it is more or less mandated) on créations, new works, many of which nowadays do not even have a published text version that could then be used to produce a hypothetical “revived” version at some point in the future. In short, it is a theatre that is decidedly of its time, thus making any return to previously produced / written works subject to more direct scrutiny in its act of recall.
In short, in the choice to bring something “back to life”, so to speak, one must not only contend with the general “why”, but more precisely with “why now”. What, in other words, about the present moment makes it urgent to bring a piece / a text back again, especially when there are years if not generations of temporal distance to contend with? This is in no way to suggest that revivals are fruitless endeavors (see, especially Aris Biniaris’ truly exceptional Prometheus Bound at this year’s Athens/Epidaurus festival…which I should have written about but didn’t), but rather that the production/rehearsal phase demands a level of critical engagement that goes beyond the obvious.
Which brings us to Pauline Bayle’s Illusions perdues. I’ll start by getting this out of the way: the performances themselves were excellent, particularly Jenna Thiam as the lead Lucien. The fluidity with which the other four members of the troupe switched back and forth between multiple roles was also especially well done, as was the minimal stage design with the central, white square, flanked on all four sides by the audience evoking the crushing intimacy of a boxing ring. The energy was there. The run-time was just shy of 2.5 hours, but I never felt it particularly dragged. Even with the many cuts made to Balzac’s text in fashioning the script, the choice to focus on his dialogues did give us, for the most part, well-rounded characters, even if some were only inhabited by a performer for a moment. And yes, while I normally find the whole “oh look there is a person being rude / interrupting the performance in the audience…oh wait it’s actually another actor” thing a bit trite, the fact that it was consistent rather than an “ah-ha! Gotcha!” moment, that we could trace the actors in their various seat (and costume) shifts amongst the public, meant that the space as a whole became wrapped up in the urgency of the shifts and transformations being imposed on Lucien. There was no room for respite, for escape away from prying eyes, in other words.
And yet, even with all this, one thing I could not help but think, and that is still itching at me now, is if this piece, and in particular the point of view that Balzac’s novel – and by extension Bayle’s adaptation and staging of it – has something to say about our current era. That Balzac’s text can be read as something of a forewarning as to the impeding dangers of capitalism (note: the novel depicts a Paris on the brink of the Industrial Revolution) is not, in itself, a new perspective, at least with regards to current discourses (well, at least in the circles I run in) about the urgency for an anti-capitalist model. What I was left wondering by this piece, in short, is what else did it bring to the conversation, other than a few easily telegraphed connections, and story beats that have become almost too familiar. Lucien, young, green, naïve, arrives in Paris from Angouleme with dreams of becoming a great writer. Lucien then realizes that the machinations of the world he’s entered into are basically in direct conflict with his desires, and suddenly finds himself tangled in a mess of power and money and influence. Lucien falls. In the end, Lucien sells out. The audience watches.
Yet, as true as it is that the advent of capitalism and the cult of money and profits has resulted in societal and cultural shifts, especially with regards to interpersonal relationships, capitalism is not exactly unique in this. Moreover, this cannot be the only facet of capitalism that is depicted and thus placed up for public scrutiny and critique on the stage, as – like the Paris in Bayle’s production, or, hell, even more accurately, a hydra – capitalism has many (violent, exploitative, destructive) heads, and concentrating on just the one is not going to do much good when the others are snapping at you. What I am saying, in other words, is that we need different kinds of storytelling in our theatres, and in our critiques. In the first chapter of my dissertation, I made the argument for re-thinking what, in France, had historically been conceived as territorial decentralization to a decentralization of thought. We urgently need other perspectives on our stages, other ways of approaching / appropriating / interpreting text because the alternative is that discourse gets stuck and publics can only see half the picture. Do we need more stories of young folks with big dreams coming into a city only to have reality sucker-punch them in the face? Maybe we do. But maybe we should be actively making space for possibilities to approach them differently.