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.

 

 

There’s a heatwave, and I don’t want to leave the library just yet…

For those who are unaware, there is currently a rather annoying heatwave sweeping through large swaths of Europe at the moment, including France (well, not all of France; Brittany was spared). Now, I’m normally someone who actually quite likes the heat, but there is just something about the lack of open water, as well as the whole living on the top floor of a non-air-conditioned building (as well as the skylight that has no curtain or way of covering it, making any attempts to shut out light during the day useless), and the absolute ‘fun’ of those moments when you absolutely have to take the metro to get anywhere that is starting to test my patience a little…

 

 

Bref, I’m ready for my holiday.

 

 

 

I haven’t felt much impulse to write lately, mostly because I have sort of stopped seeing things this last month. The season has, of course, wound down, but I think I also may have come very close to suffering from show-fatigue. Besides, I think I said in another post that I wanted to focus more on writing my other, more relevant stuff.

 

 

 

Speaking of which, I’ve advanced a good amount, but what with end of the year exams and grading–as well as a decision I made myself, which I am ultimately glad I did–I missed an end of May deadline to turn in new pages to my advisor. I have yet to hear anything regarding this from her part, however, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume all is well.

 

 

Well, hopefully it will be well enough to send literally all the things by my own personal deadline of July 10th. I’m planning on using a good amount of my vacation time to try and tackle the bits of my dissertation that aren’t show-critique related (aka: the bits that make it all make sense). I’m still trying to figure out what point–if any–I’m trying to make with this otherwise rather sizable collection of somewhat disconnected pieces. The heterogeneity of the theatre space? Probably something like that. Everything existing in multitudes? Also maybe. There’s the whole cultural politics thing to consider in this too, and how it relates back to the idea of a public, government-subsidized theatre. What is the role of a theatre in such a system? There is something to be said about how, given the current system of governance in France, the theatre has returned to somewhat of a ‘moralistic’ role: theatrical programming is designed in such a way to impart values, perhaps, or support certain ideals (‘le vivre ensemble‘ has been on my mind quite a bit lately), and while the content can vary (there is no overt propagandizing, if that’s what you’re thinking I’m getting at), there is, to some degree, a lack of questioning of a certain set of [neoliberal / universalist] values that are often taken as a default.

 

A better theatre, for me, would be one that recognizes disagreement, the possibility for disaccord or the opening of new avenues or systems of thinking, and, while doing so, shatters the very universality it is otherwise said to stand in for. It’s the question of autonomy and emancipation as it relates both to the work and to the spectator, but it ends up focusing more precisely on the latter, in particular, through recognition of a capacity for singular thought as well as the validity of the choice in whether to engage or not. I’ve seen this kind of theatre here a few times, though funnily enough, none of the productions were from French companies.

 

 

And anyway, I’m not sure if the above makes any sense or it’s just rambling. To tell the truth, I’m only writing here now to kill a bit more time before I venture out into the outside world where the temperature reads 93ºF but feels as though it’s 101ºF (of all the things I have accustomed myself to, the only one that is still giving me trouble is switching to reading temperature in Celsius). I had been reading for most of the day, then thought I’d get back to writing, but, wouldn’t you know it…writer’s block. My brain is tired.

 

 

Otherwise? I’m feeling…reasonably confident about this. I say a lot that I just want it to be done, but I also want it to be good, and be certain in myself that I have something to say, and am not just regurgitating what others have already said before me. The problem is that sometimes, to me, what I write feels so…obvious…but, then again, maybe that’s how one’s own work (particularly work of this kind) feels all the time. Subjectivity and whatnot.

 

 

It’s hard to get the narrative in your own head to change sometimes.

 

 

In better news, though, I think I may start frequenting a workout class once a week, depending on what my schedule is like come September. ClassPass has finally arrived here, and the HIIT course I tested today left me feeling absolutely exhausted but also amazing. The home workouts are still fine, don’t get me wrong, but I was starting to miss the thrill of the challenge after a while, as well as the chance to really test my limits.

 

 

And I think I’m starting to legitimately go stir-crazy, so I may just bite the bullet now, pack up my things, and march out the door. Normally a walk would suit me just fine in moments like this where I can’t seem to get out of my own head. We’ll see how long that lasts…