There is a lot to admire here, but I am sadly doubtful that Guitry will gain much traction again in this country. Most of the audience around me, all sipping glasses of rouge, were francophone and prior converts. Unlike Ionescu, with whose work these performers have already enjoyed success, Guitry does not have the modernist or absurdist tag to a sufficient degree, and was never really avant garde. You cannot tag him onto other forward-looking cultural movements of his time, and without that rope it is hard to bridge the chasm between his world and ours.
All women play roles, except some actresses.
We often talk of how the United Kingdom and America are divided by a common language, but there should be more discussion of how humour does or not translate between countries, especially if the original language is different, with a further distancing effect added by translation.
These thoughts are an inescapable part of the experience of viewing and reflecting on an ingenious tribute to the great French actor-playwright Sacha Guitry, a major force in twentieth-century French dramatic life, but now hardly known at all on this side of the Channel, despite the fact that he had important successes here, not least with one of his five wives, Yvonne Printemps.
Called the ‘French Noel Coward’ as a tribute to his multi-talented contributions as both actor on stage and film, the author of over a hundred plays, and as an elegant figure of celebrity romance and witty repartee, Guitry was in fact a very different kind of cultural icon. Part of a theatre dynasty, he was steeped in the aesthetic of Boulevard Theatre, of which Feydeau’s farces are perhaps the most famous product.
This is not theatre of ideas or a theatre of edginess, but a theatre of romantic and sexual comedy which often breaks down the barriers between audience and stage in disconcerting fashion.
Director Marianne Badrichani has realised that more is needed than simply a revival of one of Guitry’s plays, and so she has taken scenes and formulas from five of his many works and reassembled them around her lead actor, Edith Vernes, who has three preoccupations in her life – the stage, her daughter, played by Anais Bachet, (who wants to take to the stage herself), and her tempestuous relationship with Guitry (Sean Rees), in whose plays she is appearing.
In so doing Badrichani hopes to convey with economy of means some of the central themes of Guitry’s life, especially the extent to which his creativity and performances were built around a succession of muses who shared unstable partnerships with him on and off-stage.
Each scene is played in French with smoothly idiomatic English surtitles supplied by Chris Campbell. The simple black box theatre at the Drayton Arms is hung with a rich red velvet backdrop, a simply frame lit with light bulbs dominates backstage, and a chair and side-table, the foreground. A rack of costumes sits to the side from which the actors regularly refresh their identities. But the burden of creative interpretation rests with them.
It is a real and rare pleasure to hear such neatly turned and elegant prose delivered so stylishly in the original language. The diction is so clear and the acting so precisely coordinated with it, you don’t really need the surtitles to get the gist of each scene, whether or not you have French. Continuity between scenes is assisted by a neatly empathetic sound design from Lex Kosanke which fills the gap and punctuates the mood effectively.
All three actors are fully on top of their brief. Vernes is a very experienced player with excellent comic timing and an ability to dominate the stage in a variety of guises. She can play the bossy but insecure actress-mother, the termagant diva, and the subtle farceuse.
Rees matches her ability to switch the mood instantly from tantrum to tears and to tenderness and back again: in a sense his performance reminds us that Guitry was perhaps his own greatest creation. Bachet has less to do, but provides a succession of striking supportive cameo roles and a delightful portrait of a daughter emerging from her parent’s shadow.
The play’s most interesting themes revolve around the extent to which are aware of the boundaries between ourselves and the roles we play, especially in the case of women of Guitry’s era who had roles imposed upon them, and for whom being an actress could be an escape from convention, but still with a price-tag in social reputation attached. The most gripping scene is taken from The Fox and the Frog/Le Renard et la Grenouille, where a prostitute and her industrialist client joust with each other memorably in a manner worthy of Maupassant.
There is also a wonderful speech at the very end in praise of an actor’s life, which if taken from Guitry himself, truly deserves to be better known. Vernes points out to her daughter that you can only survive as an actor if you can continue to love your profession, however many disappointments your career brings; that the audiences will take the pleasure you have given them and they forget you in turn; and, finally, that in some ways the greatest reward theatre can give is for a brief while to obliterate the miseries of life, both your own and the audience’s.
But in comic terms the rewards of this evening are subdued. Much of Guitry’s work rests not on verbal wit but on ironic comedy of situation which simply does not resonate reliably with English audiences, who find comedy in other or parallel situations instead. It is a harsh but unavoidable fact that raw tragedy translates whereas subtle comedy generally does not.
Racine gets rave reviews in English, but Molière more often than not falls flat even in productions with superlative casts. When Edith says, in her final speech, that comedy is taken for granted whereas tragedy gets all the plaudits for serious drama, she could also be speaking of comedy in translation as well.
It is revealing that the final scene, taken from one of Guitry’s farces, The KWTZ, is the funniest part of the evening. As with Feydeau, the humour is fast-moving, visual, and slapstick, resting on coincidence and outlandish behaviour, something that has always translated through the ages as ‘comedy of error’, from Plautus to Shakespeare and beyond.
There is a lot to admire here, but I am sadly doubtful that Guitry will gain much traction again in this country. Quite apart from the issues already raised, most of the audience around me, all sipping glasses of rouge, were francophone and prior converts. Unlike Ionescu, with whose work these performers have already enjoyed success, Guitry does not have the modernist or absurdist tag to a sufficient degree, and was never really avant garde. You cannot tag him onto other forward-looking cultural movements of his time, and without that rope it is hard to bridge the chasm between his world and ours.