By: Jean Anouilh, translated by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by: Angus Jackson
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Monday 9th July 2007
This performance was all knees, shoulders, and trips to the loo. As a result, I missed some of it, and couldn’t focus well enough on the rest, so I’m giving it a six star rating overall, allowing for distractions.
Our seats were prime, I thought, central and not too far back. This was until I found I needed to lean back to get comfortable (I prefer more upright seats), and found the knees behind were almost permanently jammed into my shoulders. The people attached to them moved around a fair bit as well – obviously they had less leg room than was comfortable – so not a good advert for the theatre’s designers. For the second half, I was able to move into the seat the other side of Steve, and the lady behind me there was so small that there was no chance of her knees reaching anywhere near me. Thank goodness. Then I felt a need to dash just before the final scene, and again during the post-show, but we won’t go into details on that one. Suffice it to say that the screen outside the auditorium came in very handy, and the staff were very solicitous – thank you.
Three paragraphs in, and now I can start to talk about the play. It’s a “gritty” comedy, one that Anouilh intended to have a darker edge to it, making for uncomfortable viewing. (I don’t think he intended the discomfort to be quite as literal as I experienced.) The play tells the story of an older couple, a soldier and an actress, whose love has disintegrated over the years and now they spend their time tearing each other to shreds. There’s a long-lost lover, a newly discovered child, a couple of ugly sisters and a sensible doctor. It’s like a cross between Chekov and Molière.
Peter Bowles had been ill just a few days before and they’d managed to cover for him, but he was back now and in fine form, although not fully recovered yet. Even so, his performance was excellent. He played the husband, General St Pé, whose cynical and often cutting observations on marriage, his wife and his two daughters, provided most of the humour. This is a man who can loathe his wife and at the same time be enraged at the idea of any other man enjoying her. He keeps trying to challenge the doctor to a duel over her, as he believes the doctor has had an affair with his wife. Actually, it turns out she’s had lots of affairs, none of which he knew about.
The wife, Amélie, was played by Maggie Steed, and this was another brilliant performance. We don’t get to see her for some time, as she spends the first part of the first scene screeching at her husband from her bedroom next door. She’s convinced he’s off rogering some maid or other, while he’s just trying to get a few moments of peace and quiet to write his memoirs. Eventually, he shuts the door on her – she’s unable to leave her bed – but his day doesn’t get any better.
At first, I felt a bit more sympathy for the husband here. He seems to be stuck with a horribly nagging wife and gets little peace. But then we find out about his former lover who has waited seventeen years for him to be free, seventeen sexless years, and who now arrives to suggest they get started on their relationship. Then, later, we learn from his wife about her loneliness as he flirted with everything in a skirt, and how she went home from a dance, escorted by another officer, and started her string of affairs that very night. It’s the same night the General, then a junior officer, met his lover, Mlle Ghislaine de Ste-Euverte, and they danced to The Waltz Of The Toreadors. By this time my sympathies are with no-one, as they’ve both shown how unpleasant their possessive love can be, and I could just sit back and watch the plot unravel.
The lover, Ghislaine, tries to kill herself by throwing herself out of the window, but falls instead on top of the General’s secretary, who carries her upstairs. At the same time, the General and the doctor bring Amélie back in her wheelchair – turns out the inability to walk was a sham; she’s been skipping round the neighbourhood like a perky lamb as soon as everyone’s back was turned. There was an uncomfortable moment tonight when the General got Ghislaine’s hair caught in his over-abundant braid. Catherine Russell, playing Ghislaine, found it very funny, but composed herself, and Peter Bowles finally managed to detach himself without help. We did wonder whether the secretary was meant to carry Amélie off, or if that had been a quick bit of recovery.
Left alone with the secretary, Ghislaine finds out just what she’s been missing all these years, and although at first she thinks it’s the General who’s kissed her, she soon finds out, and decides to go for the younger model who’s more like the General was when she fell in love with him. With other revelations, it all ends happily enough for the average comedy, but with the darker aspects of this one, I’m not sure any of this lot are going to be happy for long.
All the performances were excellent. The set was simple, but did have to be changed a couple of times. Two walls festooned with crossed swords (handy for such a temperamental dueller), a desk, chaise longue, chairs and carpet for the study, and for the bedroom, the other sides of the walls, the same desk (too difficult to move?) a bed and bedside tables.
I don’t remember all the funny bits, but one is worth a mention. When the General finds out his Ghislaine is now attached to his secretary, he naturally challenges him to a duel, but can’t get the swords down off the wall. He actually asks the secretary to help him, then realises how inappropriate that is.
In all, this was a very funny piece, but I felt the darker aspects were never explored enough to be interesting, so they fell a bit flat for me. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, but hopefully in more comfortable circumstances.
The post-show brought out some interesting information, mainly about the way the parts had been covered while Peter Bowles was out of action. Nicholas Woodeson had played the General, the Curé had played the doctor, and someone from the mass of actors available in Chichester this time of year had popped in to play the Curé. When asked about how they felt having the audience so close to them, Catherine Russell confessed she’d been really worried when she saw the layout, but in fact, once they were playing the piece, she saw how well it worked and now she liked it. They were also asked how they coped getting on and off stage in the blackouts, and referring to the earlier question, one actress pointed out how handy it was to have the audience so close, as they could always feel for the front row’s knees, and grope their way out!
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me