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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 7 JANUARY 2019— That William Shakespeare is much-loved in France is evident in that at least one of his plays is being performed here at any given time, not least at the Comédie Française in Paris, possibly the most famous theatre in the country. Eric Ruf, director there since 2014, programmed three of Shakespeares’s works earlier this year, each play being triumphantly received by a cheering audience despite the uneven qualities of the productions.

The trilogy in 2018 began with a superb restaging of The Tempest by Canadian Robert Carsen, albeit a staging which did upset traditionalists.  However it was based on an excellent translation by Jean-Claude Carrière.

Prospero, the Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have been exiled for 12 years on an island inhabited by magical spirits. Usurped by his brother Antonio aided by Alonso,  King of Naples, Prospero has been plotting his revenge with the help of his two servants, Ariel, spirit of the air, and the base earthy Caliban. It is Shakespeare’s last play, a tale of revenge, retribution and forgiveness in which the traitors are punished and then pardoned via the real and the unreal, and in which Miranda brings peace and reconciliation when she falls in love with and marries Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples.

The play opened upon the scene of  the shipwreck of Antonio and his companions.The stage, a pure white cube, had been swept bare of all superfluous details, emphasising the stunning videos by Will Duke, from the wild storm at sea when violent images of raging waves in black and white were projected on all three walls of the cube as well as onto the floor, to the later eerie shadows of ghosts and supernatural creatures. It was most effective, most spectacular.

Prospero , Michel Vuillermoz, and his daughter, Miranda, Georgia
Scalliet, as well as Ariel and Caliban were dressed in white, while the band of traitors wore army uniforms, reminiscent of those worn by dictators, past and present. Georgia Scalliet portrayed a perfect Miranda, young, innocent and luminous, and while many French critics applauded the performance of Vuillermoz, he did not fully convince as the Duke, perhaps because amateurs of Shakespeare identify Prospero too closely to the character of the great master, particularly in the outstanding last act.

Stéphan Varupenne gave a new and greater insight into the character of Caliban, too often seen as a monster and would-be rapist, but Varupenne made him more gentle, almost endearing; after all, he too had been usurped, being the rightful owner of the island. There was also the remarkable performance of Loic Corbery as Ferdinand, son of King Alonso. Far from being the weak, ineffectual youth one has been accustomed to seeing, many in the audience could have fallen in love with this handsome young man. The love story between the young couple, central to the play, gained as much interest as the scenes with Trinculo and Stephano, the two buffoons brilliantly interpreted by Hervé Pierre and Jérome Pouly. The scene on a beach strewn with refuse, plastic bottles and other detritus where they were joined by Caliban brought true Shakespearian comedy to the fore, and was one of the highlights of the evening.

Twelfth Night or what you will, which opened in September had an even better reception from the public despite being highly unconventional, with a script translated, or should one say, rewritten by Olivier Cadiot. Certainly Thomas Ostermeier, the German director of the Schaubuhne in Berlin, known for the freedom of his interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays, took every liberty imaginable, taking "What you will" as his guide, rather than the romantic comedy Shakespeare wrote for the festivities of the 12th night after Christmas. This was a production AFTER William Shakespeare rather than by.

Ostermeier was dealing with a superbly constructed play. Twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked on opposite sides of an imaginary island. Believing her brother drowned and for self protection, Viola disguises herself as a young man, Cesario and enters into the service of Count Orsino with whom she rapidly falls in love. But Orsino is in love with Olivia, who has rejected his advances. Charmed by Viola/Cesario, he sends him/her to plead his suit to his lady-love, who promptly falls in love with the attractive young person, believing him to be a man.

In an ingenious comic subplot, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch,  and his crony, the simple Sir Andrew Aguecheek plot the downfall of the pompous Malvolio, Olivia’s valet. Egged on by the servant, Maria and the insolent jester, Feste, they make him dress in ridiculous clothes and behave in a stupidly ingratiating way believing Olivia to be in love with him. But matters degenerate as Aiguecheek becomes increasingly grotesque, showing his naked bottom and waggling his bare appendages to the audience  in an exaggerated allusion to homosexuality.

Meanwhile, Sebastian, who had been rescued by the ship’s captain, Antonio, arrives on the scene, meets Olivia who throws herself at him mistaking him for his twin, and drags the delighted young man off to a secret wedding. Everyone enters on stage when  Viola is revealed to be a woman and marries the Duke, while Toby Belch marries Maria. All’s well that ends well.

It’s a play based on deception and gender confusion which Ostermeier has pushed to homosexuality,  with men kissing men, and women embracing women, ignoring the fact that a "Buggery law " was passed by Henry VIII in 1533 making homosexuality not only a sin, but a crime punishable by death. Shakespeare was no fool. Moreover, with all the plots, riots and civil unrest during the reign of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare would never have indulged in sneering at the government or in trying to undermine the President as did Ostermeier with his comments on President Macron and the plight of immigrants which were unnecessary. Shakespeare’s livelihood depended on his Royal patronage and Ostermeier was way off line. If his aim was to get laughs from the audience, he got them.

His production of Twelfth Night opens upon a white sandy beach inhabited by two life-sized, lifelike gorillas with green plastic palm trees as scenery. Then a man arrives in a tailored jacket atop immaculate white underpants. What is this? Has he forgotten his trousers? Obviously not as when the rest of the cast arrive, they too are dressed/undressed in underwear several sizes too small.

Duke Orsino, impressive Denis Podalydès, is recognisable as an aging Duke Orsino being more richly attired in a long robe adorned by a dead fox hanging around his neck. No wonder Olivia doesn’t like him and it is hard to believe in Viola/Cesario’s infatuation with him. But in love with him Cesario is, played by the luminous Georgia Scalliet. She carries the weight of this bizarre but fast-paced Vaudeville version brilliantly.

So taken aback by the incongruous costumes, which for the men go from bad to worse, one has trouble following  the dialogue. The unfortunate Malvolio, courageously interpreted by Sébastien Pouderoux, comes prancing on as a transvestite from a shady cabaret club.

Only Feste, excellently played by Stéphane Varupenne, manages to appear in a halfway decent costume, singing, playing a trombone, and generally providing the rowdy jokes with sexual innuendos so beloved by Shakespeare. He joined in songs based on Renaissance music which were beautifully performed by Paul-Antoine Bénos-Dijan, in alternance with Paul Figuier.

Shakespeare wrote for the masses; his plays which abound with coarse jokes could be considered 16th century vaudeville, just as Ostermeier tried to make Twelfth Night into 21st century vaudeville. Only, in trying to make it crudely obvious that men were in love with men and women in love with women, he seems to have forgotten that adolescent boys were always used to play the roles of females and Shakespeare has more than one "cross-dressing" heroine, including Portia and Rosalind as well as Viola.

If Ostermeier’s aim was to please the general public as did Shakespeare, then he succeeded.  The actors were excellent  with the exception of Christophe Montenez, grotesque and way over the top as Andrew Aiguecheek, and the majority of spectators had smiles on their faces from the beginning to the end.

The one disappointment was Eric Ruf’s own version of Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s most poetical works. But with a translation by Francois-Victor Hugo, who appeared to have rewritten the tale,  Ruf was not off to a good start.
It took some time to realise that the barrel-chested, charmless little man, Jérome Lopez,  running hysterically around the stage shouting was…. Indeed… Romeo, the dreamy, adolescent boy who was Shakespeare’s ideal lover. The odd casting here was matched by that of Tybalt, Juliet’s hot-headed, vindictive young cousin, interpreted grey-haired, 58 year old Christian Gonon who came slouching onto the stage wondering what he was doing there.

It has become quite usual to see an older actress take on the central role of Juliet, and Suliane Brahim, too sophisticated in Act I, subsequently gave a convincing performance, even when perched perilously on top of a ruined 15-foot piece of wall. One was so anxious for her safety that the exquisite poetry of the "balcony scene" was quite lost. Pierre Louis Calixte was also remarkable as Mercutio, Romeo’s childhood friend,  despite looking his 45 years.

However, the main criticism of Ruf’s version is that in giving the play ‘new life’, the comedy scenes, particularly between the nurse and Mercutio, took precedent over the tragic, and there was more laughter than tears from spectators, an odd occurrence when Shakespeare’s play is about blighted love, sexuality and death. It is the tale of the tragedy of two adolescents whose untimely end brought peace to the feuding families, a fact which somehow got lost in this too personal version.

Shakespeare was a skilful man of the theatre. His comedies, tragedies and historical plays are timeless and offer solid, well-constructed stories. It is no surprise that theatre directors are attracted by his works, ready to bypass much of the poetry in favour of an entertaining production more suited to an audience where English isn’t the first language.

A direct transmission of  "Twelfth Night" will be shown at all Pathé cinemas in France and abroad on Thursday, February 14th, 2019 at 20hr 15. The film will  be shown again on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of March 2019.

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. 

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