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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Men dominate French theater, but talented women abound

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A story of a fictional 16th-century female painter. Greek warriors laying siege to the walls of Troy. A couple engaged in an eerily morbid sexual transaction. Families torn apart by France's colonial rule over Vietnam. All of the above came to the Paris stage this month courtesy of women. In a perfect world, that fact would be unremarkable, but don't be fooled by the claims of Catherine Deneuve and others, who argued recently in the newspaper Le Monde that the #MeToo movement was starting to infringe on artistic freedom: France is a long way from gender equality, and the output of its theater sector remains deeply skewed toward stories written and staged by men.



None of the country's five national theaters is run by a woman; last season, the proportion of female playwrights and directors they presented ranged from 11 percent to 32 percent. The situation is slowly improving in France's network of 38 National or Regional Dramatic Centers, which make up the next tier of publicly funded theater institutions, but 71 percent remain led by men.

If recent productions are any indication, there is no shortage of female talent. The directors Caroline Guiela Nguyen ("Saigon"), Pauline Bayle ("Iliade" and "Odyssée") and Claudia Stavisky ("Tableau d'une exécution"), as well as Britain's Katie Mitchell ("La Maladie de la mort"), all offered absorbing work here in the last month. Their individual styles are no more alike than those of their male counterparts, but their voices add up to a diverse, vital chorus.

Ms. Bayle and Ms. Stavisky made the most overtly progressive statements. "Iliade" and "Odyssée", inspired by Homer's ancient epic poems, are only the third and fourth productions directed by Ms. Bayle, who is 31. Created in 2015 and 2016, and now presented as a diptych at the Théâtre de la Bastille, they manage to walk a fine line between some of the Western world's oldest verse and modern dramaturgy.   

On the Paris Stage, Plays Get Personal and Political NOV. 23, 2017
The sweeping scale of "Iliad" and "Odyssey," which recount the Trojan War and Ulysses' subsequent, decade-long journey home, are obvious obstacles for theater directors, and few adaptations have seen the light of day. Boldly, Ms. Bayle uses just five actors, who all take turns playing male and female roles. The charismatic Charlotte van Bervesselès set the tone with a sharply drawn Achilles in "Iliade"; Helen and Andromache, two female archetypes in Greek mythology, are played by men.

Along the way, Ms. Bayle toys with the audience's expectations, and she does so in a straightforward manner, without playing the gender swaps for laughs. Nor do they compromise her adaptation of the text, which juggles between modernized dialogue and precise translations of Homer's lyrical verse. In lieu of props, red paint signals the blood being shed, and glitter the characters' armor. The spare sets proved limiting for some of Ulysses' fantastical encounters, but "Iliade" and "Odyssée" are winning examples of forward-looking storytelling.

While Ms. Stavisky's "Tableau d'une execution," a staging of Howard Barker's 1984 play "Scenes from an Execution," is more conventional in its form, its heroine Galactia, an uncompromising, freethinking painter in Renaissance Venice, remains a startling creation. She responds to a public commission with a savage painting that offends Venice's ruler, the Doge - until local officials find a way to harness its power to their advantage.

It is a subtle tale of power relations, and Ms. Stavisky, the director of the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon, channeled it into an elegant production, performed at the Théâtre du Rond-Point here in Paris. Franck Thévenon's painterly lighting enhanced the semirealistic sets. Yards of red fabric draped across the stage stood for Galactia's elusive masterpiece, a wise choice that left the cast free to fill the space.

The role of Galactia was originally written for Glenda Jackson, and requires a rare mix of fearlessness and maturity. In Paris, Christiane Cohendy, an award-winning actress whose career stretches five decades, was brilliantly oblivious to other people's expectations throughout, with a mordant edge. Galactia is punished for her transgression, but only temporarily: The twists and turns paint a compellingly nuanced picture of a conservative society, and Ms. Cohendy's portrayal is attuned to the audacity and cost of a woman's artistic ambitions in it.

Female directors do not necessarily bring feel-good feminism to the stage, however, and other plays explored more unsettling territory. "La Maladie de la mort," Marguerite Duras's 1982 novella, is especially intriguing material in the hands of Ms. Mitchell, an outspoken feminist who once called Shakespeare's gender politics "execrable." Ms. Duras, one of the most distinctive voices in 20th-century French fiction, operated on the essentialist premise that men and women are fundamentally unalike, and some of her works have rapidly acquired a dated feel in that regard.

"La Maladie de la mort" ("The Malady of Death") shows the sort of relationship that fascinates Ms. Duras: A man pays a woman to spend nights with him in order to learn "how to love." Along the way, there is talk of submission and violent penetration, and we are told that her body "calls for strangling, for rape." If you're inclined to follow Ms. Duras's reasoning, the woman's passive assent is a form of mercy: The man is marked by the "malady of death," and therefore doomed.

Ms. Duras left instructions at the end of the novella for a potential theater adaptation, but Ms. Mitchell doesn't follow them in her new production at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord (part of the Théâtre de la Ville's season). While the strong stamp she puts on the texts she works with hasn't always been popular in her native Britain, she is right at home in France, where director-dominated theater is the norm.

Ms. Mitchell's is a shrewd reading of "La Maladie de la mort," billed here as a "live cinema performance." In the lead roles, Laetitia Dosch and Nick Fletcher move around the sets - a hotel room, and the corridor outside it - with a crew of cameramen and technicians, while a narrator fills in the blanks. The film, occasionally interspersed with prerecorded footage, is shown on a screen above the stage.

The overall effect is to radically remove anything erotic from Ms. Duras's text. The sex scenes are obviously faked for the cameras; close-ups linger on Ms. Dosch's expressive face as she reacts to the man's demands with a mixture of disgust and practicality. She clearly plays along for the money - her life outside the hotel room is hinted at repeatedly, and a son introduced by Ms. Mitchell near the end. In that sense, Ms. Duras's ambiguous heroine gains depth and agency, and the production rejuvenates "La Maladie de la mort" in the process.

Ms. Duras famously grew up in French Indochina, but aside from her, few French artists have grappled with the legacy of France's colonial rule over this region of Vietnam. Enter Ms. Guiela Nguyen, who wrote and directed "Saigon," currently installed at the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, where she is an associate artist.

This poignant saga follows interconnected characters from Vietnam in 1956, as the last French troops prepare to depart, to Paris in 1996. Performed in a mix of French and Vietnamese, it makes plain the intimate pain wrought by colonial arrogance, culture clashes and exile.

As Marie-Antoinette, the cook who runs the Saigon and Paris restaurants in which the story unfolds, the diminutive Anh-Tran Nghia gives an especially mighty performance. "That's how stories are told in Vietnam - with a lot of tears," Ms. Guiela Nguyen concludes wistfully. More of these hidden stories remain to be unearthed, and women may well take the lead.


The writer is a dance writer and researcher

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