Fringe comedian Andrew Clover has inadvertently supplied possibly the most succinct, though certainly not the most decorous, phrase to describe this eleven-hour centrepiece of the Edinburgh International Festival: it is, Clover would say, "all over the place like a madwoman's piss."
Until Olivier Py of the Centre Dramatique National Orléans-Loiret-Centre unveiled the production last year which has just visited the Festival Theatre for two performances, Paul Claudel's play had scarcely ever been staged uncut. There may be a reason for that. Where the likes of the Mahabharata can be viewed as offering a window into unfamiliar religious and philosophical modes, Claudel's brand of Catholic apologism may seem too close for us to watch as if we were outsiders. True, it's not often these days that we hear the argument dramatically advanced (and at such length!) that perfection is attained by subordinating our human will to that of the Lord. Yet, even though the theme is embedded in a story of unconsummated love that spans 16th-century aristocratic Spain, north Africa and America, it feels as if we have heard Claudel's tune before. For a work on divine grace, too, it contains a great deal of casual racism and religious bigotry.
Theatrical marathons tend to remake concepts of time and pacing on their own terms: one doesn't consider minute nip-and-tuck editing as an option, for example. However, even in such a context, Py's staging is stately, bordering on plodding, and he gets his cast of 24 to deliver lines in modes ranging from declamatory to bizarrely over-emphatic animal noises. The scenes of comedy and clowning inserted to break up the romance and theology are likewise slow and broad (i.e. almost entirely unfunny). In any such foreign-language production, there may be scenes where the surtitles are forced to translate only around one-third of the lines uttered onstage; but when it happens so often in such an ideas-heavy play, it begins to frustrate.
Py and his designer Pierre-André Weitz stage the piece in a style that is at once rough and sumptuous: we see stagehands maneoeuvring trucks and rostra around the stage, but also see nods towards the opulence of imperial Spain and the glory of the Christian ideal. And yet I have the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that if it were to be seen by someone unfamiliar with the realities of theatre and coasting on uninformed preconceptions, this would be exactly their idea of an international festival presentation: long, loud and slow, full of people shouting at each other in foreign about deep stuff, and not even bothering with the special effects. And I really wouldn't like the job of explaining to them that it's usually not like this at all.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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