Les Damnes: Comedie-Francaise at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Les Damnes (The Dammed)

Comedie-Francaise, Barbican Theatre, 21st June

The Tourist is now so far off the pace in terms of commenting om his cultural adventures that there must surely be a strong case for giving up. Hurrah I hear you cry. Well I am afraid any joy you feel will be short lived. The purpose of this blog is to force me to collect my thoughts on what I see and hear. Any interest from you beyond that is a happy by-product. So time is not, I am sorry to say, of the essence. Which means I am going to soldier on and try to catch up.

However this dilatory attitude does have clear drawbacks. Not least of which is that the Tourist can’t always remember the details of his what he has seen. Take The Damned at the Barbican for example. The abiding single image is of a couple of naked fellas, including the simply brilliant Denis Podalydes as Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, rolling around in beer on the Barbican stage, Tackle out. Drunkenly singing fascist songs. Before being massacred. Filmed and projected then meshed together with previous footage to create the full brownshirt bierkeller effect. This being the so called Night of the Long Knives. A powerful image which is very difficult to shake off.

It wasn’t the only one. It is also impossible to look away from the unsettling scene where the young, and very disturbed, scion of the von Essenbeck family Martin, (a stunning performance from Christophe Montenez), “befriends” his young cousin. This is echoed later on in his encounter with the daughter of a prostitute, though the play holds back from emulating the corresponding scene in the film which is the most brutal signifier of the decay and destruction that the Third Reich represented.

Or the funeral scenes, announced by a factory siren, as members of the clan shuffle off the mortal coil in more or less nasty ways, to be “buried alive” in the coffins lined up stage left. Especially the tarred and feathered Baroness Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre), mother of Martin and widow of the patriarch’s only son who was killed in WWI. Then there is the awkward dinner party, complete with artfully choreographed silver service. All of this takes place on a day-glo orange platform with on stage costume changes and make up stage right and backed by video screens relaying the live camera-work.

Now you theatre luvvies will have probably worked out from all the above that all this wizardry comes courtesy of theatrical mastermind Ivo van Hove. His busy, high concept approach, of which this is the epitome, doesn’t always come off but then again neither doesn’t his stripped back, high tension, “psychological insight” alternative.

This though is a triumph. And what makes it extra special is that it is achieved without the collaboration of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam company, IvH’s own troupe. Mind you if you are going to play away then it would be hard to beat the Comedie-Francaise. Founded in 1680 thanks to a decree of Louis XIV it is the world’s oldest theatre company. It’s had its up and downs but, backed financially by the French state since 1995 and with three venues to showcase its vast repertoire, this is about as good as it gets acting wise. Shame we in the UK have nothing similar.

Not for the first time, when they dreamt this up in 2016 with the company, IvH and designer partner Jan Versweyveld, turned to the Italian film auteur Luchino Visconti in seeking the source for their theatrical adaptation, Specifically his 1969 epic which charts the disintegration of the Essenbeck family, who own a steel company thatcollaborates with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. The reciprocity between state and industry, which forged the autarky that powered the Third Reich war machine, often takes a back seat in dramatic representations of Nazi Germany. Not here though. Yet this is still primarily a terrifying family psychodrama, with an emphasis on the psycho, Greek in scope and savagery.

The story kicks off with a party and then the the murder of the paterfamilias Baron Joachim (Didier Sandre – would have been good to see more of him). On 27th February 1933. The same night as the Reichstag fire. The Baron detests the Nazis. His kids and nephews, with the exception of Herbert Thalmann (Loic Corberry), who runs the company, are less principled, in fact they turn on Herbert and frame him for the murder. He escapes but his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy) and kids are shopped to the Gestapo. Leadership of the company passes to the Baron’s thuggish nephew Konstantin (see above) an SA officer ahead of his own bookish son Gunther (Clement Hervieu-Leger) and his deviant nephew, the aforementioned Martin. Meanwhile the firm’s fixer, Friederich Bruckmann (Guillaume Gallienne), makes his bid for control egged on by his lover Baroness Sophie, despite not being a family member and coming from an lowly background. He is initially aided by her cousin Wolf von Aschenbach (Eric Genovese) who happens to be a high ranking SS officer and all round c*nt. It is he who drives the company into the arms of the Nazi Party. To realise his ambitions Fred shoots the drunken Konstantin during the SS coup against the SA in 1934 the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Wolf however turns on him denouncing him as a traitor to the Nazi cause. Herbert returns for his exile and reveals that wife Elisabeth died in the Dachau concentration camp and hands himself over to the Gestapo to save his kids. Aschenbach and the now certifiable Martin who has also joined the SS cook up a deal to oust Friedrich and Sophie from control of the firm. Martin shags his Mummy but allows Friedrich to marry her as long as they then commit suicide. Marty finally hands the firm over to his beloved Party. The End.

See what I mean. Uber nasty and very Greek. Or maybe twisted Racine is a more apposite label. Visconti’s film is tiled La caduta degli dei in Italian, which translates as The Fall of the Gods. In German then Gotterdammerung, the actual subtitle, this conjuring up an OTT Wagnerian vibe. The film doesn’t stint on sets, costumes or symbolism. Though it does on lighting and linear storytelling. And IvH and his dramaturg Bart Van den Eyede, who also worked on Roman Tragedies, have taken their lead from this deliberately mannered approach. Now I can understand why some might recoil at this operatic approach, chock full of modern European theatre tropes, and at the less than subtle allusions to our own troubled times. Notably when the house lights go up after each death and a camera is trained on the audience to remind us of our complicity if we just stand by. Me I don’t mind. This offers theatrical spectacle by the bucket load, a cast of cracking deplorable characters for this superb company to sink their teeth in to and if the moral of such immorality is overwrought, well why not? The lessons of history require magnification and repetition if our vicious species is ever to learn. And for once, in contrast to IvH’s Obsession or his Bergman homages, this is definitely an improvement on the film.

The two unbroken hours passed by in a heartbeat which is not something the Tourist can always say. OK so there were moments when the images distracted a little from the telling of the story and a modicum of effort and knowledge of relevant German history was required to keep up. Tal Yarden’s video, Eric Sleichim’s woodwind and brass driven score, (which makes ironically liberal use of Rammstein’s militaristic thudding NDH grooves) and JV’s lighting don’t hold back but this suits both story and space. And you either love or hate sur-titles.

I do wonder whether the whole would have been quite the equal of the sum of its parts without this extraordinary cast. As with ITA it is thrilling to see and hear actors of the quality, both as individuals but, more than this, as a company. They join initially as pensionnaires, paid a wage, before graduating to societaires, with a stake in the company’s profits. Just a brilliant structure. There have only been 533 since 1680. The longest tenured on the stage here, Sylvia Berge, had the smallest part, the least experienced, still a pensionnaire, Christoph Montenez, had the “best” part as Martin. None of that “star” billing stuff that debilitates West End theatre. And remember all this admiration from the Tourist for a play delivered in a language that he cannot speak. Acting isn’t just the words folks.

All About Eve at the Noel Coward Theatre review ****

All About Eve

Noel Coward Theatre, 15th March 2019

Bloody West End theatres. The Noel Coward Theatre is by no means the worst offender, and we went early and cheap in terms of booking, which was probably the right strategy, but even this VFM perch was uncomfortable, tight, too hot and with a trek to the bogs which near required a satnav. Still at least the sight-lines were up to snuff, for me, if not so much the SO.

With this story, this cast and this creative team this was never going to fail though even as I occasionally yearned for the comfort of the Lyttleton. If you can’t, or won’t, pay up (£175 for a premium ticket!!) to get along in person then this is definitely worth seeing when it is broadcast live to cinemas on 11th April. It is, even with the back-stage insight and obligatory on-stage video, a surprisingly naturalistic take on the classic Joseph L. Mankiewicz film from 1950. I can see why some of the proper reviews say it is overly focussed on the theme of ageing to the detriment of the other insights into the sourer side of the human condition, and Gillian Anderson wisely reins in her inner Bette Davies, (there is the mighty BD above), as Margo Channing, but this is still a very smart piece of theatre craft where the 2 hour straight through run time never drags.

Highlights? Monica Dolan as Karen Richards. Now Ms Dolan, even if she turned it down to say 30 watts, just can’t help outshining everyone else on stage. Here she is magnificent. In the scenes at the party, captured on live video, when everyone has abandoned the drunk, maudlin Margo, she continues to build her character whilst others are “rhubarbing” – there is no sound in these scenes bit it matters not a whit to our Monica. Or take the scene in the car where Karen reveals how she has betrayed Margo to give Eve her big break. Not entirely convincing in the hands of Celeste Holm in the film but here you feel Karen’s remorse at what she has done, and see in her eyes the consequences that will flow from it. You will most likely have seen Ms Dolan on the telly but if you ever get the chance to see her self penned one-woman play The B*easts, about the sexualisation of modern culture, do not, repeat do not, turn it down.

Who else? Well Rhashan Stone as Lloyd Richards, Karen’s playwright husband who also falls under Eve’s spell, also turns in a winning performance. As does the twinkly-eyed Sheila Reid as Margo’s droll, and jealous, retainer Birdie and a booming Stanley Townsend does ample justice to the critic, and Eve’s eventual Svengali, Addison DeWitt, the part made famous by Oscar winner George Sanders. (I am surprised that the OED definition of the word acerbic doesn’t contain reference to the said Mr DeWitt). Indeed all the supporting actors turn in sparkling performances, Ian Drysdale as Margo’s producer Max Fabian, Julian Ovenden as her boyfriend Bill Sampson, debutant Jessie Mei Li as the vacuous Claudia Caswell, (the part played in the film by another newcomer who went by the stage name of Marilyn Monroe), and even Tsion Habte who plays Phoebe the apparent ingenue who pitches up in Eve’s dressing room at the end to repeat the story. Ms Habte is, of course, Lily James’s understudy as Eve. What price Ivo van Hove gets tempted to play that particular meta-dramatic card and shove her into the limelight.

The set and lighting design of Jan Versweyveld is predictably memorable. Mid- and side-stage panels move up to reveal the back-stage workings, this is, after all a play based on a film about the theatre, in turn based on a play The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, in turn based on her own short story which she based on the real life experience of actress Elizabeth Bergner. The design allows slick set changes to conjure up Margo’s dressing room in the opening scene where super-fan Eve Harrington first sneaks in and tells her sob story, Margo’s glitzy apartment, front of stage at Aged in Wood, the Stork Club, back-stage at the Shubert Theatre where Eve gets her premiere in Footsteps on the Ceiling, Lloyd’s new play, the awards banquet and finally Eve’s own apartment. There is a sickly pink tinge to much of the design which I shall henceforward imagine is the dominant colour in the film, and which nails the forced grandeur of old-school theatre, set in this grand old-school theatre.

The understated period costumes and the score by PJ Harvey, (finally delivering after a few false starts on other plays recently), with on stage pianist Philip Voyzey, and amplified by Tom Gibbons sound design, complete the ensemble. And this being Ivo van Hove each detail has been thought through and there are some divine moments, not least of which is the, admittedly sledgehammer, video “ageing” of Margo on the projected screen. Of course if one or other, or both, of the leads, were to fall short then so would the whole confection, but Gillian Anderson, with her trademark drawl, is as predictably secure as you might imagine as a tragic heroine despite the bantz and the limpid-exterior-masking-steely-interior of Lily James’s sly Eve is the perfect foil.

So great performances, it looks and sounds spot on and no glaring games played with story or text. But, for me, it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the film. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck famously reined in some of the more excessive characterisation in Mankiewicz’s original script, but there is still a hefty dose of melodrama and the sound of tongue pushing against cheek in many of the lines. No-one comes out well and everyone looks after number one first. There is artifice in life as well as art. Anne Baxter’s Eve is recognisably cut from the same cloth as Bette Davies’s Margo. If anyone of these characters pitched up as plus ones at your party, and I include Karen in that, you would probably be looking to wind things up early. Yes the film is about the primacy of youth and looks for women on stage and screen but the message never subsumes the entertainment. The touch is light and, for good or bad, the creators plainly loved their characters. Ivo van Hove’s version, with all the technical wizardry, is decidedly more serious. Maybe too serious. Network at the NT, even if it did miss out some of my favourite bits, was thrilling theatre that eclipsed the film it was based on. This, like other film adaptations by this creative team, does not.

If I may quote from Billers’s review in the Guardian – “this feels more like a Ingmar Bergman movie than a Mankiewicz satire”. The old boy sums it up perfectly as always, especially since it is Bergman that Mr van Hove is continually drawn to as he seeks out films he can react for theatre. (I imagine, based on his brilliant writing, a couple of interviews, his appearance on University Challenge and the fact that he has been theatre critic for nearly 50 years on the world’s greatest newspaper, that the genial Michael Billington is as far removed from Addison DeWitt as it is possible to be. If this were not true the Tourist may well suffer a kind of total psychic collapse).

Even with these caveats, which frankly any half-interested theatre goer familiar with director and film, might reasonably have seem coming well in advance, this is an event and needs seeing. Next up in London, unless I am very much mistaken, from the van Hove factory, is his take on the Janacek song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared with added recitals, music and meaning, at the Royal Opera House, and then, hot on its heels, The Damned at the Barbican, based on Visconti’s coruscating 1969 film, in collaboration with Comedie Francaise, which sounds like in is slap bang in the core of van Hove’s curriculum.