Le Tigre blue de l’Euphrate

A one man show in which Alexander the Great, on his deathbed, offers a chronological history of his military campaigns in Asia. I’ve been working through a history of Ancient Greece and was interested.

Laurent Gaudé’s script is like a textbook—I’m actually not sure why it would have be written or staged as a play—but the actor Emmanuel Schwartz uses it as the occasion for a show of force. I didn’t necessarily care for what he was doing and his performance was often by necessity of arbitrary—the text isn’t creating options for him—but there’s no denying that it’s powerful work.

Caligula Again

(Photo source here)

The production of Caligula I saw  recently has been on my mind on-and-off for the past few weeks.

In the play, Caligula is always there, always speaking. He acts and defines the actions of the people around him. While I was watching, I focused on what he said, what he thought about, what he discovered and did. How could I not? I also took his preoccupations as if they were synonymous with the play, and as I thought back to the play later, I continued in the same vein.

But I’ve decided Caligula isn’t Caligula.

Caligula gives us a character who achieves a point-of-view and is convinced of its essential rightness as something greater than simply himself. Thanks to his position (as emperor, as protagonist), he has the power to push that view beyond himself and onto his subjects (the Romans, the spectators). Over the course of a performance, we watch as the people around him are slowly erased from their own lives and made less than human. Some become converts (Caligula’s certainty in his vision is not non-religious). Others die. Everyone suffers miserably.

I don’t know what Camus has said about his text, but with time to reflect, I see more clearly its preoccupation with moral certitudes, both religious and secular, and with the suffering they inflict. I also think that the play invites misrecognition of it’s concerns as part of its poetic strategy.

Which obviously brings me back to that set I hated so much in the production I saw—the one that hid all the bit players under a black box or pushed them to the front of the stage where Caligula was pacing and raving—I’ve begun to think it’s an elegant and expressive engagement with the problem I now think this play is presenting to it’s audience. The cheaper your seats and the farther you are away form the stage, the quicker and more often the bit players disappear from view. The people sitting at Caligula’s feet won’t see this at all, even though they probably think they see everything clearly.

A set that makes not seeing visible and then comments on that not seeing in terms of both a spectator’s physical situation within the theatre and their proximity to the protagonist is operating thematically.


This production featured incredible performances. By the dinner scene, Benoît McGuinnes had become a tour de force, and the other actors stayed with him straight through to the end. Over and over, I was caught off guard by natural effortless readings of lines that somehow struck me as unexpected or revealing. It was a great experience.

That said, I’ve never seen a show in which I hated the set more or felt more strongly that it was purposefully aggressive toward the audience.

The stage was empty except for a closed, black box that was raised up on row after row of construction jacks. This box was enormous: it was the same width and depth as the stage and it was high enough to take up half the available vertical space. As a result, it served as a roof over the actors’ heads throughout. There were only two places for action to be performed: at the very front of the stage (the only place where everyone was out from under the box) or further back, under the box. In the latter case, the actors were screened from the view of anyone not on the ground level, and for people in the balconies, watching the play often meant watching actors’ feet and hips.

So why was the box there? It’s tough to say because over the course of the entire production it is used in only two ways, both of them extremely brief. First, the box’s front wall opened during the first and last minutes of the play offering a brightly lit and blindingly white space where Caligula acted out his anguish and despair in private. The first of these moments was shocking and exciting. As it happened I thought it was effective. By the final moments, I’d changed my mind.

The second use of the box was more fragmentary. At three or four points during the performance, small panels opened in its front walls to reveal the dead Drusilla watching the action of the play silently from above. These moments were disconnected, distracting and largely without point. If I were to be less generous, I’d call them sentimental.

Neither of these two uses of the box—not even the first, which I liked initially—offers anything substantial enough to off-set the fact that it makes the actors act where most of their audience can’t really see them. As a result, the box feels hostile and arbitrary, a sense of things that makes me wonder why it was there at all.

One thought: the open box has proportions resembling those of a cinemascope frame; the panels opening onto Drusilla resembled video screens; the action only proceeds clearly when confined to the narrow (i.e. flat) space of the front of the stage. Are these hints that this stage is operating in relation to the cinema screen? It it inviting a consideration of mediation?

If so, the idea is too undeveloped to do any work.

Update here.

Romeo et Juliette

TNM_Romeo_Juliette_photographe-Jean-Fran--ois-GrattonThe Thêatre du Nouveau Monde staged a translation of Romeo and Juliette this summer. Turns out the Beav had never seen or read the play and didn’t even know the story. (“C’est une historie d’amour…, no?”) So at the last minute we grabbed tickets and watched the final matinee.

The production presents the story clearly and directly, which, given this was the Beav’s first encounter with it, I was glad of. I could have lived without it being set in Mussolini’s Italy, but still, the core was there.

Serge Denoncourt, who was coming off his well reviewed A Streetcar Named Desire, was directing, and I’ve decided I don’t like his approach. He’s clearly caught up in the idea of sexual provocation and is willing to tinker with the text of the plays in substantial ways. Neither are necessarily problems—who doesn’t like a bit of sexual provocation?—but to my eye, he also seems intent on stripping away complexity and ambiguity as if insisting, bizarrely, that the play is accessible because it doesn’t actually have much to offer.

This production felt to me like a collage of imperfectly digested movie moments, and it was hobbled by wild and uncontrolled shifts in tone. The extremely tacky staging of the couple having sex on their wedding night (yikes) and the bumbling final death scene, during which a large part of the audience actually laughed (double yikes) are both good example of these missteps. The balcony scene—which seemed determined to establish that it was not (and yet was) a “Balcony Scene”—stumbled nearly as a badly by suggesting that the young protagonists were silly rather than falling into feeling. (Marianne Fortier’s Juliette comes out of the scene fine.)

Despite, all my complaints, the play survived, the Beav liked it, and as I left, I felt happy to have watched this story again. I was also happy to see it in translation because hearing Shakespeare translated is as unexpected now as it was to me last year when I watched Richard III. French Shakespeare is and is not Shakespeare in very strange and exciting ways.

Richard III

Richard IIIThis version of Richard III was in translation. It was well done and interesting. Yet, somehow, the actors delivered lines in a way that sounded “French” and made me think of this clip. I can’t explain why because the play wasn’t awful. There was just something in the emphasized rhythms of the lines that reminded me of all the performances of Moliere’s plays that I’d seen in Montreal.

A Streetcar Named Desire

UN TRAMWAY NOMMÉ DÉSIRL’Espace Go, an experimental theatre that takes risks, staged A Streetcar Named Desire this past winter (trailer here). Their production was defined by two choices: first, an actor playing Tennessee Williams sits in a corner and reads the stage directions aloud, and second, the sexual content of the play is performed without the censorship that the director believes has hobbled previous productions.

Concretely, uncensored sex means:

  • the male and female actors are repeatedly nude.
  • sex and masturbation are acted out overtly whenever they are hinted at in the text. These simulations are extended and, in a shower scene between Stanley and Stella, only a hair’s breadth from actuality.
  • Blanche’s rape at the end of the play is prefigured by an invented scene of gay sex between Stanley and Tennessee Williams.
  • audio recordings of the actors discussing the sexual content of the piece are played before the curtain rises and during the intermission.

I’m happy to have seen this production, and it got good reviews, but the only thing I really liked was the actor reading the stage directions (and toward the end, stealing a few characters’ lines). I don’t think this device was put to good use here, but it was interesting and has potential. The rest, however, created a spectacle that I think was at odds with the content of the play.

Desire, flirtation, seduction, Streetcar is full of these. What’s more the characters’ hopes and needs are expressed through these desires, especially those that are impossible to realize in the context of their lives. The obstacles they face makes their desire meaningful.

None of this comes through in Espace Go’s production. With sex made to be the only thing that matters and the various obstacles characters face reduced simply to convention or prudery, many relationships didn’t make sense at all, and those that did seemed a shadow of what they should have been. Blanche’s preoccupations with respectability and money didn’t read at all, and her dream life seemed something like a pose without substance.

By going all-in on the proposition that Streetcar is a play about transgressive sex full-stop, the director winds up demonstrating how little in the play can be accounted for by sex alone. That is something I hadn’t realized with quite so much clarity before.

On a separate note, I saw this production near the end of the run, and the actors just looked battered. I think the level of exposure they faced on that stage took a toll.

Les Aiguilles et l’opium

Les Aiguilles et l'opiumRobert Lepage’s Les Aiguilles et l’opium sets the story of Miles Davis, Jean Cocteau and a Quebecois voice actor spinning around each other on a spinning stage built from three intersecting planes balanced slightly off the floor on its point (trailer here). From moment to moment walls rotated and became floors and then rotated back to become walls again. As they did, gravity opened and closed trap doors to lower and then raise beds or tables. There were no level surfaces to walk on and the actors were frequently harnessed to ropes in order to “stand up” on steeply canted floors, to float above the centre point as lights turned the stage into outer space or even to walk along the outside edges of the stage as it turned.

For me, the physicality demanded of the actors by this staging was the focus of the piece rather than the interweaving stories.


MetamorphosisAn adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s story. The Beav and I saw it at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. The director and main actors were Icelandic.

Metamorphosis is not an obvious text to adapt for the stage. Until its final paragraphs, the text limits its point of view to that of Gregor Samson, who has transformed into a bug, cannot communicate with others, and spends most of the story trapped alone with his thoughts inside his room.

The play obviously has to invent material that can be watched for an hour and a half. It accomplishes this in two ways: by staging Gregor’s experience in his room as a circus played out on the walls and ceiling of his upstairs room and by reading every reference the story makes to the family as a script for a very spare, very modern family drama.

The circus was amazing to watch. Gregor literally crawls the walls and the ceiling of his room. Midway through the first act, I began to wonder how the actor could keep up physically with the performance. It was that intense.

Metamorphosis at the Sydney Theatre

The actors in the family drama sounded very much like Björk does when she gives interviews. Now, I love Björk (and Dancer in the Dark was crazy good) but this accent plus the very stiff but exaggerated action was off-putting. I felt as if Gregor’s world upstairs was imaginative and energetic and the family’s world downstairs was community theatre. And yet clearly this difference was intentional: the family’s performance was controlled and purposeful and slowly evolved, until by the end, the family drama had come alive. Their final moments together in the gardens were quite moving.