Reviewed by Kenneth Krauss
The College of Saint Rose,
Albany, New York 12203 USA
The advance word, through the French press and state-run television, was that Jacques Lassalle's production of Euripides' Andromaque, newly translated by Jean and Mayotte Bollack for the opening of the 1994 Avignon Festival, held a special contemporary relevance. Evening news broadcasts compared the plight of the betrayed captive, Andromaque, to the situation in Bosnia, and a morning paper pointed to the collapse of the immense bronze statue of the divine nereid Thetis (protector of the enslaved Trojan princess and her son) as an indicator that God was indeed dead, or at least deaf to the cries of the needy. Actors were frequently interviewed on the air and in print, especially Christine Gagnieux, who would appear in the title role, and the public was led to believe that this in fact would be the Andromaque to end allAndromaques.
Then the play opened the Festival, in the most prestigious of all the big spaces, the Cour d'Honneur in the Palais des Papes, and the critics leapt upon director Lassalle, delightedly ripping apart both him and his production, much in the way Hermione in the play would have ripped apart Andromaque had she had the nerve and the chance. The performance, they protested, was too long, the acting too drawn-out, and even the script itself--not the translation but the actual play of Euripides--was abysmal. Lassalle, who during the Avignon Festival of 1993 had been curtly informed of his dismissal as director of the Comedie Francaise (because, it was whispered, he was not politically compatible with the new prime minister), now announced to his detractors that he would renounce the theatre, never to direct again.
Those who had actually sat through this play (and fought off the mosquitoes in the damp night air) were perhaps the most astonishedby the non-theatrical drama that whirled 'round the production. True, Andromaque as created by Lassalle ran, in its uninterrupted two- and-a-half hours, far too long, but to French sensibilities,which were, for example, perfectly capable of withstanding Ariane Mnouchkine's nine-hour staging of Helene Cixous's La Ville Parjure (at the Cartoucherie in the Bois de Vincennes), this Greek tragedy was a mere curtain-raiser. Besides, the performances in Andromaque were vivid and strong and the direction seemed innovative and memorable.
A major problem with this ancient script, asserted the critics, was the way its plot seems to wander about. (Because these critics referred to the characters by the French transliterations of their Greek names, I will do the same throughout this review.) Taken to Thessaly after the defeat of Troy, Andromaque is given as concubine to Neoptoleme, son of Achille. He deserts her to marry Hermione, who, in order to dispose of her husband's former mistress and her child, recruits her father, Menelas. Only the holy shrine of Thetis protects Andromaque from her enemies, but she is lured away when Menelas brings out her son. The arrival of Achille's father, Pelee, prevents the execution of mother and child, but then Oreste enters, fresh from matricide, and convinces Hermione to let him kill her husband, who, he says, has betrayed her (but who, in actuality, has been calling Oreste a murderous killer). In the end, Pelee is saved from despair by the sudden appearance of Thetis herself, who decrees that Andromaque must marry Achille's remaining son. The tragedy begins with a clear focus on Andromaque, who has left the stage by the middle of the play. The focus then swerves, first toward Hermione, then toward Pelee. Episodes follow, one after the other, in a disjointed fashion and with little sense of continuity. Moreover, many of the monologues are unusually long, even for Euripides, and several of the choral odes, perhaps typically, seem rather incongruous and/or irrelevant.
Yet Lassalle sought, through his production, to mitigate or outshine many of these dramatic flaws through visual effect. Much of the added spectacle was memorable: the shrine of Thetis was represented by a colossal, upright image, which, once hope was lost, fell to the stage floor. When Menelas announced to Andromaqueand her son that they were about to die, soldiers with short bleached-blond hair dug two deep graves (through trap doors), heaping two wide circles of dirt across the stage. Thetis appeared from a window in the Popes' Palace amid a profusion of tiny white lights and glittered rather like Glenda, the good witch in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. Spectators hardly had time to note what problems the script held because they were too busy being astounded by the ingenuity of the staging.
And many of the performances were remarkable as well. Gagnieux's Andromaque was forceful, often heart-wringing in her lamentations and reminiscent (as would perhaps be inevitable in France) of Bernhardt doing Racine. Francois Chattot as Menelas, the calculating betrayer of those he ought to protect, offered a chilling parody of patriarchal power with calm, ironic timing: 'It's a bad idea,' he drawled, with a seemingly good-humored smile,'not to kill your enemy's child....' And old Pelee, played by Hubert Gignoux, managed to reach out in his moments of anguish.
Even the centrality of the chorus, which can be a difficult convention for the modern audience to understand, was handled deftly and ingeniously. The seven Thessalian girls and their leader were dressed in short, tight black dresses and wore cropped black wigs lacquered against their heads, as if they were refugees from some disastrous Right-Bank couturier opening. During the play, they shed their shifts and walked about in white slips, removed their wigs, veiled their faces and real hair with shawls. Odes were often keened, occasionally sung (sometimes in Western melody, sometimes with Eastern assonance), always vocally varied and syncopated, so that no matter what their relevance to the action (if, in fact, any), they looked and sounded in themselves remarkable.
And yet Lassalle's efforts did not seem to come together well. The Thessalian chorus, with gestures intended to suggest the world of ultra-high fashion, looked at times like a circle of expensive callgirls, each in a state of identical undress, while the punkish Hitler youth who followed Menelas, with their peroxided, crew-cut hair and even features, seemed not so much menacing as in urgent need of a discotheque pulsating with techno-pop. There were titters and outright laughs when Marianne Basler, as the maddened Hermione, was placed in a very belle-epoque straitjacket. And Hugues Quester as Oreste, for all his bluster and wrath, could not shake his fatigued sullenness and thus appeared more like aging, flirtatious Eurotrash than the serial killer his character should be in the process of becoming.
Like the dismissal of Lassalle from the Comedie Francaise, the initial playing up and the subsequent putting down of this production smacked of politicking. This Andromaque may not have been as brilliant as it was supposed to be, but it was certainly nowhere near as bad as reviewers alleged. Perhaps what most embarrassed the critics was how intensely this production, which began the festival, embodied and in this way revealed the worst excesses of it. The very scale of the performance and space--the vast cast in front of the vast statue on the vast stage in the vast courtyard where sat a vast audience-- could not be ignored. The startling effects, the striking costumes, the number of performers--everything signalled without pretense or apology that this production had cost a lot of money. It was neither gaudy nor ostentatious, just obviously quite expensive. Andromaque was very unabashedly one of the 'haves.'
And although Avignon at festival time is famous for its 'haves', it is, at least in France, also very well known for its have-nots. While the amply-funded performances of the Avignon Festival are in progress, the other, far more extensive OFF Festival is in full swing. Composed of more than two hundred smaller productions, ranging from short one-act and/or one-person shows to full-length dramatic presentations, OFF sends its actors and technicians into the narrow streets to leaflet the crowds. At least in one sense, then, the OFF Festival presents a wealth of plays, a genuine bounty of companies and productions, and a rich diversity of theatrical styles and directions. Yet perhaps more conspicuous is the great poverty of this festival. The lack of scenery and costumes owes as much to a lack of funding as to any aesthetic beliefs; the relatively brief duration of the majority of OFF presentations comes from having to work with a minimal number of actors. Most serious, though, is the poverty of audiences,whose numbers noticeably dwindled this year as ticket prices went up. And with about two hundred pieces playing throughout the day, the competition for houses often becomes intense.
As for this Andromaque, the real tragedy, which would appear to be located more offstage than on, seems more neoclassical than Greek. The critics were perhaps a little too ready to cast Jacques Lassalle in the role of an Aristotelian tragic hero, and their attacks reflect their eagerness to lend a helping hand when they found fate rather reluctant to strike down a man who was basically good and in a high position.
The College of Saint Rose
Kenneth Krauss, Assistant Professor of Drama at the College of Saint Rose, was able, thanks to an NEH Summer Stipend and the Bourse Marandon, to do research last summer in France on the Paris theatre during the German Occupation.