Yann Messager reports from the 6th arrondissement
Stéphane Braunschweig’s “Andromaque” at the Théâtre de l’Odéon is a grand and harrowing performance of Racine’s exploration of frustrated and corrupted love, the faltering of regime succession and disastrous confusion of the ego with political surmise and machination. Although not without its distracting flaws, it’s difficult not to succumb to the wry and ingenious power of the piece’s two leading actors and specifically their masterful impressionistic manner of letting a stuttering and imploring humanity pierce through a captivating veil of political survival, regal desperation and isolation.
Photo credit: Simon Gosselin.
Bénédicte Cerutti’s Andromaque is sublime. She is presented to us in a plain Parisian navy blouse tucked into casual black pants, atop simple black leather sandals. The sandals contrast with the other players, mostly clad in dark, professional modern attire. The Greek innocence and simplicity they presage beautifully fits our Andromaque. She surprises with an original instinctive grasp of Racinian intonation that she enmeshes with a continual sense of loss and bewilderment. This technique struts around for a verse before always managing to fall on its feet by its end, thus giving the rigid alexandrine metrics of classical French theatre a fullness and vivacity that are difficult to achieve. The casualness of her garments allows for the wondrous aesthetic revelation of the end of the play. Traversing a pool of blood, she appears in a white evening gown and white sandals, knowing all are dead, that she is queen and that her son is no longer the object of possible assassination. Ruthlessly, this salvaged regent stares at the shuddering crowd.
But for a text of this scope, dramatic tension requires a second, equally well-suited actor. This is Alexandre Pallu’s Pyrrhus. His great height and looming shoulders immediately give him the physical attributes for Andromaque’s unrequited admirer and ruthless tormentor. He seems to revel in taking Racinian verse and brutally extending it to its very limits in a crude and demonic, shrieking howl. He too excels at moving through the complex hues of his character. On one hand, there is the brutality of a political usurper who would risk his legitimacy by marrying a woman whose son he would kill to assure uncontested rule. On the other, a freakishly and appallingly infatuated creature whose gory confusion succeeds at making us wince, not at him, but at ourselves for our endearment. He is raucous and vulgarly martial in his dirty undershirt and military pants, seated awkwardly at the monarch’s table, so clearly inebriated in the very power causing the excruciatingly painful rift within him. He is eerily puppy-like at the play’s end, his large body and formerly Titan-like movement restricted by his tuxedo as he awaits his betrothal.
Photo credit: Simon Gosselin.
Unfortunately, some of the supporting characters suffer from stylistic indecisiveness which, at pivotal moments of the tragedy’s unravelling, releases steam from the otherwise well-contained pressure cooker that is the play. Hermione (Chloé Réjon), daughter of Helen of Troy, wades between a grim, acerbic and stoic coolness and a consequently incongruent loss of all retinue in moments of fear. The ailing three-dimensionality of Chloé Réjon’s portrayal of Helena weakens the heavenly poise required of those who are scrambling for the political fate of Troy. This crystallizes when Hermione’s lover, the ambassador Oreste, returns from his assassination of Pyrrhus which Hermione had asked of him.
This is the riveting moment in Andromaque when Hermione refuses to acknowledge that she had ever asked for such a thing, while the audience cringes at the thought of Oreste having committed murder for what he thought was a chance at love. There are many ways in which Hermione can play this. Insanity? A wry and terrifyingly cold confidence? Or the denial of a woman ultimately too fragile to confront the true stakes of the political purge taking place and thus crumbling under the weight of forces she blunderingly begins to understand perhaps? Instead, Chloé Réjon’s Hermione seems to awkwardly play the text literally. One gets the sense that her Hermione not only rationally believes in what she is saying but that no opaque discrepancies fleetingly stir her innards as she speaks. She stares before her in wide-eyed horror, as though she has accidentally pushed a desolate companion off a cliff in the course of a hiking expedition, pleading for innocence, cowardly attempting to exculpate herself to all who might hear. This route fails to convince an audience who, moments before, have seen a woman entreat her unrequited admirer to kill for her. That the play should stumble in the midst of what should have been a roaring ascent to the furious winds of political brawl jolts the spectator who feels as though he has been hurled off a high-speed train. One can’t help feeling that there could be a more persuasive interpretation of Racine’s Hermione, one that would adequately account for the weight of Troy.
Photo credit: Simon Gosselin.
Similarly, Pierric Plathier’s Oreste suffers from a melodramatic rendering of Racine. The awkwardness occasioned by the text’s rigidity confronts any actor with an abyss at the end of each verse that one must then boldly negotiate in a perpetually inventive and, what’s more, aesthetically truthful way. Plathier makes the decision to end each rhyming scheme with a forcefully dramatic grunt and lowering of the head, which rather falls short of the smooth ingenuity shown by some of his colleagues on the stage.
To be sure, the stage of the Odéon is in and of itself already of great assistance for the scope of classical theatre. However, Stéphane Braunschweig makes the curious decision to place a large pool of blood in the centre of the stage. Whether this is done as a modern-day parental advisory or as a reminder, to the under-informed, that they have stepped into a tragic play, is unclear. But it ultimately comes to feel like a humorously unnecessary set-piece. Throughout the production, actors run across it, bathe and pity themselves in it, sometimes sending great red splashes across the stage. And of course, the aesthetic meaning of Andromaque (she alone wears sandals) walking bare-foot through the liquid, or of the contrast of her stunning white dress floating through the pool of blood, are not lost on us and are indeed powerful.
But the major consequence of the oddity is of greater disservice to the drama. For the omnipresence of the gleaming reflections of the Kool-Aid ultimately ruins the playful nuances of Racine’s text. Yes, everyone here either hates each other, wants to sleep with each other or wants to kill each other, and more often than not, all at once! But Racine’s Andromaque is also strangely and masterfully full of charming humanity that peers out at the most unexpected times. There are glimpses of motherly hope and bereaved adoration in Andromaque. There is great existential doubt and what one has to accept as true love in the midst of Pyrrhus’s folly. You simply cannot delve into the minute fluctuations of these moments when the actor is reciting his text up to his ankles in blood! One wonders why the director of a tragedy would feel the need to insert the equivalent of a twenty-metre billboard marked with “Hello, this is a Tragedy” and illuminated in fluorescent lights.
Leave humans a chance to vouch and plead for themselves. Even though we know where all of this Greek fatalism is going, at least let us believe the agency in the determinism. Because that’s how we experience life, isn’t it?