Yann Messager in Paris
1 November 2023
Jacques Weber’s Ruy Blas is an aesthetically intriguing and occasionally gripping rendition of the famous Victor Hugo play. We follow the misadventures of the eponymous character as, originally a valet but in love with the queen, he is manipulated by scheming and vengeful courtesans to ascend the ladder of the seventeenth-century Spanish court and seduce the queen in order to humiliate her.
For all its attempt to transport us to the Hispano-Arabic wonder of this period, the play’s tentative modernization of this world is bizarre. Despite luscious and voluptuous period clothing for certain characters, this version is atemporal.
Kad Merad’s Don Cesar of Bazane is relieved of his robes to reveal a Hawaiian shirt underneath. He is given his very own 1920s big band jazz number. Contemporary dancers inexplicably come to fill the stage between scene changes, bouncing between musical epochs. The play ends with a histrionic song (meant to be tragic in a bitter-sweet way) which one seems to faintly remember from the end of a 2,000s American rom-com. The colour scheme of the costume design is just as displeasing to the eyes. Though the play starts with sombre black costumes, by the time we are 30 minutes in various characters begin appearing in vivid red. And although one can guess that this is meant to represent antagonism to Ruy Blas’s ascension of the Spanish court, it ultimately comes off as gaudy and unnecessary.
No more superficially aesthetic considerations here. I will focus on the curiously conflicting array of actors we are confronted with. From the very beginning, Don Salluste’s (Jacques Weber) and Don Cesar’s (Kad Merad) one-on-one dialogue falls short of filling the vast and antique scene of the Marigny. Weber does succeed in rendering the larger-than-life presence of his character but ultimately loses the audience by monotonously sticking to a loud and declamatory tone.
We notice from the beginning Kad Merad’s (legendary for his roles in French film comedies) difficulty in appropriating a classical text. He mumbles on, oftentimes too quickly, many times inaudibly, seeming to rely on his whimsical expressions and nihilistic sway of arms. His true moments of comedic beauty do come later, however.
But the pitfall of the play does not lie in these characters who to a certain extent do satisfactorily complete their supporting and buffoon roles. The true stumbling block comes with the unfortunate shortcomings of one of the tragedy’s protagonists, the queen (Stéphane Caillard). Her grace and charm are obvious from the get-go. But immediately, her lack of mastery over the high stakes she is supposed to negotiate becomes remarkable. The lead female’s performance in a classical star-crossed-lover tragedy is by definition half the play. If the performer does not fit the bill, that alone will lose the narrative rhythm. Her diction is irritatingly lethargic and desultory. She seems to discover words with the candor of a child. This frustrating lack of nuance in her approach to the text never really ends, be it in moments of crisis, violent political struggle or romantic despair. It becomes troubling indeed and only somewhat works in the more playful scenes in which she flirts and shows love for Ruy Blas as though on a Normandy field to Debussy tunes.
To balance what I fear may have been severe criticism, I now turn to Ruy Blas (Basile Larie). He is one of the impressive pillars of the show. His diction is fierce and savage, similar to Benjamin Voisin (Illusions Perdues, Céline’s Guerre at Avignon 2023) where a sort of north-eastern, Calaisian French accent is sublimed by a Comédie Française-type classical poise and dignity. He plays the lost and vulnerable young man with a turbulent and ruthless inner passion for he loves the queen despite his station and ambitions to purge the court into which he has miraculously arrived, rid it of corruption and worldly perversion. His character is a social and political radical, and Ruy Blas’s acting gives this odd, seemingly anachronistic character a fascinating, audacious edge. No doubt enamored with the guttural power of his vociferous monologues, Larie does succumb to the predictable flaw of what I am going to call “binary rage.” His anguish and frustrated ambitions only seem to explode in two modes; one calm and another, instantly extreme. This becomes problematic for the romantic scenes or gripping moments of loneliness and solitude where his bumbling rendition seems to “miss a few notes.” Overall,however, his raucous game is sublimely sensuous and vulnerable.
Praise here must also go to the unexpected master player of the show. One veteran master (Jean-Paul Muel) emerges to play the fool, Don Guritan, Count of Oñate. Here we are faced with Commedia dell’arte grandeur, a Sganarelle of sorts. There is a wealth of interest on offer be it his mimicry, his wisecracks, his uncertain summoning to duels, his jealous and ridiculous hopes that it will be he and not the young Ruy Blas who is destined to seduce the young queen. He is incredibly and antiquely hilarious. A testament to his technical ability and contribution is that the rare moments when everything here truly gels coincide with the time he is on stage. In the few scenes where he is surrounded by the entire cast, his fleeting hand movements, gestures around the queen and running around the stage seem to rub off on all the performers and they become harmonized in a redeeming light.
For all the unconvincing lack of period anchoring of the play, its messy experimentation does lead to moments of playful brilliance. To spotlight the corrupt and disconnected scheming of Spain’s political elite, Weber has dozens of actors put on strange vaguely anthropomorphic masks and sit around a large table facing the audience. A woman on the other end of the stage is the one reading out their lines in front of a mic stand, truly excelling at jumping from imitation to imitation as the masked characters around the table get up with a wagging finger, proclaim something or lash out at an opponent accordingly. This is Commedia dell’arte at its best. All masked actors instantly become character animators as though with pencil and drawboard, and show a beautifully entertaining representation of the plotting, conspiratorial politicians of the world.
But for all its captivating eccentricity, the ploys of the production ultimately remove it from the genre in which it must reside – a tragedy. It is of course funny to watch Kad Merad’s solo comedic scene where he steals paté and wine from the castle and inebriates a guard who mistakes him for another. And yes, there certainly is a lot of visual wizardly to marvel at. But all of this ultimately does not land a telling punch because the dramatic elements are not mastered. It seems that a lot of effort is put into everything but the bond between the two tragic protagonists and the overbearing nature of the visuals inevitably takes away from the urgency that should be bound up with political and civil strife. It is the fragile balance between comedy and what is supposed to be ethereal sublime tragedy that is not mastered here, so leaving the audience member with a sense of unfulfilled ambiguity as to where the piece has taken us.