Politics à la French (Sarkozy and Mitterand)
photo Giovanni Cittadini Cesi
In 2011 two important theatres in Paris - Théâtre du Rond-Point and Théâtre de l’Odéon – presented two productions dealing with specific political topics represented by the characters of two French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Mitterand. This is very unusual in the French context. The productions deal with two different types of politicians, and their approach and genre are diverse too, yet, both are linked with the endeavour of the theatre makers to create certain political prototypes that have alternately appeared in France since the last Kings Luis’s and the first Napoleon. Moreover, these two productions demonstrate the double relationship of the French to their political representatives, and perhaps also shed light on the reasons why there is almost no political theatre in France as we know it in Germany or even in the Czech Republic.
Nowadays in France, especially in Paris, there are commercial theatres attempting political satire. They usually use very simple humour and serve more as an alternative to evening TV programmes. When a larger theatre puts on a political play it is mostly of foreign origin or an innocent playlet devoid of more serious issues (e.g. Theatre Théâtre Les déchargeurs in Paris produced a dramatization of an animated cartoon series The Smurfs under the title Political Smurfs and subtitle Polemics: Are the Smurfs Nazis?). French dramatists always avoided and still avoid writing about politics, despite their audiences being incontrovertibly interested. Rather, we can identify a tradition of searching for (up-to-date) political motifs in classical literature. Shakespeare, in particular, whom the French treat very unorthodoxly, is very often produced with a distinct political or social message.
Jean-Michel Ribes, an author, director and artistic director of Théâtre du Rond-Point has made his theatre one of the most important scenes in Paris. (He became the artistic director in 2001). Théâtre du Rond-Point is the only theatre in Paris that is dedicated to producing contemporary French and international authors, and simultaneously functions as a multicultural centre where the audience can meet theatre makers, and where discussions about current issues are held. However, the explicit political dimension is something brand new in the context of Ribes’s dramatic work. His writing has been always characterized by playfulness, absurdity and personal topics – if he is concerned with social issues he does so via an entertaining metaphor. His play Nervous René (René l’enervé) does not differ from his previous work in style; it is an entertaining revue consisting of comedy acts. What is essential though, is the fact that the main character alludes directly to the French President Sarkozy who at the time of the premiere was still in power. The play follows the path of a little, self-centred, unbearable shopkeeper René to power: from ‘working class’ he directly enters high politics, and manages to enthral an unbelievable number of people by only a few phrases.
Ribes staged the rhymed text as a dazzling “comic and chaotic” opera (with the subtitle bouffe et tumultueux). As in traditional operas he created a simplified and schematic setting with arias of the main protagonists, monumental crowd scenes and stylized dramatic scenes. France is represented by an empty stage with only two wooden constructions that function as headquarters of the opposite parties, as platforms for René’s public speeches or as a scaffolding for ‘the people’. Sometimes the characters of René’s supporters and opponents appear from the crowd of people, for example René’s hired image maker who is able to adapt to any situation. The music, an important part of all Ribes’s productions, was composed by Reinhardt Wagner. Inspired by various music styles (from jazz and Argentinean tango to classical music) Wagner created an arrangement of operatic arias and also rhythmical backgrounds to spoken passages. A slightly postmodern atmosphere is added to the production by an ancient choir (whose members wear togas with prints of naked statues) that opens each act. At the beginning the choir admits to the audience being archaic and redundant (the author likes parodying ancient theatre), in the second half, however, the choir plays an important role – it is the aim of René’s effort to push out the immigrants from France.
René enters the stage at the moment when the sad crowd mourns the leaving of the old and tired President Chirac. In the meantime, the Cabinet of Minister Hortzfuller (his model was Brice Hortefeux, the French Minister of various departments who was one of the first of Sarkozy’s political allies) discusses possible candidates for the new president. All of a sudden a small, pudgy shopkeeper in a blue tracksuit appears, and never stops moving – always in a hurry, accompanied by rhythmical music, he resembles a small tank rolling forward and pushing the opponents off the stage. Roaming movement characterizes René throughout the entire performance, and symbolizes the rapid growth of his popularity that the enchanted government very soon adopts, and ‘runs’ together with René; as a matter a fact the morning governmental meetings begin with a joint warm-up exercise... René seems like a redneck among the elegantly dressed and distinguished cabinet members. He wants to know mainly whether being a president is a well paid job, and if he can give up his little shop. At first he seems to be surprised to find out where he ended up but soon he acquires a nonchalant self-confidence. His political programme is a constant repetition of one populist phrase about the return of ‘bon sens’ – the right direction of politics; those who do not want to listen to him, he condescendingly ignores.
One of the merits of Ribes’s direction is his ability to avoid simple imitation of the real-life models even in situations when the audience awaits it – for example in the scene of René’s first television speech. Similar to René all characters are characterized by specific movement, voice or gestures. The ‘business-clothes-resembling’ costumes in flashy and shiny colours also play an important role. Absurd exaggeration in the style of Alfred Jarry appears in the production as well: Sarkozy’s government consists of, for example: “Minister of not overdone compassion for the poor”, “Minister of indispensable agitation and adjustment of reality” or “Minister of the rejection of the future, the republic without spots and butcher’s hooks”.
photo Giovanni Cittadini Cesi
The first half of the production maps René’s steep rise. He pushes his way upwards with many promises, and when he feels it is worthwhile he retires for a while and waits until the people call him back again. In the meantime the opposition party is asleep(the party leaders are dressed in pyjamas, and spend most of their time dozing off in their party tent) while their candidate (representing Sarkozy’s rival Ségolene Royal) is running around the stage chaotically waving a pink satin flag, and shouting socialist slogans that interest no one. In the second half the newly elected president – wearing now a golden-black costume resembling both Michael Jackson and Napoleon – has a love affair with a cabaret singer (i.e. Sarkozy’s wife, former model Carla Bruni). She accompanies René to the monumental finale when René – similarly to his real-life model – moves from a minimalist set to the Versailles Chateaux, and stylizes himself to the role of French monarch.
The affectedness of his quite unpleasant character is disrupted by the character of René’s double – also dressed in a blue sport jersey but taller and slimmer – who represents René’s more human side. From the very beginning the double watches in disbelief what is happening to him. He does not understand why he suddenly sees himself on television, and why he repeats sentences that he does not comprehend. After a wild celebration of René’s victory in the presidential elections the double remains at a restaurant table and sings about “wanting only a little grocery shop...” On several occasions he tries to intervene, but his political I always shouts him down. In the end he only sits quietly at the side of the stage and gains strength for the final rebellion – he murders his presidential other in the presidential palace besieged by protesting Turks. Nevertheless, his act is hopeless. The ‘New René’ starts to use similar gestures and words as the old one. He even starts running. A nice illustration of the corrupting power of politics on human character.
Despite being mostly just fun, the production includes a very harsh satire disguised in operatic numbers that paradoxically makes the satire even more effective. Minster Hurtzfuller, for example, sings a chanson about loving the Arabs when they are blond and eat ham; American Arabs, Swiss and Canadian Arabs, those who are not from Morocco. In a very multicultural France, which is currently undergoing an essential change of the attitude of the society to the immigrants, this is still very shocking, even for the critique. Assuming from the reviews of the production it seems as if Ribes created the character of René’s ‘nicer self’ in order to soften the harshness of the criticism. The term ‘sarcozysism’ is repeated very often – René is understood not as criticism of one person but as a representation of the negative principle that disrupts the entire politics, causes the identity crisis of the country and arouses in the society the feeling of frustration from the empty promises and illusions.
The critical reception of the production was very positive; often they described it as Ribes’s most important work thanks to its political engagement. The general change of the mood in society and the dislike of Sarkozy, the first president who has been very often the target of ridicule, enabled the creation and also positive reception of Ribes’s production; it can be understood as the expression of the change of the French approach to politics.
While Nervous René focuses on the current president, Olivier Py’s Adagio (Mitterand, Secret and Death) /Adagio (Mitterand, le secret et la mort)/ in Théâtre de l’Odéon is a requiem for a politician who despite his controversial past represented a moral authority, and undoubtedly became one of the great personalities of French history. Contrary to Ribes, political themes are nothing new for Olivier Py. The main protagonist (and also the accompanying characters) has the same name as in reality, although he represents not only a specific personality but a more general type as well.
The comparison of the opening scenes of both productions is very telling: René begins with a comical quartet of the ancient choir that enters the stage singing a self-parodying song through a shiny red wall with the inscription of the title of the production. In the Odéon Theatre the curtain rises to reveal a wide staircase leading across the stage. At the top there is a giant bookcase covering the entire rear wall of the stage. In a blue, subdued light we suddenly notice a slight movement, and only when focussing our attention on it, it forms a dark figure of a tall, thin old man who is standing in front of the much bigger set, and is taking out books randomly from various shelves... “... For the discovery of truth it is necessary to understand your life, and by accepting it to give yourself freedom. Death is the joy of completing and accomplishing this process. There are other things than matter – call it soul, spirit, faith... I believe in the body governed by the spirit...”
With this monologue about death the character of the old Mitterand opens the production that is a philosophical reconstruction of his life and political career. Two basic themes prevail throughout the play – the fascination of death (the endless contemplations are presented here as a certain defensive reaction of the organism forced to come to terms with death), and the question of what the protagonist could have done with his life had he not entered politics in the beginning. Disease, prostatic cancer that broke out at the same time as being elected the president, about which most people had no idea during Mitterand’s term, is presented here as the dominant motif that gives the production a depressing existential atmosphere. The protagonist is for the entire time in an unspecified space that changes in accordance with the minor characters that come to Mitterand to remind him of the crucial stages of his career. The characters resemble foggy memories, sometimes funny (for example when Mitterand asks himself what has remained after him, and the character or Anne Lauvergeon gives him a model of a glass pyramid, which was installed in front of the Louvre during his government), sometimes painful such as the thought about war and the co-responsibility of France (before joining the resistance, Mitterand had been an agent of the collaboration regime, and the issue of France’s guilt is very often on his mind).
In comparison with the caricature of Sarkozy, the character of Mitterand is a prototype of a politician – intellectual that enjoys when he can disconcert a journalist who is asking him whether by supporting the development of architecture he is not stylizing himself to Luis XIV. Mitterand replies that contrary to Luis he is not building in the style of ‘mitterand’ but in the style of the century, in the style of France, and that it is not a good thing to focus only on material monuments to remain after a human being but that people should remember more spiritual ones. The confused journalist replies with a question that remains unanswered: isn’t it frustrating for an intellectual to be a politician? Mitterand is a personification of a humane approach to politics, a prototype of a person (and this is the greatest difference between the characters of René and Mitterand) who feels pain caused by his own mistakes instead of denying them. He is a politician of the old era who is radically different from the present one.
Adagio (Mitterand, Secret and Death)
photo Alain Fortenay
The sources of Py’s dramatic work were, in his own words, Mitterand’s ideas, texts by journalists and historians and witness accounts of people who surrounded Mitterand. Specific dialogues, for example, with Marguerite Duras and Élie Wiesel are intertwined with ‘shreds of context’. They appear for instance as montages of his speeches, yet, Mitterenad is unaffected by them, and dismisses them as unpleasant thoughts. The characters who visit Mitterand do not differ much visually - women and men wear dark suits, the doctors wear white coats. Mitternad is also dressed casually; only when he is remembering his speeches the creator of his political campaign, Jacques Séguél, puts a hat on Mitterand’s head and a red shawl around his neck. Later on, Mitterand takes the shawl off, and hangs it on the left side of the set where it remains until the end. The rear wall with the bookcase becomes a silver-black forest, a stone wall with the traces of bombing, a doctor’s office, windows of the presidential palace, an empty space for a string orchestra (playing slow compositions in adagio) and finally an impenetrable darkness through which the last guest, a doctor, enters to visit Mitterand. The doctor blesses him, and thus symbolically releases him from the burden. The slow rhythm of the production, and the dark blue unhealthy light does not change until the very end; Mitterand’s death is not accentuated at all as the entire production is a metaphor of the slow process of dying.
The critics appreciated very much Py’s personal interpretation of the ambivalent ‘Mitterand theme’, in which he does not want to idealize nor judge his protagonist, and chooses instead motifs crucial for Mitterand as a human being. The fact that the production is actually a reconstruction of the thoughts of a dying man is understood by the critics as a view of an already historical personality from a new, unknown angle that provokes also a new view of the modern history of France.
It is paradoxical that this Py’s production, which is unusual in many ways, was one of his last in the Théâtre de l’Odéon. One month after the premiere of Adagio the Minister of Culture Fréderic Mitterand (the nephew of the former president) decided not to prolong Py’s contract as the artistic director of the theatre. The suspension of a director who made Odéon one of the most interesting theatre scenes in Paris almost immediately after the premiere of a production celebrating the minister’s uncle seemed no less than grotesque. This decision caused a considerable outrage in the media and among theatre professionals. To soothe the wave of negative reactions the minister prolonged Py’s contract to the regular end of his term, i.e. to the year 2012. ‘Freed’ Py now definitely enjoys criticizing freely the work of the minister of culture who “watches only television and is interested only in the number of sold tickets”.
Jean-Michel Ribes: Nervous René (René l’énervé), direction Jean-Michel Ribes, set design Patrick Dutertre, costumes Juliette Chanaud, music Reinhardt Wagner, lights Fabrice Kebour, choreography consultant Lionel Hoche, Théâtre du Rond-Point, premiere 7 September 2011
Olivier Py: Adagio (Mitterand, Secret and Death) (Mitterand, le secret et la mort), direction Olivier Py, set design Pierre-André Weitz, lights Bernard Killy, music Quatuor Leonis, Théâtre de l’Odéon, premiere 16 March 2011
english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 3, volume 2012 translated by Hana Pavelková