Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review: The Madwoman of Chaillot

Sacred Blue. It all starts off with a whole bunch of Jacques Tati-style business that wastes no time in confusing its audience. You’ve got a bunch of dastardly capitalists (Nazis in the original) front and centre, hatching a plan – I hesitate to use the word ‘plot’ in any connection to this show – surrounding oil wells in Paris and the obliteration of the quaint culture that surrounds them in favour of industry, unfettered speculation and, eventually, a state of Total War. But while they’re expositing their little what-ho, a constantly shifting parade of shorthand French stereotypes are buzzing about distracting our gaze from what should be a far more interesting dynamic. That the audience on opening night kept applauding every bit of basic clowning that occurred while the piece’s villains were concurrently waxing nasty on another part of the stage speaks volumes. More immediately annoying was the shallowness of characterisation afforded the pedestrian crowd.

While nobody in the MTC’s latest production actually wears a stripy skivvy with a string of garlic around their neck, you always feel they’re just a costume change away from it. As beaming accordion-players exchanged howdies with rosy-cheeked flowersellers and bicycle-borne gendarmes tipped their caps to dancing homeless men, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone, somewhere, was prendre le pissoir. (I must continually remind myself that not all of you are as fluent in the language of love as moi, so I should note that I’m not suggesting that someone was “on the piss” during the development of this piece, but was mayhaps “taking the piss”. Also, I used the term for “urinal” rather than “piss” through a form of “creative license”. “Creative license” is a common term used to describe the ways writers engage in imaginative, sometimes innovative wordplay to add flair to otherwise lacklustre prose. Another common technique is digression, wherein the obvious trajectory of a piece of writing is subtly delayed by gently segueing into seemingly casual but ultimately unrelated asides, anecdotes, pontifications and opinionating. If this review seems unusually characterised by digression, then it is simply to mask a lack of anything serious to say about this show. Also, c’mon, if you’ve ever read this site you shouldn’t be surprised.)

Anyway, the level of cliché on offer in Madwoman is best summed up by Ms Theatre Notes’ review, in which she compares it to a Yoplait commercial. I couldn’t sum it up better myself. At times I began to wonder if it wasn’t an exercise in Franxsploitation. For a long time, I felt there was a decent story being developed somewhere under all of the Tours Eiffel and copious latte sipping and rhubarbe-ing. When Magda S. finally turned up as the eponymous Madwoman, things began to look up.

The Countess Aurelia at least offered a greater depth than most of the other folks on offer. Magda wisely plays against the role – rather than offering a madwoman of the histrionic, non sequiterial or fey type, she is simply a softly-spoken eccentric dressed in an outfit director Simon Phillips must have rejected from his Priscilla with an “I’m sorry, but that’s just TOO much.” She has her oddities – to her, all men have the same name depending on the hour of day, her missing feather-boa holds the key to her fate, and she is haunted by the memory of a long-ago lover she only knew in brief – but Ms Szubanski grants her character a level of respect I found admirable. Strangely, she was the only character with a wireless mic, but this didn’t really affect my appreciation of the show since it allowed her to be heard without having to bellow out across the Playhouse stage. And she was playing the wacky-wisewoman, so a little subtlety was required.

I suppose the whole crazy-dame-possessed-of-uncommon-wisdom angle might boast an air of the classics about it (also a polite way to describe the bathroom of a Parisian café I once visited). If my high school education doesn’t fail me – and I’ll admit it was more airy Swiss than fresh French Charolais – the Greeks blabbered on about some nutty kid called Cassandra who could speak the future but was never listened to. Kind of like SBS newsreaders, I suppose.

Aurelia is the informal spokeswoman for the community of French stereotypes we’ve met so far, and it’s her job to speak out against the encroaching modernisation of gay Paris. When she learns of the plans to drill under Paris for black gold, she gathers her fellow eccentric womenfolk in a trio reminiscent of another classic threesome, the Fates, and debates the ethics of entrapping and murdering all of the capitalists in France. Which, eventually, is just what happens.

If it all sounds quite exciting – madpeople, manslaughter, missing feather boas – it doesn’t really play out too heart-palpitatingly. When we finally leave the streets of Yoplait Paris and enter the gorgeous dungeon Aurelia seems to live in, things get quite fun. The comedy has gathered a layer of dust – written in the 30s, this might not be such a surprise – but there is a sweet scene where someone pulls on a bit of stone and a secret staircase is revealed. That’s pretty much all I want out of a play.

Unfortunately most of this play is as uneven as the rough-hewn rock steps of the staircase itself. The dazzingly negative responses to the piece I’ve read so far – and they’re incredibly entertaining for their damning-ness – offer the best summations of the show’s flaws. But their very relish, the way in which they – or we – can so precisely pinpoint what’s so very wrong with the thing, make me feel that this isn’t a case of a show getting it wrong. Not at all. It feels more like a work whose intentions are so contrary to those expected by Melbourne’s reviewers that we simply can’t understand how this – this – could be exactly what Phillips, his cast and crew has meant to end up on the stage.

Anyone who has ever been to Paris will likely wrinkle their noses at the odd artistic choices here in the same way so many Aussies pout at the omnipresent dog crap decorating the city’s sidewalks - mainly because said crap is entirely absent from this peachy-keen vision of the City of Lights. Maybe that’s the point. The play’s descriptions of a nostalgic Parisian past – including, I kid ye not, the trash cans of old which, apparently, smelled so much sweeter – seem so ridiculous that maybe only a ridiculously artificial production could be appropriate. Suspension of Disbelief, meet Benefit of the Doubt. I hope you two get along.

Those of you who thought Amelie was far too depressingly realistic might find this quite your decanter of Beaujolais. For the rest, at least you get a dungeon.

1 comment:

Doug Pollard said...

The director seems to have tried to recast the piece as an extended episode of 'All 'Allo - dodgy accents all over the shop, individual actors allowed to scene-steal and ham it up without any discipline, no sense of teamwork at all.
I once had a crappy British car which , instead of bells and buzzers, used to nag me in a British schoolmarm voice - "Fasten your seatbelt", "A door is open", "Please fill up as soon as possible"
Magda sounded somewhat the same.