The suburbs colloquially designated banlieue rather than the more neutral faubourg are the subject of acrimonious or anxious comment any time there is unrest in the French capital, and the journey by metro is a revealing insight into the strata of life in Paris.
The stations in the city centre are an elegant vision of gleaming tiles, but the architecture deteriorates as one travels outwards to La Chapelle station which serves the theatre. It is no more than a rough and ready cement structure. On exiting, I was accosted by enthusiasts offering services of which fortune-telling was the most innocent, and on the way back I was pick-pocketed. The life of a critic is dangerous and demanding.
The theatre itself, situated inside one of those Victorian apartment and shop buildings from which Inspector Maigret might emerge at any moment, has no hoardings or neon lights. Marko Rankov, the amiable and dynamic Head of Production, agrees that it can be viewed as the ‘hidden theatre,’ situated far from Paris’ better-known venues. He snorted indignantly when I asked if they had any connection with the respectable Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in the city centre. ‘None at all,’ he replied. The theatre in the north of the city has its own identity and vision.
There has been a theatre on the site since 1876, and it has had a chequered past. Once it had the grandeur of being the Théâtre Molière, and hosted work by such luminaries as Alexandre Dumas the Younger, but then it changed nature and name to become the more homely Théâtre Des Carrefours (Crossroads), a venue for popular theatre and music hall. Its history is something of a microcosm of French theatre. It suffered the general drop in audiences when television emerged as the main source of entertainment, and finally went dark in 1952. It was left to fall into a state of decay and disuse but was not demolished or transformed into offices or flats.
Its modern history is associated with the figure and biography of Peter Brook, still active at the age of 93. With his volcanic imagination, his restless curiosity and creativity, his endless inventiveness and self-invention, he has revolutionized the role of the director. The playwrights he has produced are a Who’s Who of twentieth-century drama, including Sartre, Arthur Miller, Peter Weiss and Jean Genet among many others. His productions in London in the Sixties drew excesses of excited admiration or outraged execration. They include Weiss’s disquieting venture into theatre of cruelty, the Marat/Sade (1964), the polemical, anti-Vietnam war play US (1966), which he invited theatre-goers to pronounce as ‘Us’ or as ‘U.S.’ as they saw fit, or the lyrical Midsummer’s Night Dream (1970), a production which seemed to float towards ethereal regions but which still suggested both darker and erotic elements to the comedy. Some forty years later, he was invited to revive the production of Dream but declined. His thinking had moved on, and replays are not for him.
Although his career in London seemed in 1970 at the highest point possible, he was gnawed by doubt and dissatisfaction and it was at this moment that he left for Paris. His motives were varied. He was certainly seeking greater personal freedom, and was anxious to advance and deepen on an international scale his quest into the nature of theatre and of human culture. It is interesting that his various theoretical works have titles which suggest a struggle between creativity and the void – The Empty Space (1968), The Shifting Point (1988), The Open Door (1995) and Between Two Silences (1999). His interest was in the manner different peoples filled the silence that surrounded them, and how the empty space that was theatre contributed to that effort.
‘They had almost to crawl in, and found the spectre of a theatre which had been shut for decades…’
With his reputation, it might have been assumed that he would take over some well-established and well-funded venue in France, but initially he set up the International Centre for Theatre Research, a distinctly un-British title and venture. He travelled widely and observed theatre-making elsewhere. Some of the performers he met have worked with him for decades. However, he was in search of a base in Paris, and since no traditional theatre was likely to be adequate, he was guided to the disused and almost forgotten building in La Chapelle. There is a touch of beguiling myth in the account Rankov gives of Brook’s first encounter with the place.
‘They had almost to crawl in, and found the spectre of a theatre which had been shut for decades. It had an Italian-style proscenium stage, stalls and four tiers from the grand circle to the gods, all topped by a dome which may once have been magnificently brilliant but whose glory had departed. The only inhabitant was a homeless man, who invited the intruders to share a glass of wine with him. From under a blanket he produced a bottle of the finest of vintages, a Chateau Margaux, which they quaffed as they looked around.’
There is a pre-ordained force which brings together chosen individuals, and only them, with the appropriate opportunity or situation which allows them to flourish. Other directors, however imaginative, would have come, seen, expressed routine gratitude for the glass of wine and scuttled out of the building. Brook saw the empty space as the ideal site for the development of the kind of theatre he wanted to create. His work as director was never limited to collaboration with playwrights, and using the theatre as a set he later produced Walls Talk on the history and identity of the place. Rankov and I speculated on the nature of the ghosts which have been reliably reported as wandering harmlessly around in the corridors and wings.
The French Ministry of Culture was delighted with the capture of Brook and offered assistance in refurbishing the chosen site, but said that restructuring work would be costly and would take years, a time scale too long for Brook and his collaborators. The first work, Timon of Athens, was produced six months later. The theatre, with Brook as artistic director, was fully operational by 1974. As it happens, Brook proceeded the same way in Glasgow in 1990 when he searched the city for a site suitable for the Mahabharata, and settled on the then abandoned tram garage, still in use as the Tramway, a performance and exhibition space. He later brought to Glasgow a French-language version of The Tempest, and The Man Who… , an examination of the human psyche inspired by the writings of Oliver Sacks. Brook stepped down in 2008, but is still fully involved and one of the three productions, The Prisoner, being featured in the Edinburgh Festival is directed by him.
Any refurbishment of the revived Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord was minimal, so today it still has the original, now dingy, paint which covers but hardly embellishes the environment. The upper tier is given over to technical equipment, and the frontal of the other tiers is dull and faded. But the play’s the thing, and on this stage some of the most fêted productions seen anywhere in Europe have been premiered. The acting takes place in front of, not behind, the proscenium, with no gulf between performers and the front benches. The company is largely self-funding. It receives fifteen per cent of its annual turnover from the Ministry but raises the rest itself. There are small theatres which are more generously funded, Rankov says.
Some critics have laboured to identify a house-style, a futile exercise for a company which offers all manner of theatre experience – music, dance, concerts and plays from all ages – and has attempted to attract different audiences. They have a vibrant café and since it is in a working-class district, every effort has been made to get the local community to participate. There are sessions with schools and societies, and people in the neighbourhood are given free tickets for previews. In the view of Roy Luxley, Programming Director of the Edinburgh Festival, the invitation to take up a residency, rather than offer individual productions is intended to offer a greater opportunity ‘to further explore an artist’s work, and increase an audience’s chance to engage with them. And a residency means an artist is in the city for longer so increases the possibility for further exchange and discourse away from the performances’.
The company’s drama programme in Paris is varied, from avant-garde to classical, and the impression is that the policy is to give the director his/her head. The tradition has grown up of ending each season with a play from the classic repertoire, and the evening I was there the work on stage was the eighteenth-century comedy The Triumph of Love by Marivaux, directed by Denis Podalydès, an actor-director from the stately Comédie Française. There was nothing radical or experimental about the production, which fully respected the period setting and costumes. The design had clumps of grass spread around, a rustic hut, some pathways that the actors, who were superb, moved along. The storylines were made as clear as could be for a wickedly complex plot with cross-dressing and underhand deals and deception. Perhaps the play had been chosen to wink at current debates about transgendering, since the heroine first appeared in male dress and proceeded to make both the devious aristo and equally malignant sister fall in love with her, against all their inclinations.
This is not one of three works coming to Edinburgh, and I asked Luxford how the choice had been made. Were the shows chosen to bring acknowledged personalities like Peter Brook and Katie Mitchell to Edinburgh? He explained that ‘the season started as a series of approaches to artists that we wanted to present, rather than seeking specific productions. Gradually the idea to present all three, framed around Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, as a Festival residency took shape. Each of the works demonstrates the spirit of international theatrical exploration the theatre is famous for.’
The three works have different directors and promise different experiences. Seemingly Robert Carsen, director of The Beggar’s Opera (King’s Theatre, 16-19 August) has none of the compunction shown by Podalydès over updating and adapting the script, and has even introduced references to Brexit. John Gay’s work has enticed other writers, most famously Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill with The Threepenny Opera, to produce their own adaptation. This production too is described as a new version, but the reworking is done directly from the Gay original, not through the prism of Brecht/Weill. The production was rapturously received when it was performed at the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto.
Peter Brook will return to the Festival for the first time in years with The Prisoner (Lyceum, 22-26 August), co-written and co-directed with Marie-Hélène Estienne, The cast is multi-national and the questions the play raises, on justice and guilt, on crime and power, cross all frontiers.
The programme is completed by La Maladie de la Mort (Lyceum, 16-19 August), adapted by Alice Birch from a novella by Marguerite Duras and directed by Katie Mitchell, who enjoys the equivocal position of being one of the most discussed and celebrated of contemporary British directors while working mainly abroad. Perhaps her brand of ‘director’s theatre’ is more appreciated in other countries. Her book The Director’s Craft is in some sense a manifesto, and her directorial vision of any work she engages with, invariably strong and personal, authorizes her to pull apart the script to release an energy she detects inside it. Marko Rankov said that while the core of Maladie is from Duras, Mitchell’s vision of it varies from the more common reading. The production is accompanied by a stern warning that it is not for children, and probably not for traditionalists either.