From the Arts Voyager Archives and Artcurial’s Spring 2016 sale of Orientalist and Arab and Iranian Modern art: Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923), “Odalisques,” Oil on canvas, 23.62 x 31.5 inches. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
First published on the Arts Voyager on May 20, 2016. Tiego Rodrigues’s latest effort to subvert a literary giant’s masterpiece, in this case Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is currently playing at the Theatre de la Bastille in Paris, this time out abetted by the company Stan.
PARIS — What I love about Tiago Rodrigues, the director of the Portuguese National Theater who is “occupying” the Theatre de la Bastille for two months with three works, one involving the participation of 90 amateurs in its creation, is that he defies the conventional wisdom that attracting contemporary audiences requires jettisoning the classical canon. Rodrigues understands that if an oeuvre like Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (whose original title was “Madame Bovary, or Provincial Morals”) has endured for 160 years, it’s because despite changing mores, its portrayal of societal turmoil (above all the conflict between individual comportment and predominant national values) is still pertinent. Even if today it’s not the loose morals of a married woman that are accused of threatening religious norms, as was the case with the story of Emma Bovary, but the custom of a small group of Muslim women to cover all or part of their bodies that is perceived by some as threatening the norms of lay values, the battle terrain is the same: the woman’s body. (And not just in literature: Eight female politicians, some in powerful positions including in the French legislature, recently accused a leader of the Green party of sexual harassment, charges which the official has denied.)
First, some background is in order on the current social context in which Rodrigues’s “Bovary” — which frames Flaubert’s novel with the legal process the government instituted to ban it (he isn’t the first to use this tactic; filmmaker William Dieterle did it in 1949) — hits the Bastille, where it plays through May 28. When a group of female students at Paris’s prestigious Sciences-Po university (which forms many of the country’s political leaders) recently decided to hold a “Hijab Day” to dispel myths about the foulard, or head-scarf, the philosopher-pundit Bernard Henri-Levy tweeted, “What’s next? Lapidation Day? Sharia Day?” And the Left-leaning feminist Elisabeth Badinter called last month for a boycott of fashion houses introducing special lines catering to Muslim women. (French feminists, particularly, tend to assume that if a woman is wearing a veil, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so.)
From the Arts Voyager Archives: Display figures with hijab, in East Jerusalem market. Photo by Danny-w. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
Rodrigues’s “Bovary” also arrives in Paris at a moment in which a group of Left-wing activists calling themselves “Nuit Debout” (Night standing up) has been occupying the Place de Republique at night since mid-March. But while Nuit Debout promotes a very selective vision of Democracy which excludes anyone who doesn’t agree with them (the rest of us are the “Fachos”), Rodrigues, by quoting from the actual transcripts of the 1857 trial the government instigated after “Madame Bovary” first appeared in serial form (the author himself paid for the stenographer), lets both sides present their best case. As formulated by David Geselsen’s defense attorney (once he stops speeding through his lines, an annoying tendency by many young French actors, especially regrettable when delivering legal arguments which require some mastication), a government zeal which followed to its logical conclusion would require deleting suggestive words from the dictionary because of their proximity with upstanding words like “Christianity” has scary resonance at a time when conditions provoked by an attack on free speech (the Charlie Hebdo massacres) have lead to an environment in which one is not always sure what is considered acceptable speech.
For Rodrigues’s “Bovary,” the government case gets an adept advocate in the person of Ruth Vega-Fernandez, perhaps the most charismatic young actress working in France today. (Although she could do to tone down a tic she seems to have adopted for this role, of describing and punctuating her arguments with articulated arms, hands, and fingers; used once or twice, it’s compelling, but over-used it just ends up calling attention to the artifice.)
Between Vega-Fernandez, Geselsen, and the occasional choice interjections by Jacques Bonnaffe’s Flaubert, the “Bovary” trial as recreated on the stage of the Theatre de la Bastille — where I caught it May 13 — provides a valuable example of juicy, rich, and well-founded (on both sides) constructive discourse in a France in which reasoned and polite debate seems to have been supplanted by virulent polemics. It’s almost as if because the immediate question — whether Flaubert’s tale of Emma Bovary, who seeks to escape a suffocating marriage through liaisons with flighty lovers, promotes infidelity, or whether the author is simply reporting on a social condition — is (apparently) so removed in time, the audience is able to patiently assimilate and consider the merits of each argument without the dogmatic predispositions that make healthy debate nearly impossible today. And makes me think that what we need in the current climate of polarization is not more philosopher-pundits or ZAD (Zone a Defend)ists masquerading as Democrats (and attacking police, 350 of whom have been injured this year; they too marched May 18 protesting hatred of the police) but apt theater directors able to reveal the timeless lessons in ‘ancient’ tales. In a country in which, historically, vigorous debate has sometimes been replaced by, on the one side, anarchist violence including bombings and, on the other, stifling of dissent, theater directors and artists in general who have the ability to frame debate in a constructive, non-manipulative way (Vega-Fernandez’s attorney is not just a fall guy, her convincing arguments being delivered with conviction) have a critical role to play in illuminating the issues in a serene fashion.
Alma Palacios in “Bovary,” as captured by and copyright Pierre Grosbois and courtesy Theatre de la Bastille.
There’s just one tendency which *almost* gets in the way in “Bovary,” a misunderstanding of the Brechtian style which repeatedly calls attention to the fact that this is just a performance. Alma Palacios’s Emma regularly introduces different segments of the action — for much of the middle and through to the end of the play, the trial reconstruction gives way to a recreation of the actual drama — by stating, “On page 200,” such and such happens, etc. This is a dangerous device in the hands of a younger actress like Palacios, who already has a tendency to recite her lines in a downplayed, matter of fact and borderline ironic fashion, directly to the audience. But eventually, and as a colleague has pointed out, the power and authenticity of Flaubert’s tale and his portrayal of Emma is able to transcend even post-modern irony. Emma seduces Palacios, who seduces the procurer and Flaubert’s attorney (both break from their courtroom cool at one point and embrace Emma) and has the audience shivering when she takes the fateful arsenic. We’re finally at Rodrigues’s mercy when, in a coda, Gregoire Monsaingeon’s Charles declares (I paraphrase), that like his wife,”I eventually died too, as did the procurer, my attorney, and as will the actors on this stage, and as will all of you eventually die. But ‘Madame Bovary’ lives on.” By this time, no one in the audience is chuckling, unless it’s the nervous laughter of recognition.
Sarah Bernhardt would never have been accused of post-modern irony. But if actress Astrid Bas and director Miguel Loureiro spared her that in “Paris-Sarah-Lisboa,” which opened the annual Chantiers (building projects) d’Europe festival organized by the Theatre de la Ville May 11 with a performance supposedly tailored for the Divine One’s old dressing room at the theater, they didn’t offer much else. The 30-minute piece consisted of the actress — dressed not in Belle Epoch style but a zipper-back dull dark blue dress from the 1950s — galloping on her stilettos to different corners of the room (a Bernhardt-sized tiny bathtub, a makeup sink, both framed by mirrors) to retrieve sections of the script, off which she read excerpts from Bernhardt’s journal, with the drop in investment and nuance which reading from a script for a performance often induces. Even the potentially liveliest section, in which Bernhardt prepares for a performance with tongue-twisters (“She sells sea-shells,” etc.) was rote. So that in the end, even if the texts recited were supposedly rare, I didn’t feel I knew anything more about Bernhardt than I did before. It seemed a particularly uneventful way to open what normally promises to be a portentous festival.
Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Regina Advento and Jorge Puerta Armenta in Pina Bausch’s “Agua.” Ulli Weiss photo copyright Ulli Weiss and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.
Pina Bausch’s 2001 “Agua,” which I caught the same night at the same theater, as performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal, suffered from an opposite impediment: too much action. The argument for the work’s sonic, scenic, and kinetic splendor would be that insouciance doesn’t need an excuse, especially in an era where the insouciant have become the targets of terrorists, including in this city. And perhaps an audient less aware of how much more Pina Bausch can offer by way of meaning and catharsis would have been sated with “Agua”‘s tropical, life-affirming antidote to the nihilism with which the “Islamic State” is trying to afflict us. But as a dance and theater critic, my problem with much of the late choreographer’s work in the 2000s (she died in 2009) is that for the actual choreography, Bausch seems to rely more on the skills and body maps of the individual performers and the opulent film work of designer Peter Pabst than any grand scheme and for me, calisthenics and pyrotechnics are no longer enough, especially from a master story-teller so much of whose works had something to tell us about the times. (On my way home, I wistfully regarded a poster of Wuppertal performing Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” which along with the equally somber “Cafe Muller” the festival of Nimes is getting. Can the programmers really think we’re less sophisticated than the provinces?)
From a promising beginning, in which the playful Wuppertal veteran Helene Pikon heartily munches on an apple, the juice dripping, as she recounts how a perturbed sleep which forced her out of bed created an opportunity to catch a breathtaking sunrise, “Agua” devolves into a beach party. Hilarious at times, even riveting — Pabst saturates every corner of the stage with an Imax-style film of a boat ride through what might be the Amazon, leaving the impression that we’re riding on the boat, as is the dancer who cascades across the deck; it was only when the boat became a raft and took to sea that I started getting nauseous — in the end “Agua” is not so much insouciant as feather-light. When a reporter asked Bausch, at a 2006 Paris press conference, why she had turned away from darker work, she answered that it was precisely because of the bad things happening in the world that she felt the need to offer some relief and reveal some light. Things have since gotten a lot worse, and (see above, under “Bovary”), considering the vast and illuminating repertoire available to them, I’m not sure that Wuppertal’s directors really serve an audience in need more than ever of cathartic revelation by giving us a frothy Carnaval.
Speaking of exotica, and getting back to woman’s body as a fertile terrain for cultural battles, a historical reminder of why some Muslim, or Arab women might want to hide their visages from disrobing Occidental eyes was provided by Wednesday’s sale of Orientalist and contemporary Arab and Iranian art by Artcurial, the leading French auction house: Just take a look at the come hither topless babes (one of whom is an alabaster white) in Adrian Henri Tanoux’s 1905 oil “Odalisques,” on sale at a pre-estimated price of 40,000 – 60,000 Euros (above). It certainly confirms my assessment that women’s bodies have been a terrain for political and moral battles for a mighty long time.