11-hour French play baffles Edinburgh audiences

23rd August 2004, Comments 0 comments

EDINBURGH, Aug 23 (AFP) - If a night in the theatre means going on a journey, then a ticket for "Le Soulier de Satin" (The Satin Slipper) is a long distance trip. Pack your sandwiches and your special in-flight socks.

EDINBURGH, Aug 23 (AFP) - If a night in the theatre means going on a journey, then a ticket for "Le Soulier de Satin" (The Satin Slipper) is a long distance trip. Pack your sandwiches and your special in-flight socks.

With a performance time of 11 hours, about as long as a London-Tokyo flight, this play by Paul Claudel is the Mount Everest of French theatre. Few directors have the courage to attempt it, and it is staged once in a generation.

Written in the 1920s, Claudel's epic poem was first staged in Paris in a shortened version in 1943 by the legendary Jean-Louis Barrault, but had to wait until 1987 to be staged in full by Antoine Vitez at the Avignon Festival.

Now the young director Olivier Py has staked his claim to a place in stage history by bringing his complete version of the play to the Edinburgh International Festival for its first outing before a non-Francophone audience.

Py is a man with a self-proclaimed taste for creating theatrical monsters. He made his reputation by staging his own play "La Servante" (The Servant) over 24 hours at the Avignon Festival 10 years ago.

"What I like is to get away from the standard deal with the audience, the unit of cultural consumption," he told AFP. "With my 24-hour play I thought people would come and go, but they stayed and slept in the theatre. Very few saw the whole thing."

Set in the Spanish Golden Age, "Le Soulier de Satin" is a loose chronicle of the doomed adulterous love of Don Rodrigue and Dona Prouheze and their search for spiritual salvation.

Even for French-speakers, the story is hard to follow because Claudel makes no concessions to the conventional do's and don'ts of theatre.

The two lovers only come together on stage once, towards the end of the play, and the action floats across a vast variety of locations, from Spain to the New World, from Morocco to Japan, leaving a huge number of loose ends.

The most important character in the play is God, who never appears directly, but is ever-present in Claudel's torrent of words.

A neon sign at the back of the stage proclaims: "Dieu ecrit droit avec des lignes courbes" (God writes straight using curved lines).

"It's complex theatre, but not complicated," Py said, though he acknowledges that even after five years studying the text there are still things that are not fully clear to him.

"I am a Christian and a Catholic. It's very important in my life but my theatre does not proselytise," the former theology student said.

For "Le Soulier de Satin," Py worked with his actors for five months in rehearsal, a luxury that directors in Britain can only dream about.

He is proud of the fact that audiences in France - where the theatre enjoys big state subsidies - saw the play for EUR 10 (USD 12.25) last year, and rejects the idea that independence from commercial box-office pressures can lead to an elitist approach to the audience.

"We sold out in Orleans before the play opened," he recalled.

The Edinburgh revival of "Le Soulier de Satin" marked the final two performances of the play. Sadly for Py and his actors, the response of the British audience was lukewarm, proving once again that where theatre is concerned, the English channel is wider than the Atlantic, and getting wider.

For the first of two all-day performances at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, less than half the 1,350 seats were filled, and most of the audience slipped away before the end.

Applause was muted, and despite the use of English subtitles many of the audience who staggered out punch-drunk at the end said they were baffled.

"The British public is not very expansive,' Py concluded ruefully.

"But they were on their feet at the end, so I suppose something got through."

In past years Edinburgh's sophisticated festival audience has queued round the block to see Shakespeare in Japanese and Chekhov in German. Claudel in French, however, seems to have been a theatrical journey too far.


Subject: French news

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