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June 15, 2011 6:01 pm

Comédies tragiques, Théâtre de l’Est parisien

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comedies tragique
 Pillars of wisdom: ‘Comédies tragiques’

There were several points during the performance I saw of Comédies tragiques when a Mexican wave of hollow laughter united the audience. The Kafkaesque sense of impotence against the state/business machine was just too close to home.

Not one to fight shy of controversy, Catherine Anne gets her claws into a society buffeted by the economic crisis, mutual incomprehension and creeping philistinism. As author, director and departing head of this theatre in a poorer quartier of Paris, she has a track record of engaged programming and of boosting youth audiences: her last play, Le ciel est pour tous, was a gutsy take on intolerance and fanaticism across all religions.

This hybrid text consists of interlinked sketches, brief poetic interludes and sardonic snippets of that ultimate feel-good work, The Sound of Music. The result, though too long and uneven, is full of bold, inventive nuggets.

Anne walks a wobbly tightrope above the quicksands of social realism and the start and finish do feel didactic, with fairly hackneyed life/art parallels. But like fellow Parisian Jean-Michel Ribes, she reveals a piercing critical eye and a flair for subversive, wacky humour. Absurdity and inhuman conundrums unfold in a job centre, a high-rise apartment, a school and on TV. The strong cast – Thierry Belnet, Fabienne Lucchetti, Damien Robert and Stéphanie Rongeot – has a field day with 30 cameo roles.

The best scenes play off the individual’s need for contact and creativity against the dehumanising efficiency of rationalised systems and the disquiet of staff who implement them. A psalm-like voice-over intones “You have rights but also responsibilities and may be struck off” at the job centre where nothing can happen face-to-face without phone authorisation. Kindness has become a “cultural exception” at La Poste and Corneille’s Le Cid a vehicle for product placement. Adults struggle to explain the difference between a position and a person to a child traumatised by teachers being “suppressed”.

The production is lifted by fantasy – like Lucchetti’s manager finding poetry in a new citizen wrestling with the language – and by excellent use of Ségolène de Chassigny’s set, complete with jokey use of Daniel Buren’s iconic Palais Royal columns as seats for the unemployed. 

 

Théâtre de l’Est parisien

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