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February 11, 2014 6:41 pm
What is it with the Comédie-Française and Shakespeare these days? The company’s relationship with the Bard has had its ups and downs over the years, but recent efforts have made him the butt of a disconcerting joke. After a gaudy Hamlet from Dan Jemmett in October, Comédie-Française director Muriel Mayette this week delivered a desperately prosaic Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The tense atmosphere in the wings can’t have helped. Mayette’s contract expires this summer, but the troupe made waves in December by writing a collective letter to the Ministry of Culture requesting a change of director, citing “a management devoid of any real artistic vision”. One third of the Comédie’s actors are involved in this Dream, but it is not much of a parting gift: with a white canvas in lieu of sets and tasteless direction, the cast mostly struggles to find its footing.
The production takes a leaf out of the mechanicals’ book: in this Dream, every world, be it human or supernatural, becomes grotesque farce. There is no mystery to be found in the woods, where Titania’s retinue of fairies has been transformed into a crew of twerking raccoons inspired by Bosch, and Puck is a ringer for Ice Age’s Scrat. Titania herself looks like a demented Valkyrie, and Oberon is a bawdy, furry mix between a Feydeau character and a hobbit.
The humans don’t fare much better. The action starts in the audience, with Theseus, more Dominique Strauss-Kahn than king in his bathrobe, shuffling past an orchestra row to admonish a bratty Hermia. The lovers make a gleefully irritating quartet, and the sanest characters may well be Peter Quince and his actors.
Crass humour reigns supreme throughout. The magic flower is a phallic prop that spews white powder on its hapless victims; even Puck gropes Hermia from behind a tree. Oddly enough, however, Mayette has gone back to the old-fashioned 1860s translation by François-Victor Hugo, one of Victor Hugo’s five children. Given the wealth of recent attempts to do Shakespeare justice in French, it’s a puzzling choice, hardly helped by the racist overtones of some lines.
As a result, the joke is on Shakespeare rather than integral to the text: the play’s variety and poetry are nowhere to be found, and it’s a dispiriting outing for a company with an illustrious repertoire-based tradition. When Pyramus and Thisbe is a haven of finesse and subtlety, it may be time to go back to the drawing board.
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