Cross-dressing has enjoyed less fortune on the French stage than across the Channel. In that context, the Comédie-Française’s decision to cast a man as Victor Hugo’s Lucrèce Borgia came as something of a surprise, and the reasoning of director Denis Podalydès in the programme notes – that it was crucial to portray Lucrèce as a “pariah allegory, a moral monster”, badges that no woman can apparently hope to earn on her own – didn’t bode well.
Better to say he did it for an actor, and not just any actor: Guillaume Gallienne, fresh from the popular success of his first feature film, Les garçons et Guillaume, à table! (Me, Myself and Mum). In it, he explores his own identity crisis as an androgynous young boy readily cast as gay by his bourgeois family, and plays his own mother in drag along the way – handy preparation, perhaps, for Lucrèce’s mix of over-the-top cruelty and maternal remorse.
Gallienne’s performance doesn’t pile on the grotesque, however. His bare-chested entrance acknowledges the subterfuge; even in his Elizabethan dress, he remains without make-up, eerily exposed. His acting is almost low-key throughout, and all the more believable for it. Hugo’s Lucrèce is grandiloquent enough on paper: the cold-blooded face of Machiavellian Italy, she is merciless with her enemies and despised by the population. Her Achilles’ heel, however, is the son, Gennaro (the product of incest with one of her brothers) she sent into hiding to protect from her own family, who doesn’t know her.
Hugo’s flamboyant plays have found the Comédie-Française at its best recently, and Lucrèce Borgia is no exception. Podalydès, another Comédie-Française actor turned film star, confirms he is a gifted director with this elegant production, entirely true to the play’s tragicomic bend; the abrupt changes of tone, from satire to bombast, are handled with deceptive ease. Eric Ruf’s sets, meanwhile, evoke Venice and Ferrara’s palaces with a beautiful lightness of touch.
Ruf returns to lead several scenes as Don Alphonse d’Este, Lucrèce’s husband, driven to obsession by his jealousy when he thinks Gennaro is her lover. The rest of the cast rises to the challenge of Hugo’s irrepressible lines, all wit and verve; Christian Hecq, who has honed the art of grunting like no other, finds a wonderful role in Gubetta, Lucrèce’s scheming accomplice. As a counterpoint to Lucrèce, Suliane Brahim is a cross-dressing Gennaro and rather lightweight in the early scenes, but Lucrèce’s death at his (her?) hand is perfectly judged. It has been a hit-or-miss season for the Comédie, but it ends on a high.