Rarely has a traverse stage felt more appropriate. Joël Pommerat is a man who works in fragments, and his new creation, La Réunification des deux Corées (The Reunification of the Two Koreas), compresses its precarious encounters into a dark stage corridor flanked by audience members on both sides. It is a startling, kaleidoscopic process, and one that signals once more the originality and power of the writer/director’s voice.
This world premiere is the latest in Pommerat’s longstanding collaboration with the Théâtre de l’Odéon, where he is an associate artist. Don’t be fooled by the title: neither Korea nor international politics are actually on the agenda. The great theme of the play is love, and Pommerat explores it in what often feels like an anti-Love Actually for the stage. Over 20 or so vignettes, nine actors portray a range of characters, all of whom are on the verge of a relationship breakdown, and every scene is imbued with a desolate ambiguity. This is Pommerat’s way of capturing human relations. We are left wondering whether a camp counsellor accused of rape really did it; and whether a businessman accused by his secretary actually had sexwith her while she was asleep.
The play’s outlook is best summed up by one character’s explanation for her departure – “Love is just not enough” – and yet the bleakness is not without irony. When a wedding is ruined by revelations that the bride’s four sisters all shared a kiss with the groom at some point, the dark humour is irresistible. Elsewhere, in a beautifully delicate scene, a husband breaks down as his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife asks him the questions she repeats every day: “Who are you? How can you be my husband? Do we have children?” He cries that they loved each other and saw each other as two halves of a whole – like North Korea and South Korea reunited.
La Réunification benefits from the lighting wizardry of Eric Soyer, a longtime Pommerat collaborator, who lends extraordinary shade and depth to every scene with black-and-white projections and practically no sets. The ambiance and music by Antonin Leymarie, another regular, add to the stifling, urban atmosphere. In the second half there are intermittent appearances from an androgynous David Bowie-like figure, expertly played by Agnès Berthon as a glam rock sad clown.
The writing occasionally falters, with a few overwrought scenes, but Pommerat’s deadpan way with dialogue helps the production keep its momentum and steer clear of excessive pathos. The actors move from character to character with mesmerising dexterity, and play off the unease they stir up without alienating their audience. Another fascinating entry on Pommerat’s long résumé.