Orgie, Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, Comédie Française, Paris

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This production was always going to be controversial. It replaces Peter Handke’s Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking, cancelled by the former head of the Comédie Française, Marcel Bozonnet, after Handke attended Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral. Bozonnet – whose mandate was not renewed – filled the gap with Pasolini’s last play, Orgia. Not what you’d call playing it safe.

The subject is disturbing, the language deeply poetic. Sadomasochistic rituals play out between Man and Woman, are repeated with Girl, followed by suicides. But the “orgy” is not about frenzied sex, but reaching beyond conventions of communication impossible for outsiders such as Pasolini. The couple are engulfed in words and fantasies that mix lyrical nostalgia for a complex vanished past with a downwards spiral into self-destruction worthy of myth. Life is suspended by day, resumed through destructive sexual release by night: the ultimate freedom is to choose death. The play starts with the voice of the just-hanged man, “my last words have just been spoken”, and ends with the hanging itself and the laconic “at last someone who made good use of his death”.

Bozonnet’s naturalistic treatment places difficult demands on his actors and weakens the text’s resonance. Initially, it works: the couple on their homely bicycle weave words on a bare stage of earth, with Adeline Caron’s set well-suited to their evocation of rural arcadia. But when talk turns to action, we get no-holds-barred bondage and beating. Enigma and poetry are suffocated by this over-explicit treatment while the second scene, prelude to infanticide, lacks a sense of claustrophobia.

The performances, though, have conviction and luminosity. Alain Fromager’s Man has a deceptive ordinariness that explodes into violence. Cécile Brune’s Woman splices hoarse, trembling anticipation with submission. Lucile Arché plays the Girl with sensual lucidity.

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