Plays don’t get much more autobiographical than this. Paul Claudel, then French consul in China, fired it off in 1905 after a passionate affair relieved him of his virginity at 37 – and his pregnant lover left him for another man. It’s a fiery exploration of the battle lines between body and soul, the destructive power of love testing Claudel’s intense Catholicism to the limits. The first version flouted so many taboos it didn’t get staged until 1948.
Aboard a ship bound for China during the colonial war, one woman and three men. She’s married to one (De Ciz), sleeps with another (Amalric) and will be transformed by all- consuming redemptive passion with the third (Mesa). Yves Beaunesne navigates the quartet through this elemental, metaphysical text with precision, intelligence, gentleness. Simple staging enhances its modernity and captures the closeness of sea to sky, to the unknowable. It hints at how quickly an engulfing wave can take everyone by surprise.
Ysé is one of the great roles, revealing many facets of female experience without concession to cliché. Marina Hands acts under the peculiar spotlight of famous parents: mother Ludmila Mikaël played the same role to acclaim in 1975, father Terry Hands directed Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet her performance is uninhibited, fleshy, luminous. She incarnates extremes of desire, frustration, insecurity, doubt, imperiousness – the mix of unspoken needs and fears recognisable to women who have known life.
It would be unfair to see the other roles as overshadowed because this is generous ensemble playing at its best. Christian Gonon’s husband is finely nuanced, all enigmatic sharp-eyed restraint yet lacking the imaginative sensual range to keep pace with his wife. Hervé Pierre’s Amalric is earthy, laconic, rational, confidently virile in the face of Ysé’s dissatisfaction.
Mesa is a hard role to bring off because anything looks dim next to the glowing Ysé, especially a conscience-stricken diplomat who has renounced women. Eric Ruf succeeds, skilfully managing the transition from stammering ascetic to burning convert to whom the word has been made (female) flesh and reaching a desperate sensual fluency in the final act.
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