Revivals are not fashionable on the Paris stage. There are structural reasons: unlike many countries, France boasts very few troupes attached to a theatre and a repertoire. So writer/director Joël Pommerat’s decision to offer two revivals this autumn is a bold one, which he doggedly defends in his programme notes for the Théâtre de l’Odéon, where he is associate artist.
But he shouldn’t have to. The two plays Pommerat has brought back after a few years’ break, Au monde and Les Marchands, mine the modern psyche to expose troubling aspects of our collective relationship with work, business and the media, and feel as relevant today as when they were first seen. Created in 2004 and 2006 as part of a trilogy, they share distinctive aesthetic traits. In both, Pommerat’s trademark blackouts punctuate a succession of short scenes, and the darkness carries over to the shadowy homes at the heart of both stories. The black scenery designed by Eric Soyer acts like a heavy curtain drawn on the private lives of the characters, with light seen through either faint gaps or sudden exposure.
Les Marchands takes this stark set-up to another level with a faux-naïf story told solely through a ubiquitous narrator, played by Agnès Berthon. Like nearly everyone in her imaginary town, she works at the local factory Norcillor, where, we learn later, armaments are produced. Her nameless Friend (Saadia Bentaïeb) is alone in being unable to secure employment with the company. In debt, left with a young son in a desolate flat, she is reduced to near-destitution as everyone around her adheres without question to a ruthlessly liberal, work-centred ideology.
In a toneless, occasionally monotonous voice, Berthon describes the events we see unfolding through the other characters’ silent acting. Her lack of distance as she herself becomes ill from the strenuous work and an explosion threatens to close the factory for good is startling, and triggered nervous laughter on opening night. Pommerat ventures into paranormal territory with the rather odd appearances of the Friend’s dead parents, but the drily ironic resolution is a captivating reflection on collective hypocrisy and the influence individual tragedies wield in the media: the projected misery of thousands may not be enough to keep a factory open, but the last-resort death of one will.
Au monde approaches work from a different angle. Pommerat takes us behind the curtains of a family business held together by a frail patriarch (Roland Monod), who lives with his five children. One refuses to acknowledge he’s going blind as he is taking over his father’s company; we learn that the unstable youngest was adopted to “replace” a child who died prematurely. As eerily strange interludes interrupt the story, however, it seems we’re seeing the family through the eyes of the second daughter, a famous TV presenter and a neurotic presence in the house. Marie Piemontese is extraordinary as she teeters on the edge, shrill in her attempts to restore peace, obsessive in her love-hate relationship with her onscreen image.
Her monologues are the best example of the distinctive voice Pommerat develops in Au monde. Repetition is a dominant feature as the text goes round in circles, each sentence interlocked with the previous one. Neither Au monde nor Les Marchands is a masterpiece, but Pommerat’s writing and the subtle social criticism it conveys ought to ensure further revivals in years to come.