Return to the Desert, Salle Richelieu, Comédie Française, Paris

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The “desert” of the title is far from the sun. At the height of the Franco-Algerian war, Mathilde returns from Algeria to a middle-of-nowhere French garrison town to reclaim the house she inherited and settle scores with brother Adrien. He inherited the family factory, is now a bastion of provincial society, propped up by dignitaries oozing snobbery, chauvinism, racial prejudice. Rich pickings for perennial outsider Bernard-Marie Koltès, who died a year after writing this play in 1989.

It is Koltès’ only comedy. This long quirky collage of formal poetic rhythms, farce and dreamy interludes meanders around questions of identity – within a family, a community, a country, a political cause. Forget psychological realism, think surreal: the ghost of a murdered wife and a conveniently-parachuted black soldier punctuate the eruption of resentment, the unsaid and unsayable.

Director Muriel Mayette lets rip with the text’s comic potential. The siblings’ reunion is exuberantly hostile. Local bigwigs get slapstick treatment as moustached Marx brothers with pith helmets and silly walks. The ghost-wife, a bitchy snob in her own right, is a floating parody of the Virgin Mary. Alongside the clowning runs the darker seam of fear and alienation, revealed in intimate night time scenes backed by Michel Portal’s excellent music. Yves Bernard’s set is an elegant bare wall, symbol of division, exclusion, complacency, with just a hint of the outside world in the distance.

The production starts beautifully but drops off in intensity and ends up dragging. Martine Chevallier’s Mathilde has a wide-eyed quicksilver sensitivity, her taunts offsetting Bruno Raffaelli’s bullying Adrien. But their confrontation stays superficial, never quite conveys the visceral need to feed off one another. Mayette captures the sense of entrapment in our pasts by presenting them as overgrown kids in matching pyjamas, but dilutes the effect with an overlong pantomime chase. The pathos that underlies the best clowning remains out of reach.

Several smaller roles are jewels: Michel Vuillermoz’s police chief, Julie Sicard’s taut trembling Fatima, Michel Favory’s passionate Aziz. And Catherine Hiegel squeezes laughter, tenderness, poignancy from her gripping portrayal of alcoholic Martha.

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