The 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth hasn’t exactly prompted effusive displays of entente cordiale in France. Rather than mark it with creations of its own, Théâtre de la Ville has chosen to extend an invitation to two productions created in the provinces earlier this season.
It’s not often you see Elizabethan costumes in Paris’s haven of contemporary performance, but Christian Schiaretti’s Le Roi Lear soon swept the audience into its world. Schiaretti, director of Villeurbanne’s Théâtre National Populaire on the outskirts of Lyon, had already scored a notable success with his 2006 production of Coriolanus, and King Lear is on a similarly epic scale. With its 25-strong cast and leisurely running time (nearly four hours), the production resists black-and-white readings of the play to delve into the political implications of its family feud and the meaning of power.
And in Serge Merlin, Schiaretti has a wizard-like Lear. At 81, the actor commands the stage with prodigious range, in turns frail and irascible, childlike and feverish. The rest of the cast follow his lead, and deliver the rhapsodic translation by poet Yves Bonnefoy with poise.
Twelfth Night, a transfer from Saint-Nazaire, is about as far on the spectrum of French Shakespeare productions as you can get. The comedy is far less well known than Lear in France, and director Bérangère Jannelle has taken its subtitle, What You Will, quite literally. The first half is set in an undertaker’s office, until Sir Toby and Sir Andrew don kilts to paint the town (or in this case, Olivia’s home) neon; they get a helping hand from Feste (Thomas Gonzalez) as a cross-dressing fool with a taste for glam-rock and eye make-up, who provides more than just witty repartee to Orsino.
The focus on modern sexual identity and androgyny works well for the secondary characters, but the production’s other stunt – having Viola and Sebastien played by the same actress, Caroline Breton – is less convincing. In the final scene she blends the twins’ lines together in a performance that makes her look almost possessed; the men in the cast contribute fine performances, but Jannelle’s production is too showy to get to the heart of the central relationships.
While part of the Théâtre de la Ville’s season, Twelfth Night was the first to be performed at the Carreau du Temple, a former covered market renovated as a multidisciplinary space. Its airy iron and glass structure has been beautifully restored, and its new 250-seat theatre is likely to be welcomed with open arms by the bobos, the bourgeois bohemian crowd that is now prevalent in the surrounding third arrondissement. All it needs now is to find its niche.