Reliable old Molière or Racine: that’s what you would expect to see from the venerable Comédie-Française to mark the reopening of its main stage after a year-long renovation. In a surprising display of entente cordiale, however, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida did the honours for the unveiling last week – although Jean-Yves Ruf’s faltering production was upstaged by the Salle Richelieu’s gilding and red velvet, newly restored to their original splendour.
With its disillusioned take on the Trojan war, Troilus and Cressida is on the contemplative, arduous side, and you have to applaud a company for even essaying it in translation. It is a tall order in French: André Markowicz, a tremendous translator of Russian and English literature, does his utmost, and provides moments of undeniable panache throughout. Even so, the long monologues are weighed down by impossibly convoluted sentences and metaphors, and there’s little dramatic momentum to help the actors traverse this verbal quicksand.
It’s not all bad news. The set is elegant, with airy tents for the Greeks and a heavy, ornate wall symbolising the besieged Troy – the work of Eric Ruf, the director’s brother, who also plays the manipulative Achilles. And the cast showcases the depth and strength of the company’s male line-up, from Gilles David’s bawdy Pandare to Loïc Corbery as a comically dim Ajax.
But Ruf fails to deliver a dynamic vision of the play’s themes or of its anti-heroes, Troïlus and Cressida. Her ultimate betrayal is as incomprehensible as the political power plays in the Greek camp, and Georgia Scalliet’s rather strident heroine never quite connects with Stéphane Varupenne’s Troïlus. The production is strangely disengaged throughout, and if you’re not a devotee of the Iliad, confusion is likely to ensue. This is a piece that comes too close for comfort to the standard caricature of the Comédie-Française’s highbrow repertoire.
Equally stylised in text but far more focused, another production had its premiere on the Comédie’s second stage, the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier: Victor Hugo’s rarely performed Hernani. The play is remembered today largely for the violent dispute between Classicists and Romanticists its premiere triggered in 1830; the work itself has a plot as over-the-top as the film version of Les Misérables, yet Hugo’s verve can still shine through, as Nicolas Lormeau’s unfussy production shows with discreet brilliance.
Hernani sets a tragicomic story against a historical background, as the rules of Romantic theatre (inspired by Shakespeare, incidentally) dictated: in 16th-century Spain, Hernani, a banished nobleman, seeks revenge for his father’s death against the king of Spain. The future Charles V happens to be in love with the same woman as the hero, however – Doña Sol, herself engaged to be married to her uncle. Much hiding in bedrooms and crypts ensues, but Lormeau has smartly chosen to work with a traverse stage and avoid bulky sets, instead setting the action in a compact, nondescript space.
And with that, a voiceover introducing each act and simple costumes, the production lets Hugo’s mighty verse fill in the blanks. It’s easy to forget the artificiality of his alexandrines, such is the vim with which Hugo whisks each into the next, and the Comédie-Française actors deliver them with their traditional bravura. Félicien Juttner is a breathless Hernani opposite Jennifer Decker’s delicate yet iron-willed Doña Sol, while Jérôme Pouly manages the king’s speeches with appropriate grandeur. A show of unabashed literary flamboyance.