Souterrainblues/La Femme gauchère – Théâtre du Rond-Point, Paris

As an antidote to Valentine’s Day, Paris’s Théâtre du Rond-Point last week introduced two new productions that are all about solitude. La Femme gauchère and Souterrainblues, both directed by Christophe Perton, make for a bleak double bill of works by Peter Handke, who has lived in France for two decades but hasn’t exactly been feted on the country’s main stages. Handke’s controversial pro-Serbia and pro-Milosevic stance led to the cancellation of one of his plays at the Comédie-Française in 2006 and years of suspicion of his work. The Rond-Point marks a cautious return to grace for the Austrian author, who turned 70 last year.

And the two works Perton has chosen span very different periods in his career. La Femme gauchère (The Left-Handed Woman), published in 1976, was one of Handke’s early successes and was later made into a film. The 2002 play Souterrainblues, on the other hand, is performed here for the first time in a French translation. The constraints of staging both on the same stage in one evening, albeit as separate shows, mean Perton had to design adaptable sets. It works up to a point, with black, claustrophobic walls and benches on either side of the stage that double as folding subway seats. But the apartment of La Femme gauchère, with its black rubber covering and empty space, comes to seem strangely impersonal.

Souterrainblues is essentially a monologue. Its main character is simply called l’homme sauvage (the savage), and we follow him as he veers between misanthropy and hate speech through a long, reckless subway journey. Much of it is spent singling out invisible fellow passengers, often for insult; in stinging descriptions he derides them for anything from their looks to their apparent happiness. The production struggles to find the right approach, however, with bombastic doomsday lighting at regular intervals and no clear overall vision for the play.

Yann Collette is dedicated in the lead role, but his rather flat, occasionally inflated delivery doesn’t do this difficult play any favours over an hour and a half. A woman (Sophie Semin) joins him at the very end to give him a taste of his own medicine, but again, the encounter never rings true.

La Femme gauchère may be based on a novel, but it made for better theatre. Handke’s main character has been hailed as a figure for the feminist age, who chooses divorce and lonelinesss over her marriage. This is no edifying story, however, and what Perton’s production highlights is the silence that comes to define Marianne, who asks her husband to leave for no apparent reason and barricades herself in her solitude even as everyone around her warns her about the dangers of being alone.

In Judith Henry, Perton has found an ideal interpreter. With her quiet, frail beauty and powerful presence, she is riveting in the role. Her glistening eyes as she endures abuse from others or gazes into the mirror hint at an inner life that is out of reach for the rest of the characters. When everyone leaves her flat near the end of the play after an awkward reunion, she says to herself: “You’ve never betrayed yourself, and no one will humiliate you any more.” Despite some very slow scenes, it is an enigmatic ode to independence.

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