Talking Heads

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive
Charlotte Clamens as Miss Fozzard. Photo: Brigitte

I went to the Théâtre du Rond Point with low expectations the other evening to see a French production of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. How could it live up to the brilliant performances by some of Britain’s

Charlotte Clamens as Miss Fozzard. Photo: Brigitte

I went to the Théâtre du Rond Point* with low expectations the other evening to see a French production of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. How could it live up to the brilliant performances by some of Britain’s leading actors in the BBC TV production of these short monologues ? Would the tragedy and very British humor of the plays translate into French? Would the performers give in to the French stage actors’ penchant for declaiming?

What a wonderful surprise, then, to be treated to director Laurent Pelly’s highly professional production (through May 30) of three of these pieces – A Woman of No Importance, Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet – each of them beautifully performed (with absolutely no declaiming) by three talented actresses, respectively Christine Brücher, Nathalie Krebs and Charlotte Clamens.

In each of the 13 plays in the Talking Heads series, a single character simply talks about his or her life. The stories of these self-deluding characters, locked into their petty little worlds and grasping desperately at small blessings to keep themselves afloat, are brought to a high pitch of tragedy by Bennett’s perfectly distilled writing, which subtly and slowly reveals the truth behind the self-deceptions long before the character is aware of them, to devastating effect.

On the page, these texts can be depressing to read, but a fine performance brings out their deadpan humor, and the French audience was laughing loudly and often (kudos to translator Jean-Marie Besset for doing an excellent job of finding idiomatic equivalents for some very culture-specific references).

I spoke to a Frenchman after the performance who was disappointed by the lack of high drama in the play – “I want to be overwhelmed by theater,” he said – but in my view, the high drama was very much present in the quiet tragedy of these “ordinary” lives. He also felt that the lack of emotion shown by one of the most repressed characters was hard to credit. “You don’t know the English!” replied the English friend who had accompanied me to the theater.

It’s the details that bring these pieces alive. Bennett misses out on nothing. He must have once worked at an office, for instance, to understand the lethal blandness of cohabiting with a photocopy machine within the same four walls day after day and what it does to lonely people. And this production gets the details right, respecting the English character of the play through the props and stage sets: a character coming back from a shopping trip carries a Tesco bag, a house in the suburbs is represented by just the right color of yellow-brown brick, the bus stop sign in one scene is a perfect replica of a Northern English one, with the name of an obscure town that was recognized by my English friend.

While it could be argued that the title, Talking Heads, cries out for a TV production of talking heads and nothing else, I greatly enjoyed the clever staging of this production. The monologues were broken up into separate scenes, each of which takes place in a box created by lighting on a different part of the stage. A couple of scenes – one a death scene and the other an erotically charged moment – were presented as if seen from above, which must have been uncomfortable for the actresses but was highly effective in the context. The blackouts during set changes were filled with recorded sound effects, played on the theater’s excellent sound system. They complemented the story and were once again authentically British. The fine sets were by Chantal Thomas.

This production, originally created by the Théâtre National de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées, is two hours long but is so absorbing that it seemed like half that. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with a good level of French.

The Salle Jean Tardieu, in which Talking Heads is performed, was fairly comfortable but too hot. The theater would do well to invest in a little oil for the squeaky seats, which sometimes made so much noise when too many spectators were squirming in their cramped seats at the same time that it actually drowned out the actor’s lines.

The Théâtre du Rond-Point itself was built in the 19th century to house panoramic paintings depicting Napoleon’s triumphs in battle. It was turned into an ice-skating rink in 1894 and only became a theater in 1980. Remodeled in the 1990s, it is now more of a cultural center, with a bookstore, a large 760-seat theater under the glass-roofed rotunda and three smaller theaters. The restaurant and bar downstairs are lively, comfortable places to have a drink or a bite to eat and are open late (until 1 a.m.).

*The production has now moved to the Théâtre Marigny, Carré Marigny, 75008 PARIS, Tel.: 01 53 96 70 00 or 0 892 222 333. Through July 18.

Heidi Ellison

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