Sunday, November 16, 2008

mesure pour mesure in bobigny

16 November

"Measure for Measure" is an intellectually fascinating text but a hard play to bring to life on the stage. In fact, it's a hard play to justify in lots of ways, as I found out one time when I attempted to teach it to sophomores at Commonwealth School... but  that's another post. I went to see the play in French at MC 93 Bobigny last night, and the experience taught me some new things about the play--and a few about France as well.

One of the most successful aspects of this production was the set. Director Jean-Yves Ruf has the action begin (after a sort of prologue delivered by the duke from the audience) behind a gauzy transparent screen, through which we see what Vienna has become under the lax Duke's reign: prostitutes flaunt their wares under a garish light, as one of them squats to rinse her crotch and several clients exchange ribaldries while peeing (toward the audience) into a large rectangular pool/urinal that literally sets the stage for this drama of infraction and purgation. It is a world, as the duke admits, whose moral authority has gone flaccid in response to his negligence in enforcing the law. It is every Angelo's nightmare, every law-and-order conservative's case-in-point, every French droitiste's view of ... places like Bobigny. 

Allow me to digress a moment. In this morning's Monde I read an interesting op-ed piece, "Appeler un Noir un Noir,"  in which the writer examines le Monde's use of racial and other sensitive terminology, and notes how the Obama campaign among other forces has put pressure on that usage manual. One of the terms the author still considers defamatory is the chic adjective neuf-trois, 9-3, which identifies the départment Seine-Saint-Denis, northeast of Paris, but is understood to "stigmatise" the residents with undertones of criminality and foreignness. (American speakers, think of the adjective "ghetto") Bobigny is part of that world: MC 93 is Seine-Saint-Denis (93)'s public theater. 

Of course, one could hardly compare the French government's policies to the duke's. Under Interior Minister, now President, Sarkozy enforcement in places like Bobigny has been much more like ... Angelo's 'reforms.' Candidate Sarkozy famously suggested directing a watercannon at such places, and under his vigilance the racaille of Seine-Saint-Denis, as in Vienna, are rounded up, incarcerated, deported.  Once you understand that Angelo's real principles are hypocrisy, abuse, and personal gain,  voilà!--Ruf's lurid scenography takes on a hard edge. In yet another turn of the screw Sarkozy's cultural ministry has been trying to execute what local commentators call a "hostile takeover" of MC 93 by the ministry-managed Comédie Française (against the wishes of artistic director Patrick Sommier and Bobigny's Communist mayor), though that initiative seems to have been deferred. But the context is particularly pertinent for this play that is all about official power in conflict with human desires, as mirrored in the contrast of aristocratic and plebian standards of behavior. In its lavish and engaging presentation of the more populaire elements--not just the staging but virtuoso readings of a number of comic parts--this production comes down heavily on the side of le peuple and its humane republican values, and against the republic of les flics--of cops like Angelo and Sarkozy.

What is less successful is the effort to make coherent the angelic worldview, the absolutist standard of right behavior, whose burden in the play it is Isabelle's to impose on this bordel of a town. It is not the fault of the actress that she is constrained to play her entire role in a white nightgown more suggestive of Bon Marché than of Heaven. But she wouldn't have to intone her moral lessons so operatically, though really the fault is in how untrue these lines ring to moderns. Even her beloved, soon-to-be executed brother Claudio can't believe his ears when she patiently explains why her chastity is worth more than his young life. I'm in no position to judge André Markowicz's verse translation except to say it was 'difficult' for me in a Racinian sort of way, but I'm not sure Shakespeare's original makes Isabelle's case any more successfully.

This production's version of the Duke, on the other hand, is an improbable success, as well as the part of the play when I was most aware that it was in French. Let me say that my 10th graders were particularly unwilling to take this guy seriously, despite their teacher's increasingly plaintive insistence that they had to, that he was the obvious center of authority and truth in the play. But what a wacko he is, with his plots and disguises and non-stop machinations. And that's just how Jérôme Derre played him, waving his hands and rubbing them with glee, shouting at Isabelle and pulling her by the ear, just before he suddenly turns and gives her a 10-second smooch right on her virgin mouth. Is this sounding French?  At last it all makes sense: it's all about the desire of the Other of the other, which displaces the phallocratic law of the father into a chain of signifiers ... Just wait till I explain it to the sophomores.

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