Saturday, November 22, 2008

with Falstaff on the railway platform (1)

22 November

Crowned and regal, Bolingbroke surveys his destiny, his wanton prince, and us from a high chair, which is rolled majestically across the vast stage when History beckons. Hotspur and his rebellious colleagues, on the other hand, wander through the same space like nomads in their mobile HQ tent. When the battle occurs, it happens as an athletic ballet, part West Side Story, part soccer match. These spacious effects come naturally to the Théâtre du Voyageur at Asnières, just north of Paris, a big stage housed right on the platform in a former railway station.

But what do we care about kings and battles? The production is "Le Ventre de Shakespeare," the Belly of Shakespeare, or "the Lives and Deaths of Falstaff in Two Episodes," and we spend most of the evening carousing with Sir John and Mistress Quickley and their patchy friends in a seedy piano bar that takes up most of center stage. Oh, and Prince Hal is there too, in it but not of it, his acerbic wit setting him apart, starting with his first lines, though it takes him the length of episode 1 to realize it.

At the Théâtre du Voyageur, as its website informs us, each production is "un apprentissage et un voyage," an exploration and a journey, which departs from the "psychological theater" to create "an experience lived simultaneously by actors and spectators." The local genius who inhabits these precincts is a dynamic woman named Chantal Melior, and it is she who has assembled the script, produced, and directed it. Chantal (everyone seeems to call her by her prénom) has nurtured her little repertory company over nearly two decades. It was she who saw the possibilities of the abandoned station and somehow persuaded the local and regional governments to renovate it. Though she disclaims much knowledge of English, she knows her Shakespeare, and she has stitched together these scenes from four of his plays with the cunning of a master, adding songs and choreography as needed. Her Falstaff, a hogshead of a man whose belly deserves its top billing, not only lives and breathes--as he does in Shakespeare's vignettes--but takes on the full amplitude of a major character, not tragic but sad in a modern way, a perpetual adolescent whose tricks and fancies never cease to amuse, but who gets left behind when Hal's express train leaves the station. 

Before that happens, though, we get the full enjoyment of this outsized character: hear his quick lies as he tries to repossess his squandered bravery, hear him load his beloved prince with calumnies he smoothly disavows when overheard, hear him declaim on the hypocrisies of "honor." A floozie named "Do-Do" sings a dancehall number in his honor, in which he seems to be compared to an orangutan (my French isn't always up to this sort of scene, but folks around me found it hilariously naughty). And best of all, with Quickley on his arm, Sir John himself sings her a little chanson d'amour as they two-step across the stage, a scene the Bard would have stolen in a minute.

Theater is meant to be transport, and Chantal's  brilliant insight in claiming this space is only a small part of how that effect is put to work. Apart from its luxury of stage space the company's style is low-budget: the cozy coffee bar/waiting area is furnished with mismatched chairs and makeshift tables and lit by a large dripping candelabra, a cross between an Allston group apartment and a set for La Bohème. But I feel immediately drawn in as the volunteer hostess absolutely refuses to take my euro the coffee is supposed to cost, and insists that I meet Chantal. "Is this your first time here? Welcome to the Théâtre du Voyageur" is said to me at least three times. This is clearly a voyage we're taking en groupe

At the final moment of episode 1, though, that voyage becomes vast and solitary. Sir John and his friends witness the triumph of their pal, now crowned as Henry V, from behind a crowd-control barrier of chicken wire. Falstaff is his bragadoccio self, assuring one and all that his personal connection to the new king will have them all rolling in titles and repaid debts. But the new king has moved on to another life. As he rebukes his old companion from the far side of the stage, telling him how unsuited his capers are to his white hair, we can all but hear the air leaking out. Abandoned by his prince and his disappointed followers, Falstaff, slumped and vacant, makes an achingly slow walk across that spacious but empty stage, a voyager to nowhere. 

What I saw last night was just episode 1, "la dolce vita." Falstaff's death is recounted in a rapid-fire epilogue just as the lights go out,  but Chantal's notes to episode 2 promise that he will be back on other terms, not a person but a "character" (personnage de théâtre) living a "farce tragique." Will that be so very different? I'll find out tonight and let you know.


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