Revue Molière 2022 – The greatest French playwright returns home | Theater

In the foyer of the Comédie-Française in Paris stands a glass box almost 2 meters high and just over a meter wide. In the box is a chair, its wooden arms protruding, like a skeleton, through battered upholstery and antique fabric – or is it leather? It’s too worn out to tell. In this armchair, on February 17, 1673, France’s greatest comic playwright was removed from the stage for the last time, having fallen ill while performing the title role of his last comedy, Imaginary sick. He died a few minutes later (Molière would have liked Spike Milligan’s epitaph: “I told you I was sick”).

In the marble and glass splendor of its surroundings, the chair looks ridiculous, but packs a mighty emotional punch. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. This crazy, comical/tragic piece of furniture is the physical expression of the invisible link through time between the playwright and this theater – still sometimes called “the House of Molière”. It also alludes to the complex relationship between the institution and the plays, between the need to preserve tradition and keep the plays themselves alive for contemporary audiences. We have no equivalent in the UK. For better or worse, our direct link to Shakespeare, our closest equivalent, was severed when the Puritans closed London’s theaters in 1642 (they would not officially reopen until 1660, two years after Molière moved to Paris under the protection of “Monsieur”, Louis XIV).

Given this history, one is a bit surprised to read the words of the theatre’s general manager, Éric Ruf (himself an award-winning performer, director and set designer): “If there is a theater where no one knows the best way to stage Molière, that’s it. A bold statement at a time when the Comédie-Française is doing everything possible to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who will later be renamed Molière. Until July 25, the company’s repertoire will be entirely devoted to the playwright, with 20 plays by him or related to him (including 12 completely unpublished), as well as associated conferences, online links, broadcasts and exhibitions. , including one with the National Library of France. Ruf goes on to say that each of the 1,000 different productions can find something new in Molière, and that the best way to approach the work is to accept that there are no fixed rules: “You have to dare to continue to explore all directions, whether they turn out to be rich or threadbare, revolutionary or childish, light or dark, focused or irrelevant.

This openness to innovation and risk-taking characterizes Ruf’s programming for the Molière 2022 season. Naturally, it cannot please everyone all the time: some regret that not all the directors chosen are French; Parisians, in particular, complain that productions have sold out before they even open (although if you head to the theater just over an hour before the curtain goes up, you can join a queue and hope to get a return). I was lucky enough to receive two press tickets and to be close enough to the head of the return line to take a third. Each of the three productions, all in Molière’s original French, illustrated Ruf’s position, taking its own unique approach.

Belgian director Ivo van Hove is perhaps best known in the UK for his production of Ibsen Hedda Gabler for the National Theater, also screened in theaters in 2017. Ruf entrusts him with the company’s flagship production, a play by Molière never before staged at the Comédie-Française: the three-act version from 1664 of The Tartuffe or the Hypocrite, banned by Louis XIV. As reconstructed by theater historian Georges Forestier, the original is darker than the later rewritten five-act version. the The world critic described Van Hove’s output as “shock and chic”.

“Shock and chic”: Marina Hands and Christophe Montenez in Le Tartuffe or l’Hypocrite. Photography: © Jan Versweyveld

It is shocking in its violence and trendy in its lack of playfulness. As an examination of the perversions of hypocrisy, it’s remarkable (Christophe Montenez’ interpretation of the title role is hauntingly creepy). As an interpretation of Molière, however, he seems to take Goethe’s observation about the closeness of his comedies to tragedy too seriously.

On the other hand, the Swiss performer and director Lilo Baur, a former member of Complicité, offers a new production of The Miser (The Miser), set in post-war Switzerland, which is a bright, farce-oriented poster. Filled with whimsical gags, it tries too hard to be funny and only gets laughs when it lets Molière’s situations be themselves.

Jean Chevalier, Laurent Stocker and Serge Bagdassarian in L'Avare.
Jean Chevalier, Laurent Stocker and Serge Bagdassarian in L’Avare. Photography: Brigitte Enguerand/ Divergence

Between these two tones, and the most successful of the three, is the 2014 revived production of The Misanthrope, directed by Clément Hervieu-Léger de la Comédie (and designed by Ruf). Here, the accent leans towards a Chekhovian naturalism. Loïc Corbery’s extremist Alceste is as much a tortured lover as a misanthrope, stubbornly and self-destructively resisting the moderating logic of his friend Philinte (Éric Génovèse) and the appeal to tenderness of the fiery and flirtatious Célimène by Adeline d’Hermy . Violence, wickedness, love and consideration kaleidoscope through action, all tempered with laughter.

The one constant across all three productions is the quality of the acting. The benefits of a troupe structure for individuals and for the whole are obvious: thrilling performances.

I’m going to take my leave of the famous chair. Impossible to see: a group of schoolchildren are busy around the glass box, talking, laughing. The past and future of the Comédie-Française is an ongoing conversation.

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