Monday, November 13, 2017

The State of Siege: Fascism Dramatized

Members of Troupe du Théâtre de la Ville perform The State of Siege. (Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

It was brave of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and his Paris-based Troupe du Théâtre de la Ville to take on The State of Siege (L’État de siège), a play by Albert Camus that was roundly panned in its original production in 1948 and has pretty much stayed on the shelf ever since. That Demarcy-Mota and his ensemble of thirteen actors have been able to make so much of the play – the production, which Arts Emerson brought into Boston for four performances, is wonderful – is almost miraculous. Theatre students don’t study the dramatic works of Camus and Sartre these days, but when I was in university in the late sixties and early seventies Sartre’s The Flies and Camus’s Caligula were staples on any modern drama syllabus, along with other now-forgotten mid-century French playwrights like Anouilh, Giraudoux and Cocteau. I remember finding The Flies (a version of The Oresteia) intriguing and I’ve always been curious to see the 1951 movie version, but no one gets excited about the existentialist writers any more, and Camus was never much of a dramatist. (His novel The Stranger, the most famous fictional work he ever penned, holds up.) The State of Siege isn’t even striking as an existential work, though it does bring back the era when French theatre was the playground for intellectuals who delighted in defying the reign of realism. It’s a symbolist drama that begins when a passing comet brings a plague to a seacoast city and fascists take advantage of the fear of the citizens and the resulting chaos to impose a severe, repressive rule of order. This is the second time Camus used the idea of a plague as a premise and a symbol; the previous year he had written his novel The Plague.  (The State of Siege is not an adaptation.)

The play, written in a prologue and three acts, is close to being unreadable; Demarcy-Mota has slimmed it way down and directed the actors to play it at breakneck speed, which makes keeping up with the supertitles challenging but is clearly the only reasonable choice. The production comes in at an hour and forty minutes, without intermission – and it soars. Yves Collet’s set consists of a raised circular playing area covered with green garbage-bag plastic framed upstage with a second, railed tier backed by rust-colored walls; above the action are three monitors that sometimes provide different perspectives on the action being played below and sometimes comment on it. (For example, when the plague descends on the city, the abstract images on the monitors suggest the proliferation of deadly microbes under a microscope.) Downstage left and right is scaffolding that the actors occasionally climb; they also pop up in the house at a few key moments. Collet and Christophe Lemaire designed the spectacular lighting; the costumes, which combine the sinister and the elegant – especially in the case of Casanova’s Alcade – are by Fanny Brouste. Her most beautiful work is done with the seven actors who represent the citizenry, whose range of deep colors tacitly defy the dehumanization of the fascist government. Anne Leray designed the masks: when Diego and others dispose of the corpses, their heads are covered in creepy skeletal headgear with elongated beaks.

Serge Maggiani plays The Plague, as Camus names the new dictator, who rules with the aid of The Secretary (Valérie Dashwood), The Alcade (Jauris Casanova) and, surprisingly, a drunken clown named Nada (Philippe Demarle) whose philosophical musings somehow persuade The Plague that he would be an ideal fascist. Alain Libolt plays The Judge, whose reluctance to oppose the new regime is perhaps meant to echo the laissez-faire attitude of the German aristocrats who did nothing to stop Hitler’s rise to power. His daughter Victoria (Hannah Levin Seiderman) is in love with the medical student Diego (Matthieu Dessertine), the play’s heroic character, whose sacrifice at the end of the play helps to bring an end to the plague and the tyranny of The Plague. The acting of the entire cast is strong and remarkably consistent – and, I was fascinated to see, it’s more or less in the old Comédie Française style, very forceful and highly attentive to the rhythms of the language. Whatever knowledge North Americans might have of this style is based on the work of actors who appeared in French movies during the thirties, the golden age of French cinema. It was essentially declamatory, though these contemporary players have modified that approach.

Demarcy-Mota is a stirring image maker. Sometimes actors rise up under the green plastic so that it has the look of sea monsters among the waves, and in one genuine coup de théâtre they disappear into the wings, via the second tier, whipping the plastic with them and exposing the stage floor. Toward the end of the evening a transparent black curtain cuts off the playing area and we peer through it at the actors as if we were glimpsing them through a giant cobweb. The production is so rousing and inventive that it successfully upstages the text; the play may have provided a useful starting point for the show, but the less you have to think about it the better. The work of Demarcy-Mota and his cast justifies the unearthing of this mothball-eaten Camus play, which they have fashioned into something memorable.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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