Monday, March 26, 2012

Contes Africains d'Après Shakespeare, de Krysztof Warlikowski à Chaillot

A play lasting five and a half hours, influenced by Shakespeare crossed with J.M. Coetze’s latest novel, in Polish with French surtitles, after a solid week’s work? I anticipated a long night ahead last Thursday night at Chaillot. But anyone who knows Krysztof Warlikowski’s work will know what an extraordinary experience it was to see Contes Africains d’après Shakespeare.
Pigs Taunting Shylock
I don’t remember ever having sat in a theatre and felt so confronted and emotionally disturbed by what I saw on stage. When two men wearing pigs’ heads snorted and spat, fornicated, and sniveled their heinously racist insults at the character of Shylock, the man next to me tensed up, and voiced his disgust. He said what I was feeling. Shylock, the Jewish money lender in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is the villain, but in Warlikowski’s play, as he stands before the same table on which we have seen him casually cut up meat, wearing his own mask and a prayer shawl, he is every Jewish person who has been the victim of anti-Semitism, especially in the twentieth century. Earlier when Shylock cuts up the meat, we imagine him slicing off that pound of Antonio’s flesh, a cold and calculating businessman. But when taunted by the pigs, we are horrified at their disgusting behavior, and every ounce of our compassion goes out to Shylock. Behind the perspex curtain that separates audience and actors throughout the performance, a back projection of pigs wanders backwards and forwards, and is mirrored on the right hand wall of the set. The stage is also filled with Paweł Mykietyn’s eerie music, and even though the scene is self-consciously staged, we are confronted us at every level. Somehow this scene takes away all the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s villain and has his humanity restored. “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew Hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (III.i.54) pierces every fibre of our being.
An Irate Antonio
In this same first of three acts, Portia disguised as the lawyer sits down at the front of the stage (before the perspex), and eats a slab of meat. She then proceeds to vomit it back up. I felt my stomach turn, and thought I would throw up as well. She takes off her mask to become Portia, and the intensity of her anguish and pain somehow enables us to translate the violence against the Jews that she has just enacted on Shylock in court into a violence committed against herself. Following Shakespeare, Warlikowski’s Portia in disguise turns Shylock’s revenge on Antonio back against him, and when Portia silently rages against herself, the anguish, in turn, becomes a violence I want to commit against myself.

Portia in disguise before she eats the meat
In the middle section that focuses on a handful of scenes from Othello, scenes, in turn liberally woven with interpretation, Desdemona is raped by a repulsive Bassanio and an Iago who is horrible. The representation of the violence towards her is more disturbing than her suffocation by Othello, a gesture that is here in Warlikowski, one verging on resignation, almost beautiful. The two lie down together to die. And yet, these moments are excruciating to watch.  As Desdemona, like Shylock before her, is taunted, violated and spat on, even before she is punished by her jealous husband, I was touch again: emotionally, physically, and of course, all of my cultural expectations of what it is to be a woman, to be independent, respected and complete, were smashed as I watched Desdemona suffer. 
Desdamona in Agony
The screens and Perspex that move along the horizontal axis throughout the performance, the mirrors along the right hand side of the stage, the industrial doors on the left through which the actors come and go, and the back projected images that repeat but never fully capture what happens on stage, all of this makes for a visually stunning performance. The music that never really goes away, and the most daring of actors who take risks on a stage, doing things we hesitate to do, say and feel in the privacy of our own minds, create theatre that at one and the same time is uncomfortable, and yet, mesmerizing.

"Lear" being shrouded by Regan and Goneril
Contes African d’Après Shakespeare got more and more intense, more daring and more intimate as the night went on. In the third and final part, a daughter sits by her father's hospital bed telling him she would hate him if she stayed, but hate herself more if she left. She left. He died. The father was played by the same actor as the one who played Shylock and Othello. At one point, at a change of scenery she stood against the back wall, her arms spread out on the wall, not moving, and two people came and changed her clothes for the next scene. This was Cordelia, who in Warlikowski’s rendition was raped by her father as a child. She hates him, she loves him, she is completely dominated by his presence, even when he is not with her. They go to the beach and she is seen by two young men who flirt with her from afar. But she cannot leave the command of her father, even as she turns her towel around and away from him, her attention on the young men is always compromised by her father’s presence. Cordelia was, for me, the character that I found most disturbing. She was also the character who was most literally made contemporary, in her clothing, her story, her relationship with her dying father. Cordelia is disturbing because she is every woman who has had a troubled relationship with her father. She is, if you like, the one every woman either is or knows intimately.

Warlikowski's work is evidence of the fact that Shakespeare can be modernized, or rather that Shakespeare is as relevant as ever to the contemporary cultural landscape. I can’t think of more appropriate and resonant images in a week when France is reeling from the massacre of its Jewish children and African paratroopers, events that have seen the country united in disgust at what happened, events that will because they have to, will change the face of an electoral campaign. Warlikowski could not have made Shakespeare more relevant if he tried. This is theatre at its most relevant, but also at its riskiest and most radical. 

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