'In the theatre, it's the quiet urgency of love that works for me'
I WAS IN France last week to see le Théâtre du Radeau, a company that occupies an old foundry as grim as a derelict convent in the centre of Le Mans.
They were performing Onzième, their latest work, a visual opera that stunned me relentlessly for more than two hours; an inscrutable dance, like a complex liturgy of light and shade, which did not make life easy for the audience who endured the performance while sitting on hard benches.
The pity is that Irish audiences are not as tolerant. They prefer entertainment. And they bully theatre practitioners until they get what they want. Once in a while, someone presents something impossibly daring on an Irish stage. If they’re from east of Kraków they might be tolerated, but if from somewhere west of Kinnegad, then they are swiftly trounced for breaking the rule – theatre must be entertaining. The Irish bourgeoisie demand drama, with a beginning middle and end, on topical subjects, and crude enough to make at least 200 people laugh at the same moment; plays that allow us to comfortably affirm who we are.
Obscure meditations on the unspeakable solitude of being human tend to be dismissed as merely proof that theatre people “disappear up their own arses”. And thus dependent on box-office monies, no Irish company can for long resist the prescribed fashion.
So perhaps that’s why there is such a contrast between the fragmented poetry, the visual elegance of some European theatre, and the neurotic cliched arguments and hyperbolic Oirish characterisations that be the stuff of mainstream Irish drama.
Or maybe it’s to do with the lingering shadows of 20th-century history that make some audiences in Europe more open-hearted to theatre as a space wherein to voice the unspeakable: theatre that questions, rather than affirms, who we are, or who we think we are. The work of le Théâtre du Radeau certainly fits that bill. And it also feels like a collective act of love. Each scene is like a raft in a storm, a space into which actors are thrown, as anonymous nobodies, and where they cling to each other. The work is not just metaphoric; it is an act of resistance in a world already destroyed.
It’s always love in the theatre that works for me. The quiet urgency of love in every scene of this play provoked me to speak urgently to an actress later on in the evening. “Claudie,” I said, “your performance allowed some part of my unconscious to float to the surface. Some part of me that I had forgotten reappeared and was made present when you exposed yourself in the glare of the footlights.”
On Friday I got a lunchtime train back to Paris. I like train stations. It’s only in train stations that I know who I am, caught between one world and another, between the place behind me from which I have come and the destination up ahead, towards which I am bound. In the train station there is time to think outside both boxes. I am not yet who I will be when I get home. And I am no longer who I was last night. Thus I waited outside Gare du Mans, munching a sandwich between France and Ireland.
Three boys arrived sliding sideways on skateboards. One had earphones, another had two huskies, and they all had dreadlocks. A female punk, all chains and mascara, came rushing from inside the glass of the station, and they all kissed her on either cheek.
Elsewhere, the afternoon town was sedate. An orange tram rolled past, full of clean teenagers on their way to université, its bell as firm as a dong commanding lepers to stand clear.
And apart from the three hairy monsters on skateboards, the town looked as if it had been asleep for centuries.
In a nearby buggy, a child erupted with excitement at the sight of the skateboarders. Her mother, lovely and firm in her perfect costume, seemed horrified, as if she already anticipated a rush of fleas towards her shampooed hair. She smacked the child’s hand and steered the buggy towards the safety of shops on the high street.
It’s probably just as well that the actors in Théâtre du Radeau don’t depend on her to survive. Fortunately, they are subsidised. And they have a theatrical home, a building where they can spend the entire year, conjuring up dreamlike versions of the ordinary world, and making magic-lantern shows of love.