THEATRE / A long night in hell

Great movie, terrible play. Paul Taylor on the RSC's Les Enfants du Paradis
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The Independent Culture
Why should a brilliant screenplay be debarred from being reinterpreted just because its first realisation happens to be one of the all-time great masterpieces of world cinema? To hear some people talk about Simon Callow's decision to make a stage version of Les Enfants du Paradis, you'd think he'd elected to kidnap and inflict a brutal sex-change on their precious, white-haired old mother. As a huge admirer of the Prevert script for Marcel Carne's film, I had thought that, in principle, I was 100 per cent behind Callow's project. Watching the dubiousoutcome at the Barbican, I begin to have misgivings about the venture even as an idea.

A sumptuous evocation of theatrical life in 19th-century Paris and a piercing anatomy of romantic love in all its varieties, Les Enfants moves between flowing crowd scenes and scenes of magical intimacy as it follows the fortunes of the beautiful adventuress, Garance, who - in a daisy chain of unrequited infatuation - is loved by a great mime artist (Rupert Graves), a dandified philosophical criminal (Joseph Fiennes), a bravura actor (James Purefoy) and a rich count (James Faulkner).

There are many problems with Callow's production, beginning with a dingy lighting scheme that may win awards for energy conservation but keeps us largely in the dark where subtleties of performance are concerned. You find your mind wandering back not to the Paris of 1828 but to the England of the three-day week. There's not enough variety of illumination and this has its effect on the cast. For a piece that so cleverly plays off different acting styles against one another, the divide between what is delivered within the quote marks of parody and what is not is here too often blurred.

Then there is the whole question of scale. For the movie, Carne had a huge budget, thousands of extras, a dazzling reconstruction of the Boulevard du Crime, a quarter of a mile of shop fronts and a theatre. Robin Don's set achieves the worst of both worlds. Leaving you dazed with dizziness by the interval, there's a whirling ugly scaffolding structure that serves as a see-through Theatre des Funambules. With the action shifting, against a constant musical background, between this revolve and its distinctly under-populated surroundings, the effect is one of sprawling vagueness and punitive compression (characters jostled by purely notional crowds, etc). The biggest casualty is any palpable sense of those crucial, eponymous characters - the rowdy punters up in the gods. Rather than make do with a feeble soundtrack, why not use a smaller theatre and cast the real-life audience in that role?

There's a problem less rectifiable than these. As played by the RSC, this quintessentially Parisian story seems about as authentically Gallic as Nicholas Nickleby, a hit for the company which I don't think will be repeated here. The backstage, theatre-about-theatre elements come over in a curiously Anglicised form, so that, at times, you seem to be watching a sort of Trelawney des Sources. Delivering the joke about the "violon d'Ingres", the actors tellingly mispronounce the artist's name on the model of those Brits who think that "lingerie" is pronounced "lawngerrie".

It's revealing about the material that this matters so much. No one complains about Chekhov stagings that aren't awash with Russianness. I think this is because, in the final analysis, Les Enfants is not a work you can detach from its potent myth - the historical circumstances of the film's creation in Nazi-occupied France (where romantic escapism could itself be a form of imaginative resistance), its consequent meta-theatrical politics, and the strange overlap between the personalities of some of its stars and the characters they played.

Helen McCrory, who assumes the role of Garance, is a fine actress and is particularly good in those moments when this woman reasserts the right to be herself. But she can't begin to efface the memory of Arletty. This is not just because of that actress's extraordinary power of projecting an enigmatic, vulnerable unattainability. The knowledge that Arletty was capable of having an affair with a German officer and also of embodying an image of the free spirit feeds into our response to her performance, an aspect that is quite unreproducable.

Making stage plays from screenplays is, for all that, not to be discouraged. It's to be hoped that David Glass will have better luck with his forthcoming theatrical version of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, a movie that was just a hit, not, as with Les Enfants, a hit and a myth.

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