A playwright who combines both style and tripe

Mademoiselle Colombe | The Bridewell, London
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The Independent Culture

Jean Anouilh, the most popular playwright of post-war France, owed his success to being not merely French but Gallic. To French patrons of his boulevard comedies, his lechers, misers and coquettes were amusing eternal verities; to English theatregoers, they were emblems of continental sophistication. But Anouilh was not merely the French Ray Cooney. Mixing the cosy stereotypes with a dash of paradox, passing off amorality as moral complexity, he also appealed to those whose would-be sophistication was of the intellectual type. (He even managed, in his version of Antigone, the feat of satisfying both resisters and collaborators). Someone who makes it his business to please everybody has another profession besides playwright, and "cocotte" is an awfully polite word for it.

Jean Anouilh, the most popular playwright of post-war France, owed his success to being not merely French but Gallic. To French patrons of his boulevard comedies, his lechers, misers and coquettes were amusing eternal verities; to English theatregoers, they were emblems of continental sophistication. But Anouilh was not merely the French Ray Cooney. Mixing the cosy stereotypes with a dash of paradox, passing off amorality as moral complexity, he also appealed to those whose would-be sophistication was of the intellectual type. (He even managed, in his version of Antigone, the feat of satisfying both resisters and collaborators). Someone who makes it his business to please everybody has another profession besides playwright, and "cocotte" is an awfully polite word for it.

Of course, none of this tripe would ever have been swallowed without a tasty sauce, and Anouilh was, in theatrical terms, as much of a master chef as Jeremy Sams who, while bringing to Mademoiselle Colombe the charm and clarity he is known for, never lets his translation get in the way of the author's considerable style.

Not suprisingly, for someone whose art was all artfulness, Anouilh's best plays concern the theatre itself - another reason for his success was the showy parts with which he lured its greatest stars. Honor Blackman is as luscious as fresh foie gras and tough as old boots as Madame Alexandra, the ironically named grand dame of the Paris stage of 1900. Madame, who plays characters young enough to be her granddaughter, couldn't care less about poetry. Alexandra's downtrodden playwright-lover must churn out endless rewrites praising her beauty, as well as a newspaper article giving her views (the opposite of her rival Sarah Bernhardt's, whatever those may be) on love.

That love doesn't include the maternal kind. Julien, the son of one of her seven marriages, comes to ask for modest support for his wife and baby while he does his national service. But Julien reminds mama, who locks him out, of his tiresome father (he shot himself on discovering she was unfaithful and, a nuisance to the end, did so while she was on tour and unable to find a good abortionist). Armand, her charming son, finally gets Julien in, but, as Madame's most passionate clasp is reserved for her chequebook, she puts Julien's pretty wife, Colombe, to work, flinging over her shoulder to her lover: "Write in a muse".

Blackman's Alexandra, one minute sighing "Eros is a wilful god," the next swearing and kicking the furniture in her hatred of her fellow actors, is too gloriously monstrous to trouble our emotions. And one can, and does, mindlessly enjoy Timothy Speyer's furious troll of a secretary, Donald Pickering's flea-pit Barrymore, and Terry Taplin's producer, a sort of dirty old wizard of Oz.

But Julien, Colombe and Armand constantly provoke questions that are never dealt with, much less answered. Is Julien an honourable man or a prig? Is he motivated by hatred of his mother, who abandoned him, or by a terrible need to keep faith with the father he never knew? Is Colombe the victim of her husband's puritanism, or a selfish little bitch? (When Julien returns, after two years, she never mentions their child until he asks, and then says only, "He's fine.") The biggest blank of all is Armand whose feeling about himself and everyone else remain a mystery. Anouilh contrasts these characters with the artificial ones but that's all he does: illusion versus reality is, to him, a Big Idea. You don't leave Mademoiselle Colombe feeling that morality can be ambiguous or character complicated, but that this play is a mess.

To 5 Nov (020-7936 3456)

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