THEATRE: Great minds do not think alike

A play dramatising the wartime struggle between De Gaulle and Churchill is just one of Paris's current stage successes. Why? By Paul Taylor

It felt a touch perverse to be travelling to Paris to cover the latest in French theatre. On the station newspaper-stands last Friday, the headlines screamed abuse at our European "partner" for its refusal to lift the ban on the once-barking beef of Old England. "BEEF! Now even Blair's sick of the French" exulted The Sun. It felt even more like a contrary exercise once I was in France, since the headlines there proved an ironic echo of the title and the stance of one of the shows I was about to see.

"Boeuf: la France dit non a l'Europe", proclaimed Le Monde. Over at the vast Palais des Congres, one of the big hits of the Paris theatre season is 1940/1945 De Gaulle: celui qui a dit non. The dit non chime is not an idle one. Certainly, you reckon that the French government's policy would have met with the wholehearted approval of this legendary figure, whose operations in London and North Africa as the leader of the Free French during the Second World War are the subject of Robert Hossein's epic piece. (Left to De Gaulle, Britain would not, after all, be part of the EU). Here, Robert Hardy reprises his eminent Churchill impersonation, only bilingually this time - the often comic tension between the two great leaders as dominant a strand in the work as their ability to rise above it.

In a welcome counterbalance to all this edgy nationalism, over at the Theatre des Bouffes-du-Nord, there is the radiant charm, exquisite humour and gently tragic undertow of Peter Brook's latest production, Le Costume (The Suit), which has just opened. If any man and institution personify the opposite impulse to honour cultural differences and bring them into expressive harmony it is this English director and his Paris-based Centre Internationale de Creations Theatrales.

The century's greatest man of theatre, Brook has chosen to straddle the millennia with a season of plays that emerged from the South African townships during the era of apartheid, a fortifying testament to the good in man, which the wicked cannot totally suppress. Meanwhile, at the end of one of the metro lines in the endlessly enterprising Maison de la Culture at Bobigny, his daughter, Irina Brook, who is emerging as a quite marvellous director in her own right, has directed the French premiere of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa in a glowingly humane (and Francophone) production that ironically seemed to me to reach further into the play's heart than did the original Irish production at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

Brook's account of Le Costume is as intimate as Robert Hossein's staging of Celui qui a dit non is consciously monumental. I had thought that it might be easy to dismiss the latter as "event-theatre", an exercise in no-longer-valid self-congratulation as the piece recalls how, helped by De Gaulle's will and vision, Nazi-occupied France progressed from degradation to the Liberation. In fact, the show speaks with an eloquent directness that can move even an interloper from Blighty to tears. It unfolds as a mix of pulverising period film-footage of naval battles and city bombings, of head-to-head drama between Jacques Boudet's superbly impersonated De Gaulle and Hardy's Churchill (their contrasting silhouettes comic in an almost Disney Jungle Book way) and of stylised, diagrammatic action covering not just the terraced steps of Hubert Monloup's design, but erupting down the aisles of this vast venue.

Scenes of summit meetings in an orange-skyed Morocco are a powerful reminder of the damnably tricky position of the Free French and the mutual suspicion between partners who both were and were not in the same war - for if the Allies were fighting the Germans, De Gaulle was fighting for the eventual reconstitution of his visionary idea of France - a priority certainly not high on Roosevelt's agenda. Indeed, every time the De Gaulle says something anti-American, the Parisian audience applauds and cheers. The whole is disarmingly impressive. Ce n'est pas Shakespeare, mais - vraiment - c'est la guerre.

Forced to go back in time and choose to be either a Frenchman during the occupation or a black South African under apartheid, perhaps the only reason you might opt for the latter is that there were fewer opportunities for betraying your fellow-men. Otherwise, theirs was a supremely unenviable lot. But in Le Costume, adapted from Can Themba's short story by Mothobi Mutloatse, the constrictions of that lot are conveyed with a lovely light obliquity until the sudden tragic end. Brook argues that the theatre of the South African townships is "total theatre" like that of the Elizabethans, not in the sense of aiming at a Gesamtkunstwerk, but in the sense of making direct contact with all the community. But the Elizabethans sprang to my mind in another way, too, for in dramatising the strange kind-to-be-cruel revenge effected by a man (Bakary Sangare) when he catches his wife in adultery, the piece is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed With Kindness. And as with that early play. Here, too, you're allowed to see that he is not a bad husband, but that he is a victim of a bad society and its codes and pressures.

The absconding adulterer leaves his suit behind and the husband's revenge takes the form of an elaborate, playfully lethal joke. He forces his wife to treat the suit as an honoured guest who sits with the couple at dinner and goes out for walks with them. But in the most delightful sequence of Brook's warm, spare production, we see how in private, the wife (beautifully played and sung by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, star of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) turns the suit to the purposes of erotic fantasy. Half in it and half out, she comically seduces herself and starts to dance with all the rapt memory of what she has lost.

Dance-band music also suffuses Irina Brook's production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, which is like a Chekhovian Five Sisters, except that in this Catholic, frustrated Irish household, there's a primitive urge to collapse the distinction between the religious and the pagan, dramatised when, one by one, and overcoming a varying range of inhibitions, the sisters join in a wild, abandoned-yet-controlled improvisatory tribal dance to music on the radio. Brook's direction gives this sequence a thrilling force - at once absurd, touching and terrible.

The French actors don't pretend to be Irish: indeed, the production is an object lesson in how a `foreign' cast can show us how what we took to be cultural essentials are in fact secondary characteristics. Purified of all trace of any `beguiling, begorra' quality, the emotional profundity of Dancing at Lughnasa shines out all the more clearly - though that's a non-nationalist approach to essentialism that would not, I think, have gone down well with General De Gaulle.

`De Gaulle 40-45' runs at the Palais des Congres until 6 Feb (00 331 40 68 22 22); `Le Costume' at Theatre des Bouffes-du-Nord until 29 Jan (00 331 46 07 34 50); `Dancing at Lughnasa' at MC 93 Bobigny until 19 Dec (00 331 41 60 72 60)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee