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)

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