Amid enormous ballyhoo and record advance ticket sales, the first stage portrait of General Charles de Gaulle - Celui qui a dit Non (The Man who said No) - opens in Paris on Friday.
The play, or multi-media spectacular, with 50 scenes and 108 actors, follows the life of the leader and inventor of Free France, from 1940 to 1945. At pounds 5m, it is the most expensive French theatrical production in history.
The producer-director is Robert Hossein, a Gallic latter-day Busby Berkeley: a man who made his reputation with Holiday on Ice; a live Ben Hur, with a real chariot race; and the first production of the musical Les Miserables. To publicise his new venture, he persuaded the city of Paris to plant an 80ft-high Cross of Lorraine outside the conference centre at the Porte Maillot, whose huge circular auditorium will accommodate the play. A pop record about de Gaulle - another striking first - will be issued this week.
It might appear that the production is a close relative of Oh! What a Lovely War or "Springtime for Hitler" (the spoof musical in the Mel Brooks movie The Producers). In truth, it may turn out to be odder, more memorable - and more serious - than either of them.
Robert Hardy, the British actor known for his frequent portrayals of Winston Churchill (this time almost entirely in French), says the play is "definitely surreal but also intensely real, and at times extremely moving indeed ...
"It is also politically sensitive, like everything about the war still is in France. We have been warned that objects may be thrown at us."
The script is a three-year collaboration between two French historians, Alain Decaux, who is a fierce critic of de Gaulle, and Alain Peyrefitte, who idolises him. In the words of Mr Hossein, it is the painfully negotiated and minutely researched text of "a man who loves [de Gaulle] too much and a man who does not love him enough".
This theatrical odd couple claim to have unearthed new information about de Gaulle's London period: about his dealings with the resistance, with the collaborationist regime in Vichy and with Churchill. The play pulls no punches about the strained relations, bordering on murderous, which existed between de Gaulle and the British. At one point, Churchill orders the bloody-minded and egocentric de Gaulle (played by Jacques Boudet) to be deported to Algeria, in chains if necessary.
Much of this will be new to the French public, used to a two-dimensionally heroic portrait of the wartime de Gaulle and an equally over-simplified view of a bluff, courageous Churchill. "If you leave my spectacle, saying 'I learned nothing new', if you are not shocked by the violence of the dialogue between ... de Gaulle and Churchill, I will have failed," says Robert Hossein. "We know de Gaulle from his speeches, his interviews, his press conferences. We know little of the man."
Mr Hossein persuaded the general's son, Philippe, to allow his father to be portrayed on stage for the first time. The younger de Gaulle insisted that the general must be shown "with all his doubts, his weaknesses, his anxieties, his humanity and his tenderness". Churchill's surviving daughter, Lady Mary Soames, took much the same view about the play's portrait of her father. The British prime minister appears as a heroic bully, who championed de Gaulle and detested him and who would change his mind more often than his cigars.
Robert Hardy, who is a friend of Lady Soames, said: "I thought that I had irrevocably retired from playing Winston Churchill [this will be his fifth time] but, when the offer came from Paris, I agreed to read the text and I was overwhelmed, bowled over. Since the portrait of Churchill is not always flattering, I thought that I should show it to Mary Soames. She read the play and said: 'No, it is fine. You must do it.'"
One logistical problem is that Robert Hardy's French is considerably better than Churchill's. The great man used to take a delight in butchering the language of Moliere and even coining new Frenchisms. In the play, Churchill talks mostly in French, even in one memorable scene when he addresses a recalcitrant House of Commons. (The MPs in pinstripes and bowlers are scattered throughout the audience and barrack Churchill for his support of de Gaulle.)
"I thought I should play it in reasonable French so that the French audience would understand me. I consulted Mary Soames on how good her father's French really was. She confirmed what I, and many others, had always suspected, that he spoke the language rather well, but chose not to in public or on the radio."
In several scenes in the play, Churchill and de Gaulle scream at one another and then Churchill calms tempers by offering Le General a drink. De Gaulle answers in poor English, "Why not?" which comes out more like "Whoay natt?" The younger actors in the cast have found this expression so funny that they have been saying "Whoay natt?" all over Paris.
It is, according to Robert Hardy, already on its way to becoming a Parisian catchphrase. Revenge on Churchillian French at last.
"Celui qui a dit Non" is at the Palais de Congres, Porte Maillot, Paris, 1 October-6 February.Reuse content