Compagne Rhapsodie was founded in Paris in 2002 and aims to disseminate contemporary French plays beyond the French-speaking world. This production is the English-language premiere of Patients, one of Jacques Audiberti's (1899-1965) later plays dealing with that most universal of themes, the inanity of war. The Republic of Patients has been decimated by interchangeable armies. All buildings have been razed except one, the dwelling of an old porcelain merchant, reminiscent of the pre-industrial craftsman passing on his skills and his wisdom to the next generation. The play ironically juxtaposes the weakness of utopia and the absurdity of dystopia with an unconvincing reconciliation through spirituality. Happily, it is short.
While Audiberti's play is pertinent to contemporary events - and when has war not been contemporary in the colonial and global perspective of the 20th century, spilling over as it is insidiously into the 21st? - this production fails to do justice to the subject matter. Classical acting training takes precedence as resonant and modulated voices finely ennunciate the text divorcing it from meaning. This is all technique: phoney posturing, hollow gesturing devoid of a commitment to the emotional import of the events. Nothing comes from the heart, war elicits no gut-wrenching reactions from the victims of such misery, even when the mother loses her son and the daughter is dissected alive on stage like a map of the territory to be divided by the victors in what is nothing more than a stalemate pre-figuring another round of violence and atrocity.
Veteran actor Tim Hardy attempts to inject some dignity into the production, but is flummoxed by the risible depiction of twin colonels Houg and Houm, every bit as menacing as Tweedledum and Tweedledee on laughing gas. The actors seem to have dropped through a time warp from Victorian melodrama, into the comic turn of Edwardian Music Hall and on to the London Fringe dragging artistic baggage along with them. This is not a surreal, or ironic humour that can chill the blood in its inescapable absurdity, but mere buffoonery.
Having said that: Thecla Mallinson's set was pleasing in its earthy simplicity. This production exhibited a deficit in imagination, but will someone tell the actors and director that on the stage less is more. Peter Brook famously claimed that 'deadly theatre' was a box of tricks, and here the cast and director plunder the box rather than make a genuine engagement with the characters and with innovations in style that would serve the originality of the text.
"Patients" runs until 18th May
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher