La Tragédie d’Hamlet (Comédie-Française) @ Salle Richelieu, Paris, 2013Tragedy

  • Ruth Morse

Directed by Dan Jemmett.

Hamlet Folio

Review by Ruth Morse

Anyone who has crossed the Channel on a Eurostar train is likely to have seen the French poster which depicts a standing skeleton holding a fleshly human head at arm’s length. In France it is an instantly recognizable reference to the phrase ‘To be or not to be’, although—like ‘play it again, Sam’—it is one of those condensing inventions not in the script. The fortunes of Hamlet in France have been a history of inventive condensation since the play was first improved by Ducis in the eighteenth century: six characters in search of an adaptor. This was the Comédie-Française Hamlet for many decades. It is really only in the twentieth century that productions resembling Hamlet have been mounted. (There were burlesques and puppet shows along the Boulevard du Crime long before, as there were of Scott’s novels, but that is another story of transfer.) It is still possible to go to a production of Hamlet surrounded by an audience who know almost nothing about the play beyond the untranslatable ‘Etre ou n’être pas’ (as this production has it) and that it’s a royal tragedy about the prince of Denmark. Thanks not least to Victor Hugo’s pro-Shakespeare campaign, they are not shocked by that anathema of neo-classical tragedy: mixing registers and social classes in baggy plots, or combining tragedy and farce. That the contrast is ‘Farce’ rather than our ‘comedy’ is a crucial gulf of misunderstanding that regularly wrecks—or (from the local point of view) saves—Shakespearean plays in French theatres.

This basic misunderstanding extends to translation, although the most familiar translation of Hamlet probably remains that of Hugo’s son, François-Victor, in an edition which created a scandal in 1859 when he published—for the first time—two texts of the play in the first volume of his edition and translation of Shakespeare’s Oeuvres Complètes. Versions of these translations continue to be much used, not least because they are long out of copyright: sixteen were included in André Gide’s Pleïade of 1959. Gide translated Hamlet himself. It is tough on actors, because of its syntax, and the Comédie-Française has not used it. In the earlier twentieth century they had a workable translation available, but not once the Nazis occupied the country, as one of the two translators (who had been good enough for Sarah Bernhardt) was Jewish. In 1994, under the direction of Georges Lavaudant, the Française adopted a romantic, philosophical translation by the celebrated poet, Yves Bonnefoy. It is unfortunate work and would, by itself, be enough to run the play onto a lee shore. The primary problem for any translator is the bedrock difficulty of much of Shakespeare’s text, or texts. When Bonnefoy made the translation, only ‘conflated’ texts were available, but that would not explain his constant abstractions, or his words’ awkwardness for actors. Bonnefoy had more confidence in his communion with the Bard than he should have done. As elsewhere in his translations (notably Yeats), Bonnefoy consistently chose the word Bonnefoy would have used. A tiny example: when Hamlet replies to Horatio (who has scarcely left the apparition of the dead king) that he thinks he sees his father ‘in my mind’s eye’, Bonnefoy mistranslates ‘âme’, which means ‘soul’. ‘Mistranslation’ is perhaps the wrong word, as Bonnefoy paraphrases English poetry as an idiom of Bonnefoy. But no translation could have avoided being completely at odds with the vulgar incoherence of this misconceived production currently sold out at the Salle Richelieu (the original theatre at Palais Royal).

The single set is a run-down seventies sports club bar with its trophies and juke box, flanked by the gents and the ladies toilets (where the dead Ophelia will be revealed). Claudius is at home and hostly in this setting, which creates a cognitive dissonance with the text, the ghost, the rapiers. Perhaps it is meant as an alienation effect. It was, indeed, alienating. The seats at the Français are always uncomfortable, binding one in a nutshell, but on a good night one forgets the rational fear of ankylosing spondylitis. Certainly, the director, Dan Jemmet (an Englishman resident in Paris) forbids the expression of affect, and the soliloquies are more or less garbled into patter pieces. Hamlet has funny bits in it, but they co-exist with action which should not be traduced or overwhelmed by attacks of farce. Interspersed in the action the characters lurch or stomp over to the juke box, which plays mainly pointless and distracting, very loud country and western hits such as ‘Tennessee Waltz’, occupying more than fifteen long, noisy minutes of the runtime of three and a half hours. It felt like hours. The cast of eleven Comédie française members do much doubling, including Elliot Jenicot simultaneously playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a large, black, silent, but energetic dog arm-puppet—I think a Scottish terrier, but not cast), ruining the joke when Claudius can’t tell them apart, and interrupting any serious point elsewhere. Denis Podalydès was apparently cast as Hamlet not for his acting but because he can fence; his talents as an actor are otherwise suppressed. The only bright spot is the ever-dependable Éric Ruf (Ghost, First Actor, Fortinbras).

There is always room for bold adaptations of Shakespeare; in France his name fills the house and attracts the young, so there are lots of these. But they are usually flagged as re-imaginings or re-workings. The introduction to the play on the website offers the programme, an eighteen page press-pack, a education-pack for teachers or parents, and a collection of images for download. The paratexts present a Hamlet suitable for schools.

If this production had worked—that mysterious judgement—this would still have been a confusing version of the play. But in one of the national theatres, where people expect to see what is advertised, it is a ludicrous destruction of a story which has held the imaginations of theatre-goers of every kind. I add that my review is milder than that in Le Monde. I am not allowed to show production pictures, but they are easily available here.

Author: Ruth Morse

Ruth Morse is Professor of English Literature at Université Paris-Diderot and reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. Her latest books are Hugo, Pasternak, Brecht, Césaire (Bloomsbury/Continuum Great Shakespeareans XIV) and, with Helen Cooper and Peter Holland, Medieval Shakespeare: pasts and presents (Cambridge University Press), both 2013. She is a Corresponding Fellow of the English Association, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a Judge for the Crime Writers Association on the International Dagger.