Review: The Madwoman of Chaillot ~ theatre notes

Friday, November 16, 2007

Review: The Madwoman of Chaillot

The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux, adapted by Maurice J. Valency, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Toby Sewell, composer Ian McDonald. With Melinda Butel, Mitchell Butel, Melissa Chambers, Julie Forsyth, Francis Greenslade, Sam Hryckow, Sue Ingleton, Bert Labonte, Alex Menglet, Stephen Phillips, Grant Piro, Greg Stone, Magda Szubanski and Kerry Walker. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. November 14. Until December 15. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

We all have them. Those mornings when you wake and recall the events of the previous evening with the desperate hope that it was all a dream. You call your friends to check the facts: was it really that bad? And, very gently, they tell you that, yes, it was.

I had one of those mornings yesterday. On Wednesday night I went to see The Madwoman of Chaillot at the MTC. I entered the theatre with sprightly step, my eyes shining with hope; and three hours later I emerged a broken woman, with the kind of headache that follows a night of concentrated debauchery. My objection to this is that I suffered all the punishment with none of the fun.

It could have been a charming nonsense. The play concerns a cast of colourful Parisians – street singers, jugglers, friendly gendarmes, and so on – led by the madwoman of the title, Countess Aurelia (Magda Szubanski). They lounge picturesquely around their favourite cafĂ© while a wicked Texan prospector (played by Julie Forsyth in a large black moustache and ten-gallon hat) announces that he has sniffed oil under them thar Parisian hills and, backed by the evil machinery of capitalism, is planning to turn the City of Light into an oilfield.

With the help of a great deal of absurdity, the plot is worsted, greed and corruption are banished from the world and good triumphs. The play is a defiant bauble thrown into the face of bleak reality – Jean Giraudoux wrote it in 1942, in the depths of the Nazi occupation of France. And director Simon Phillips has assembled a cast that includes some of the best comic actors in the country. So what went wrong?

The details swim back to haunt me. Stephen Curtis’s set was like a Yoplait commercial: no clichĂ© was left unturned. Was Paris ever so embarrassingly portrayed, outside a souvenir shop? I am sure I dreamed of the Eiffel Tower: there are a lot of Eiffel Towers in the set, painted on screens and curtains, just in case we miss the fact that this play is set in Paris.

To make absolutely certain we aren’t lost, most of the cast affects a motley assortment of French accents and quaint Gallic gestures. Szubanski is mercifully accent-free but, unlike the others, wears a radio mic. (This complements the tish-boom sound design nicely). There are moments when the actors manage to transcend this overdressed, heavy-handed production, but they’re pushing against the tide.

A scene between Szubanski, Sue Ingleton and Julie Forsyth, in which they play three mad old women with an imaginary dog, suggests what might have been possible; some real comedy began to emerge from the mannerisms. Sewn into the dialogue is a witty meta-theatrical commentary on its own fiction, of which absolutely nothing is made in the production. Among other brighter moments, Alex Menglet has a turn as a sewerman, and Michael Butel as the Ragpicker delivers a frenetic speech in defence of capitalist nastiness. But any signs of life are swiftly muffled by a suffocating froth of fuss and frills.

Phillips fills the stage with colour and movement, but with little else. In fact, there is so much colour and movement it is sometimes hard to follow the play. The text itself is a US adaptation, with Wall Street capitalists replacing the original Nazi bad guys, and so is punctuated with rather puzzling American references and what are – I think – moments of purely New York humour. I guess it’s 1940s New York humour: Maurice Valency’s adaptation, which was later made into a 1969 film starring Katharine Hepburn, dates from then. The jokes don’t translate to 2007 Melbourne, and contribute to the general feeling of heaviness: but I still don’t think the play needed to feel quite as long as it did.

There are touches that recall the lightness with which Phillips can direct: at the opening of each act, for example, the characters in a scene are backlit behind the curtain, briefly seeming like a group of daguerreotypes. But the feeling and flair that characterised his marvellous 2005 production of Cyrano de Bergerac is little in evidence. I’m not sure that I’ve ever spent such an empty a night in the theatre.

A shorter version of this review is published in today's Australian.


Anonymous said...

The shoelace seller also some mini souvenier Eiffel Towers on his tray.

Anonymous said...

Saw it last night and half our group left at the end of Act1. Not I but I regret it. Basic stagecraft hint - the audience has to be able to hear. What was it with the terrible accents, hurried speeches, masks(!!) in a huge space like the playhouse.Up in the circle, nothing is funny if you are concentraing so hard on trying to catch one word in ten. Poor show!

Anonymous said...


I saw the last night (15 Dec) and sat downstairs about 5 rows from the front. No one in our group had any difficulty hearing any of the words - and we're no longer spring chickens. So it may be that one's experience depends heavily on where one sits . Clearly that's not a good thing. We noticed that some of the cast (perhaps only Magda) had mics. It seemed a little odd and unnecessary, but not a hanging offence.

I found the piece delightful from the opening moment where the actors are "frozen" before they begin to move.

I honestly cannot recall a single Eiffel Tower (though I suspect that that says more about me than about the play). I enjoyed it at the superficial level of a whimsical piece of dress-up theatre/cabaret replete with mime and other froufrou; but also at the level of a melodramatic fairy-tale struggle between good and evil.

Perhaps the trick is not to take it too seriously. It worked for me.

Anonymous said...

The "Madwoman" says, "Every cabbage must have its pimp." So true of today's world, where even the cheesiest merchandise or ideas have a spokesperson. I saw the play decades ago, and that quote stays in my mind. Read the play and think again. A fan after decades. BHL, Trenton, NJ