Behind Closed Doors, Paris Theaters Carry On

Rather than let finished productions go to waste in the locked-down city, exasperated artists are continuing with closed performances for others in the industry. If everyone’s “working,” it’s technically still allowed.

By Laura Cappelle

PARIS — Call it the French spirit of resistance — or contrariness. Officially, theaters here are shut, because of a new wave of coronavirus infections. Unofficially, there are still shows going ahead, behind closed doors.

Last weekend, for example, a “clandestine” performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” was held at a Paris theater — although the cameras of a popular talk show, “C à vous,” were there, too. The socially distanced audience was described as “regulars of the venue,” and an unmasked man told a journalist from the show that he was attending to protest the “gradual erosion of the freedom to live.”

The unnamed, albeit easily recognizable, director of the theater later defended the rule breach onscreen. “If a society forgets that theater is absolutely necessary, it is dead,” he said.

The wisdom of flaunting illicit activities on TV aside, the case of “King Lear” speaks to a growing exasperation among local theater artists. While French theaters were luckier than most in 2020, with months of performances between two lockdowns, they have been in limbo since the second one began in November.

The government initially announced that theaters would reopen on Dec. 15, but it changed course when a target of bringing new virus cases to fewer than 5,000 a day was missed. A review was scheduled for Jan. 7, then scrapped as the infection rate continued to climb. The industry now awaits the government’s next move, scheduled to be announced Wednesday.

The stop-start nature of these decisions means that productions that were nearly ready for the stage faced last-minute cancellations. But rather than let them go to waste, a number of theaters have opted for a more legal solution than “King Lear” did. Private daytime performances are now being held for professionals, mostly programmers and journalists. Since going to work is still allowed if a job can’t be done from home, these closed showings don’t technically break any rules.

No theater aficionado would pass up the chance to return to a darkened auditorium, but in the event, it felt a little like opening gifts on your own, with no one to share in the excitement of the moment. Comedy suffered the most. While the French actor Bertrand Bossard performed his heart out at the Espace Cardin, the current residence of the Théâtre de la Ville, his one-man show “Incredibly Incroyable 2.0” relies on the kind of playful audience interaction that professional observers aren’t best placed to provide.

Despite its billing as “the antidote to Brexit,” “Incredibly Incroyable 2.0” is mainly a revival of a tribute to British stand-up that Bossard first performed in 1998. A short video introduction nodded to the present by casting Bossard as a depressed comedian who believes he is responsible for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, but recent events barely featured in the show itself.

When they did, the lighthearted tone felt a little out of step with the reality of 2021. In a scene about Donald Trump, performed the afternoon after the storming of the United States Capitol, Bossard himself admitted: “He’s too fast for me. There’s a new episode every day.”

“Incredibly Incroyable 2.0” makes much of the fact that Bossard performs in English for a French audience, and a larger sample of viewers is probably needed for some of the jokes to land. Still, the brilliance of his physical impressions of some characters — a group of Russian thugs, especially — required no translation.

One-man and one-woman shows have been in high demand since coronavirus regulations made it difficult for large casts to work together, and a closed premiere at the Théâtre 14 took the form in a radical direction. “Kolik,” a monologue by the German author Rainald Goetz, is a bleak, often obscure journey into the mind of a man nearing death.

In Alain Françon’s production, the main character is portrayed as an alcoholic, who slowly downs a bottle over the course of the play. The role demands a tour de force from the actor, and Antoine Mathieu delivered, veering between existential despondency and bravado.

Alone onstage with a chair, he modulated Goetz’s fragmented, minimalist text into quasi-musical phrases, his inflections varying slightly with each of the many repetitions. In any other circumstances, it would be a career-defining performance — but even extraordinary acting may not get the recognition it deserves, with touring dates canceled for the foreseeable future.

In that context, the competition prize for the Impatience Festival, a prestigious platform and competition for emerging directors, seems all the more valuable this year. Organizers opted to hold the event’s 12th edition at any cost, and while the customary audience prizes will have to wait, a jury of professionals led by the actress Rachida Brakni will offer the best production an opportunity to tour France once restrictions are lifted.

The first weekend of the festival, held at the Théâtre de Chelles, in a suburb of Paris, was marred by the cancellation of Carole Umulinga Karemera’s “Murs-Murs,” as the director was unable to travel from Rwanda. Magrit Coulon’s “Home,” an accomplished work of documentary theater, managed to make the trip from Belgium, however. Coulon, who graduated from a theater program there in 2019, spent time with the residents of a retirement home in Brussels, and asked three young actors to embody some of them.

Onstage, with no aging makeup or special costumes, they recreated the weakened muscles and trembling hands that come with old age, as well as the slow, monotonous pace of life in some homes. Certain scenes leave realism behind in the second half of the show, as when the cast starts lip-syncing to audio recordings of residents; Coulon holds back instead of embracing the sense of absurdity that surfaces then, but hers is already a distinctive voice.

“Home” and another closed performance, Didier Ruiz’s “What Should Men Be Told?” (“Que faut-il dire aux hommes?”) at the MC93 theater, drew a sizable invited audience. “Home” had no fewer than 70 people in attendance, in an auditorium that can seat up to 230. Social distancing was easy to maintain, but there has been little clarity on the capacity limit. If workplace regulations apply, then the minimum space requirement is four square meters per person, about 40 square feet. Yet some venues have appeared to assume that as long as half the seats are empty, that’s fine.

Of the productions currently hidden away, “What Should Men Be Told?” is the one that deserves to be seen widely, as a matter of urgency. Ruiz, who has worked mainly with nonprofessionals for two decades, enlisted seven men and women of faith for this new work. Quite a few systems of beliefs are represented, from Islam and Catholicism to shamanism, and the cast members take turns sharing how spirituality has shaped their lives.

Faith rarely comes up in French theater these days, and “What Should Men Be Told?” feels both fresh and unpreachy. Each participant takes the long view, thoughtfully, calmly: Hearing a Dominican friar reflect on four decades spent in a small cell has a way of putting short-term issues in perspective.

In endlessly frustrating times, crafting a theatrical experience that is simply soothing may already be an act of resistance. If only audiences could see it.

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