Two Shakespearean Triumphs in Paris, or a Plague on Both Their Houses?

Two Shakespearean Triumphs in Paris, or a Plague on Both Their Houses?

Two Paris playhouses, both alike in dignity, putting on rival new Shakespeare productions.

Thus expectations were high for a springtime face-off — with contemporary stagings of “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” — between the Comédie-Française, France’s top permanent company, and the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, the Left Bank’s most venerable theater.

The results certainly felt French. The country has long been a haven for concept-driven theater-makers, and the two directors involved, Silvia Costa and Christiane Jatahy, have no qualms about cutting and splicing the Bard’s plays in experimental, sometimes cryptic ways.

At the Comédie-Française, Costa’s “Macbeth” edits the two dozen named characters down to only eight actors and leans heavily into religious symbolism. In “Hamlet,” Jatahy goes so far as to keep Ophelia alive. Far from going mad, Ophelia climbs down from the stage and exits through the auditorium after declaring: “I died all these years. This year, I won’t die.”

Jatahy, a Brazilian director who has a significant following in France, has performed this sort of bait-and-switch with classics before. Her adaptations of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” (“What If They Went to Moscow?”) and Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” (“Julia”) reworked the plays’ story lines and characters from a feminist perspective, lending greater weight to female roles.

At the Odéon, Jatahy also cast a woman, the outstanding Clotilde Hesme, as Hamlet, explaining in a playbill interview that her goal was to refocus the story on three female characters: Hamlet, Ophelia and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. And while a female Hamlet is hardly news — the French star Sarah Bernhardt performed the role back in 1886 — Jatahy’s premise looks promising for the first few scenes.

Slouching on a couch, Hesme cuts a grave figure as she rewinds a video: the message Hamlet receives from her murdered father, here projected on a large scrim. After the ghost blames his brother, Polonius, the scene transitions seamlessly into a wedding — that of Polonius and the widowed Gertrude, who seals her new life with a karaoke rendition of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

Servane Ducorps plays Gertrude with a chirpy energy that contrasts nicely with Hesme’s coolness. Yet as Jatahy’s “Hamlet” progresses, their interactions rarely ring true, in no small part because the characters have all been transplanted into a humdrum contemporary interior. There, Gertrude and Polonius (a quasi-affable Matthieu Sampeur) try to play happy blended family. They sing sweet nothings to each other over the kitchen table, while Hamlet sulks in the corner.

It’s “Hamlet” as a 21st-century parent-child drama, with the odd interjection from Ophelia and her father, Claudius, who speak Portuguese — an attempt to signal their foreignness that instead makes them look like visitors from another play. Similarly, while Isabel Abreu brings an earnest intensity to the role of Ophelia, her relationship with Hesme’s Hamlet never settles into familiarity.

Her lucky escape is equally contrived. In the playbill, Jatahy says that in choosing not to die, Ophelia “refuses to be a toy in the face of patriarchal violence.” Although Abreu delivers the inserted text bravely, it is such a jarring volte-face for her character.

According to the Odéon’s publicity material, 85 percent of the text in this version is from Shakespeare’s original “Hamlet.” Yet it rarely feels as if Jatahy trusts the Bard. Instead, she wills the characters to escape his world, in an act of feminist defiance without a clear target.

Across the Seine, Costa also follows her singular vision for “Macbeth” — her second production for the Comédie-Française after an adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s “A Girl’s Story” — to the bitter end.

Her staging of the Scottish play opens with an arresting tableau. Lady Macbeth sits hunched over, her face hidden under a disheveled mane. As she rips out clumps of her hair, a portrait of Macbeth, her husband, starts spinning on a wall behind her — until an invisible knife seems to cut into the painting.

It’s an ominous way to position Lady Macbeth, as a shadow addition to the three witches who prophesy that Macbeth will be king. When the trio appears shortly afterward to deliver their message, a giant ring materializes above the empty stage. In true “Lord of the Rings” fashion, it then descends upon Macbeth (Noam Morgensztern), metaphorically anointing him even as recorded whispers of “murder” fill the Comédie-Française’s auditorium.

So far, so impressive. But Costa, an Italian native who has collaborated with the provocative director Romeo Castellucci and shares his taste for visual symbolism, is so focused on the imagery that “Macbeth” loses dramatic steam.

Compressing all of the named characters into just eight roles is a dubious choice given the resources of the Comédie-Française’s permanent ensemble, and it leads to a sense of monotony. The three witches (Suliane Brahim, Jennifer Decker and Birane Ba) occasionally — and confusingly — double as random soldiers and messengers, and when the Macbeths go on their murderous spree, there is no one around to react to the destabilization of the kingdom.

Perplexingly, heavy-handed Roman Catholic allegories also seep into this “Macbeth” midway through, paralyzing the action. The second half of the production takes place in front of a bulky backdrop showing a winged altarpiece that is entirely blacked out. The banquet scene, in which Macbeth is haunted by his victims’ ghosts, is confined to a small confessional.

In that scene, King Duncan, whose death paves the way for Macbeth’s ascension, hovers like God surrounded by angels and martyrs. Macduff, who eventually restores order by killing Macbeth, is costumed to look every inch like Jesus, down to a wound in his side that he reveals theatrically by opening his white robe.

There are Christian themes in “Macbeth,” but Costa takes them so far that the characters disappear behind them. One of the last scenes shows Jesus-Macduff overcoming Macbeth simply by pointing a finger to his forehead, as if performing a miracle.

As a result, the production also undercuts Julie Sicard’s eerily shameless performance as Lady Macbeth. There is no doubt throughout that she has the upper hand: In fact, one scene even makes that point a little too forcefully, when she pretends to breastfeed a childlike Macbeth and hands him a pacifier.

The moment is effective in telegraphing a message, yet so dramatically improbable that the characters start to feel like pawns in the director’s game. “Macbeth,” like “Hamlet” at the Odéon, is too multilayered to be subsumed into a single grand idea. In Paris, at least, it wasn’t to be.

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