Alexandra Poulain
Catherine Frot plays Winnie in Marc Paquien’s production of Oh les beaux jours!

Samuel Beckett – Oh les beaux jours!
Dir. Marc Paquien
With Catherine Frot and Pierre Banderet
20 January – 11 March 2012, Théâtre de la Madeleine, Paris.

Each new French production of Oh les beaux jours! is almost inevitably ghosted by the memory of the original production, directed by Roger Blin in 1963 with Madeleine Renaud as the sinking, singing Winnie. So memorable was Renaud’s incarnation of the part that the play was not produced again professionally in France until 1992 with Denise Gence, another legendary figure of the French theatre who, like Renaud, had acted with the Comédie Française before leaving to explore more contemporary, experimental theatre. The play finally entered the repertoire of the Comédie Française in 2005, with Catherine Samie, the company’s doyenne, playing Winnie, and the memory of these three predecessors, all of them hugely respected actresses in their sixties or (in Samie’s case) seventies and at the pinnacle of their theatrical careers, has created a tradition from which Catherine Frot’s interpretation of the part in Marc Paquien’s production departs.

Although a significant part of her career has been in the theatre, Frot’s huge popularity is due mainly to her roles in movies where she has developed a very personal style of acting, renewing French burlesque comedy with a tragic edge, and often playing the zany bourgeoise hovering on the brink of a precipice (for instance, Un Air de famille, dir. Cédric Klapisch, 1994; La Nouvelle Eve, dir. Catherine Corsini, 1999; La Dilettante, dir. Pascal Thomas, 1999; Mon Petit doigt m’a dit, dir. Pascal Thomas, 2005). Although her recent work has been almost exclusively on the screen, she says she had long hoped to play Winnie, ever since she saw Madeleine Renaud’s performance in the mid-seventies. Frot was then barely 19 and just starting her own acting career, and she says she was overwhelmed by the sheer strength of the theatrical image which the play offers, that of a woman who dreams only of lightness while she is being sucked into the earth. Though she says she has now reached the necessary maturity for such a part, Frot is notably younger than her predecessors – precisely the age which Beckett had in mind for the part (‘About fifty, well-preserved’), and she plays it with a comic, clownish buoyance which contrasts with furtive moments of utter poignancy when she vainly attempts to extricate herself from the mound. The performance is both extraordinarily funny and impeccably attentive to nuance, double entendre and innuendo. Going against the grain of earlier French productions, which tended to make the tragic potential of the play rather more explicit, Frot’s rendition, which reminded me of Fiona Shaw’s robust, life-embracing one in Deborah Warner’s 2007 production, reveals the comic potential of virtually every word of the French text, whilst making audible the text’s subtle musicality and every layer of sardonic irony.

The production is well served by designer Gérard Didier, who reinvents Beckett’s ‘mound’ as a freakishly beautiful gigantic oyster-shell, stranded on some deserted beach under a tormented sky. Perhaps the least convincing element of Paquien’s production is Pierre Banderet’s overly civilised Willie, who does not quite do justice to the character’s obscenity and bestiality (but in fairness it must be said I attended a very early performance of the production, and this may have evolved). All in all the production is undeniably successful, and a thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience which infuses the French Beckett with a vital dose of comedy, much as Peter Brook’s 2006 Fragments, presented both in French and in English at the Bouffes du Nord, had done. The show which opened at La Rochelle in January 2012 and played for three months at the Théâtre de la Madeleine in Paris is currently touring France.

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.

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Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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