FringeReview UK 2023
A thoroughly worthwhile, and in several senses heady undertaking. And certainly worth seeing.
Directed by Stella Powell-Jones, Set and Costume Designed by Isabella Van Braeckel, Lighting Design Chris McDonnell, Composer and Sound Designer Holly Khan, Assistant Director and Movement Director Elliott Pritchard, Casting Director Emily Jones, Stage Manager Lisa Cochrane,
ASM Fae Hochgemuth, Lighting Programmer Jodie Underwood, Costume Supervisor Lauren Savill.
Programme Designer Ciaran Walsh for Ciwa Design. Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, PR David Burns
Till May 27th
There’s a headlong quality lent to any straight-through 90-minute play. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Jules et Jim, based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, premiered at Jermyn Street Theatre by its artistic director Stella Powell-Jones, does its best to capture that, so consummate in Truffaut’s 1962 film. And to a degree it does.
What Wertenbaker and Powell-Jones want to re-emphasise is the novel’s primacy of Kath (Patricia Allison), the woman whose Greek goddess smile captures the two eponymous friends, Austrian intellectual, poet and novelist Jules (Samuel Collings) and French drama translator Jim (Alex Mugnaioni). This means Wertenbaker has returned to Roché’s original and recovered more of Kath.
That very goddess description is fainty cringey, even though the novelist tried to involve the other two in the original love triangle, in creating his first novel, aged 74. Curiously, the originals seem to have fared better than the lurid plot-lurch.
Allison, known for Sex Education and A Doll’s House Part 2 at the Donmar last year, is both poised and coiled, full of an energy that might – and does – explode in sudden actions. She convinces in Kath’s absolutes of interrogatory love – questioning motive or delivering ultimatum – a passion that coolly holds both men. In their shared determination to redefine love, Kath brings some Greek terriblis too.
Less obvious is the “innocent and cruel” Giaconda smile of Truffaut’s Jeanne Moreau, a mystery that probably needs the distance of camera and rapt luxury of exposition. Truffaut, despite the intensity, conveys that. I wonder if it’s right we should look for it now. This production perhaps asks that too.
Being a three-hander, much is stripped away in telling asides, including some of the earlier part of the novel – as in the film. But as we’ve seen, much is restored too. Jim’s forbearing casual lover Gilberte, Kath’s lover Albert, are relegated off-stage to confidences blandly or baldly stated. Café life is gestured to with a single table and chairs. And Isabella Van Braeckel’s elegant set is a stark white flecked with sinewy Prussian-blue shapes like a rampant Magritte breeding over walls and floor. They’re both curvily feminine and occasionally like sperm squiggles, lit with shadows by Chris McDonnell. There’s a beautifully aqueous set-reveal too, which dazzles with disturbance.
Music in Holly Khan’ sound and composition asserts its part as a character, perhaps love, though I’m not sure to what extent, and I’d like to have heard more of her own suggestive music. As it is Ravel’s dangerous water-sprite ‘Ondine’ from Gaspard de La Nuit certainly – and repeatedly – suggests Kath, as does his earliest piano work, Jeux d’Eaux. His String Quartet insinuates Parisian chic, cafes and ensemble.
Collings’ Jules is perhaps the most solidly realised character, partly as he’s less called on to make extravagant gestures, in his contained intellectual carapace. Vastly experienced, Collings conveys the anguish and hurt as well as humour behind the eyes of Jules. Mugnaioni, well-known at the Globe, darts with a sense of liberated space and theatre, almost boyish and with Jules’ faun-like ability to enrapture Kath.
What Wertenbaker’s script achieves though is a distillation and intensity in the way the love triangle develops, as shocks of passion ebb, flow, reanimate, curdle and flare – and die too. There’s less time to develop the sense of time eroding certain passions, but by the same token the headlong brio of this version keeps it airborne.
What this production manages too is to strip away anything misty or atmospherically gestural in the film. We’re confronted with hard-thinking, intellectual lovers however instinctual or capricious two of them might prove. They ask questions, particularly Kath: they demand commitment, and time, and children of that time.
Whilst there isn’t quite the tragedie lyrique feel pulsing in the background, there’s a hard-headed Gallic wit that conveys the themes more starkly, like the set’s walls, without the soft focus. It’s a thoroughly worthwhile, and in several senses heady undertaking. And certainly worth seeing.