Last evening, I went to a play at a grand old theatre in Paris, le Theatre des Champs-Elysées. At the heart of one of Paris’ most exclusive shopping neighborhoods, Alma Marceau, Avenue Montaigne hosts Prada and Dior, Louis Vuitton and Harry Winston’s, Valentino and Fendi, just to name a few. It is also the home of the Plaza Athénée, arguably Paris’ most elite five-star hotel and three Michelin star restaurant. The avenue also plays host to the Canadian Embassy. With an undisturbed view of the Eiffel Tower, over Place d’Alma Marceau, the spot where Diana died in a tunnel back in 1997, stands the Theatre Champs-Elysées.
Considered one of the most beautiful theatres in Paris, an archetype of 20th century French architecture, the Theatre was built-in 1913 and welcomes more than 300,000 spectators each year. Home to ballet, opera, orchestras and theatre, the setting has offered performances by a number of famous stage actors, dancers and musicians including actress Vanessa Redgrave, Serge Diaghilev’s Russian ballets, the New York Ballet of George Balanchine as well as 1920s sensation Joséphine Baker; the orchestras of Vienna, Paris, Saint Petersburg and Berlin; music by Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and Elton John, as well as plays by Tennessee Williams. It was here that in 1913 the World Premier of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” was held, the event at which he was said to have met his future lover and benefactor, Coco Chanel.
The play I saw was itself provocative, half satire – half a grade school lesson in Social Studies. Perhaps a touch dry, or maybe that was just due to the lack of subtitles in live drama and the script’s heavy reliance on unfamiliar French jargon. Entitled “Race,” the performance speaks to the central issues of the “DSK affair” which shocked France as a whole last year. DSK is how the French refer to their compatriot, former president of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Frenchman who some say was set to be the next French President and the man who was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel room last May. Even though he was exonerated of the charges, or should I say the charges were subsequently dropped, DSK, the politician, the businessman, the future President has nevertheless moved from “renown” to “notorious.”
“Race” deals with a similar, fictionalized situation in the setting of the New York law offices of the attorneys hired to defend a high-profile, wealthy, married client accused of raping an African-American women with whom he was having an affair. The allusive veil is thin, indeed. The play specifically breaches the legal strategies of defending such a client. Having practiced law as a litigator, I found the script informed, on point and realistic. But the law was not the real heroine of the play. Race, prejudice, bias, bigotry – these are the stars of “Race.”
Playing the lead counsel role was Yvan Attal, who is a well-known French actor. He is the French voice-over for Tom Cruise when his films come out in French and he is also married (or common law) with Charlotte Gainsbourg, the singer/actress and daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg.
He is why I went to see the play. And he didn’t disappoint. The intimate cast included two other male roles – the associate attorney (Alex Descas) and the accused client (Thibault de Montalembert) as well as an intern (Sara Martins).
I was disappointed by the play’s conclusion, although I can see how it would seem appealing written out in script form. The audience is left without a rightful ending to the plot. While poignant, we are instead hit over the head with the theme of prejudice as the curtain falls. The language was likewise shocking. I didn’t know that many swear words (les gros mots) existed in French. My husband, a native Francophone, found the dialogue a little strained which made him wonder if the script had not originally been written in English and then translated. Alternatively, it may have been written in French but with an American manner of speaking. Either way, it signified a departure from typical French theatre.
For a weekday evening, the theatre was full. Behind me sat the French actress Sylvie Testud, an occurrence that led me to ponder how differently celebrity is dealt with in France as opposed to the U.S. Not one person gave her any notice or bothered her for an autograph. In fact, while we were all exiting, she and I were shoulder to shoulder the entire three flights down. She was surrounded by no entourage nor did she use a special exit. She was under-dressed in jeans, boots and a leather jacket, sitting with her companion just like you or me.
In the final analysis, getting back to our original topic, “Race” is a social commentary. It speaks to French people about their racial prejudices through the benevolent looking-glass of American society. It showcases opposing points of view and ultimately leaves the audience open to slam the gavel down where their own personal biases guide them.
Race is currently playing at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, 15 ave Montaigne, Paris 75008. For more information, click here.