In the foyer of the Comédie-Française in Paris stands a glass box, almost 2 metres tall and rather more than 1 metre wide. In the box stands a chair, its wooden arms protruding, skeleton-like, through battered stuffing and ancient cloth – or is it leather? It’s too worn to tell. In this chair, on 17 February 1673, France’s greatest comic playwright was carried from the stage for the last time, having been taken ill while playing the title role in his final comedy, Le Malade Imaginaire. He died not many minutes later (Molière would have appreciated Spike Milligan’s self-penned epitaph: “I told you I was ill”).
In the marble and glass pomp of its surroundings, the chair appears ludicrous, yet packs a powerful emotional punch. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. This crazy, comic/tragic bit of furniture is the physical expression of the invisible link across time between the playwright and this theatre – still sometimes referred to as “the House of Molière”. It also hints at the complex relationship between the institution and the plays, between the need to preserve tradition, and to keeping the plays themselves alive for contemporary audiences. We have no equivalent in the UK. For better or for worse, our direct connection with Shakespeare, our closest equivalent, was ruptured when the Puritans closed the London theatres in 1642 (they did not officially reopen until 1660, two years after Molière became established in Paris under the protection of “Monsieur”, Louis XIV).
Given this history, it’s a bit of a surprise to read the words of the theatre’s general administrator, Éric Ruf (himself an award-winning performer, director and designer): “If there is a theatre where no one knows the best way to stage Molière, this is it.” It’s a bold statement at a time when the Comédie-Française is going all out to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who would later rename himself Molière. Through until 25 July, the company’s repertoire will be devoted entirely to the playwright, with 20 plays by or relating to him (12 among them entirely new productions), as well as associated talks, online links, broadcasts and exhibitions, including one with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Ruf goes on to clarify by saying that each of 1,000 different productions may find something new in Molière, and that the best way to approach the work is by accepting that there are no fixed rules: “We must dare to continue to explore all directions, whether they turn out to be rich or threadbare, revolutionary or childish, clear or obscure, on-target or off-course.”
This openness to innovation and risk-taking characterises Ruf’s programming for the Molière 2022 season. Naturally, he cannot please all the people all of the time: some regret that not all the chosen directors are French; Parisians, in particular, complain that productions have sold out even before they opened (although if you head to the theatre a little more than an hour in advance of curtain up, you can join a queue and hope to pick up a return). I was fortunate to be given two press tickets and to be near enough the head of the returns queue to pick up a third. Each of the three productions, all in Molière’s original French, illustrated Ruf’s position, taking its own unique approach.
The Belgian director Ivo van Hove is perhaps best known in the UK for his production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for the National Theatre, also screened to cinemas in 2017. Ruf entrusted to him the company’s flagship production, a Molière play never yet produced on the Comédie-Française stage: the three-act 1664 version of Le Tartuffe ou l’Hypocrite, which was banned by Louis XIV. As reconstructed by the theatre historian Georges Forestier, the original is darker than the later, rewritten five-act version. The Le Monde critic described Van Hove’s production as “choc et chic”.
It is shocking in its violence and trendy in its lack of playfulness. As an examination of the perversions of hypocrisy, it’s remarkable (Christophe Montenez’s interpretation of the title role is flesh-creepingly mesmerising). As an interpretation of Molière, though, it seems to take too seriously Goethe’s observation about the closeness of his comedies to tragedy.
By contrast, the Swiss performer and director Lilo Baur, a former member of Complicité, offers a new production of L’Avare (The Miser), set in postwar Switzerland, that is poster-paint bright and farce-focused. Crammed with gimmicky gags, it tries too hard to be funny, and only raises laughs when it lets Molière’s situations alone to be themselves.
Between these two in tone, and the most successful of the three, is the revived 2014 production of Le Misanthrope, directed by the Comédie’s own Clément Hervieu-Léger (and designed by Ruf). Here, the emphasis tends towards a Chekhovian naturalism. Loïc Corbery’s extremist Alceste is as much tortured lover as he is misanthrope, stubbornly and self-damagingly resisting the moderating logic of his friend Philinte (Éric Génovèse) and the appeal to tenderness of Adeline d’Hermy’s spirited, flirtatious Célimène. Violence, viciousness, love and consideration kaleidoscope through the action, the whole tempered with laughter.
The one constant through all three productions is the quality of the acting. The benefits of a troupe structure to individuals and to the ensemble are apparent: thrilling performances.
I go to take my leave of the famous chair. Impossible to see it: a group of schoolchildren bustle round the glass box, talking, laughing. The past and the future of the Comédie-Française is an ongoing conversation.