Dom Juan or The Feast with the statue - Interview with Jean Lambert-wild
Your next project focuses on Dom Juan. What is the starting point of your adaptation?
The show won’t be called Dom Juan, but The Feast with the Statue, inspired by the myth of Dom Juan and Molière’s Dom Juan. This is because most of the text we will use was written by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, also known as Molière.
There has been a Dom Juan for each historical era. Pierre Brunel wrote an astonishing dictionary that records every adaptation of Dom Juan: there are more than 1200! Of course the list features Molière, Mozart and Da Ponte, but also Peter Handke and Thomas Corneille’s Dom Juan, which is an adaptation in verse of Molière’s text. There is also The Trickster of Seville by Tirso de Molina, which is a key text since it is where the myth comes from. Max Frisch’s Dom Juan or the Love of Geometry, Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Montherlant’s version, George Sand’s, Merimée’s La Venus d’Ille (a variation on the myth)… And we must also recall Ovid’s Ars Amatoria since it is one of the references in Molière’s text, as well as the romantic Dom Juan of Tolstoy, Dumas, or the work of Spanish poet Espronceda… There is also an abundant literature that questions the origins and influences of the myth! In our adaptation, we are interested in the mythological figure of Don Juan and the type of imagining he can awaken in us about the times we live in.
You have decided to adapt Molière’s version. Why?
Of all the versions we read, Molière’s is the one we found the most interesting and the most theatrical. We decided to change the way it is narrated, make it lighter, and remove some of the short genre scenes or scenes of intrigue to focus instead on what is at stake in the myth. We have kept most of Molière’s text, but we modernised the story. We also strengthened the literary dimension of the myth by adding things and borrowing in places from Tirso de Molina, Pushkin, or Lord Byron.
What attracts you in Dom Juan?
It is rare that a literary figure becomes a myth and endures centuries. This often happens when we start a new project: I was attracted to something but couldn’t explain what. It is one of these things: some go beyond me, some lead me. In this case, I am attracted to the fact that tradition coexists with innovation. Or maybe it is what constitutes a myth and doesn’t change, the things that create and make possible an imaginary world of signs and symbols that an actor can use to build a voice and a physicality.
What is it that constitutes a myth and that is immutable?
First, something which I think is essential yet often forgotten in favour of other aspects of the story, is the Commander character. Interestingly, the Commander’s apparition was already a problem for Goldoni in the 18th century. To me, this is the main invariant, and it takes us into the myth of Dom Juan to understand what is at stake. The other two invariants are: Dom Juan’s heroic stature and his relationship to women. This relationship is in fact complex. He seduces women, but he also frees them from certain shackles and from clichés. Reading Jean Rousset’s book The Myth of Dom Juan enlightened me on these points, and confirmed many of my intuitions.
Yet it is his relationship to women that we most remember about him…
I have always been disappointed by the versions that depict him as a cynic or a debauched pleasure-seeker. Dom Juan is not Casanova. The key is his relationship to the Commander, to the dead and therefore to death. It is his relationship to death and to the sky that defines his relationship to women: everything is ephemeral, pointless, but on the other hand, this also means that everything is furious and free. Dom Juan is not cynical or disillusioned. He isn’t depressed: there is something heroic in Dom Juan, a part of him is in love with life, with theatre, with joy. Dom Juan is a stoic anarchist: he doesn’t care about anything, he is outside of morality. He is not afraid. He is a knight. He doesn’t have the dishonour of thinking that morality, that insipid medicine, will save his life.
After having played Richard III, your clown takes upon himself again to become this mythical figure…
My Clown hopes and aims to sew his oblivion and stitch his memory by following the thread of great mythological figures. I have an enormous amount of work ahead of me to invest my body with this myth. I am taking dance classes so my Clown can evolve and take on slightly more aerial qualities. I try to be gentler with my voice and sustain lengthy periods of vocal work. Knowing how to disappear in one last gesture and to be reborn in a new breath is a constant education. I have had to understand who Richard was, and now I must understand who Dom Juan is. I must find the dots that connect my soul to theirs, but perhaps also find what the two have in common. At this very moment, within me, Richard and Dom Juan are conversing. They are negotiating the terms of the exchange of my voice and my body.
But, in the background, there is always your Clown.
Indeed. I’ll be on stage, in my clown’s pyjamas, but adorned with little lace sleeves and a jabot: like 17th century pyjamas! But let me reassure you: it is Dom Juan who is putting on my Clown’s clothes, not my Clown stealing Dom Juan’s clothes.
You have just finished the first period of rehearsal. How did it go?
We have done two weeks of amazing work at Académie de l’Union. The aim for this rehearsal period was mostly to meet Steve Tientcheu and understand how we were going to combine our energy and poetic perspectives on the work. During this period we also took on an incredible challenge: that all seventeen students of the Académie would be cast in the show. There aren’t seventeen parts in Dom Juan, which means students cannot all be in the same performance. This means we have had to think about the geometry of the play, what dynamics link and support its narrative. Four students will take turns to play each role. We won’t decide beforehand who will play what part. All the actresses will be able to play Elvira or Charlotte, every actor will be able to play Dom Louis, and the part they will be cast for will absolutely not be determined by their physical appearance. When we take on a myth, we cannot let ourselves be caricatured. As a team, we are going to afford ourselves a capacity of discovery in rehearsal, and performance after performance, we will surprise ourselves, reinvent ourselves and put together what everyone in the room brings to the table so that we can do justice to each one of us. I come out of these first rehearsals enthusiastic because I share this project with the students of the Académie de l’Union. It is pedagogic. In the end, a Clown who is blind to himself has a lot to learn from young actors and the fresh outlook of their desires. This phase of development will take a while and the show won’t premiere until April 2019. When the students finish their course in June 2019, they will graduate and become professional actors. This is when we will go on tour. I hope the show’s touring life will last many years.
Now that you have done this first phase of rehearsals, do you have an idea of the form the show might take?
We are looking at cabaret and we will outrageously start the play with a comical argument of about 15 minutes, inspired by an English sketch: Dinner for One. The idea is that Dom Juan would be alone on stage at the start of the show. His servants are there too, replaying the sketch. I won’t reveal everything, but from the start, Dom Juan will be talking to the dead. Since being acquainted to spirits can only happen with a bit of humour, Dom Juan will be joyfully insolent. We have also found a surprising solution to the problem of the Commander appearing, a solution that will be integrated to our set. We will perform with three musicians, in tail-coats, who will be the other valets attending this last feast: Pascal Rinaldi, who will play old classics as well as write new ones, Romaine, and Denis Alber. The point will be to unite different theatre traditions while making the tragic dimension of the play clearly apparent. More than anything, I am unbelievably lucky to be working with the incredible Steve Tientcheu as Sganarelle. Steve is a powerful and touching actor, and I must say, he teaches me, with his rigour and commitment, the intimate elegance of loving theatre a little more tenderly.
After the success of Richard III, will you continue to incorporate porcelain to your set design and your theatrical aesthetics?
Porcelain is an incredible material because of the way it catches the light as well as the imaginary connections it triggers. I work with Esprit Porcelaine and the Manufacture Les porcelaines de la fabrique. Stéphane Blanquet and I work together on the set design, with our comrades Christian Couty, Matthieu Bussereau and Daniel Betoule. We set ourselves the slightly bonkers challenge of designing a set that would mix the extravagant perspectives of Italian theatre and porcelain. We will use this to create furniture: a spiral staircase for instance. I will also have small porcelain slippers and Christian Couty guaranteed I would be able to tap dance in them!
You have been working together for a while now, but this is the second project where Catherine Lefeuvre is officially credited as co-author. How did you make this decision?
It happened quite simply: we are asking ourselves what it means to have worked together for twenty years. Being a good producer means being able to think and create well. Catherine influences the way we work: her feedback, her opinion in rehearsals are important. This feels obvious, but it is not always what happens, because life is full of things that mean we don’t always aim for what is obvious! Every project we have created over the past twenty years owes its existence to Catherine. And the more time I spend being on stage, the more I need her here. She looks out for me and allows me to start conversations. To adapt this play requires both artistic and producing work. We think that producing is an artistic activity: we are saying that there is no dichotomy between producing, creating, performing. We don’t believe in the figure of the director, which means something else appears instead. What we are doing here is a political act: how can we produce? How can young actors and actresses start a career? How do we think about training? Our adaptation doesn’t only refer to adapting the text, but also to adapting the way we currently work. The text is a part of it, but this says a lot more. And this way of working means we both laugh at the same time.
Interview conducted by Eugénie Pastor