As I sat down to catch up on my Theatre Diary of other plays I’ve seen recently, however, I realised London’s theatre landscape is going Gallic for far more than Zeller. In the West End alone at the moment, you can catch three heavyweight French offerings, even if you don’t realise it. All three have been given modern English-language makeovers and relocations.
At Trafalgar Studios, you probably are aware that The Maids is by Jean Genet, as it’s one of his most famous titles (Les Bonnes in the French). This version marks the UK premiere of this new version by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton, which resets the action in the US today. Mistress (Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael) is the cosseted wife of one of the 0.01% of one of the super-rich and her maids, played in Jamie Lloyd’s production by black actresses Uzo Aduba (from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black) and Zawe Ashton) – casting which inevitably raise thorny questions about not just wealth inequality but the enduring legacy of America’s past slavery.
All key farce elements – slammed doors, dropped trousers, ooh-er-mister sexual innuendos and mistaken identities – are present and heavily accounted for.
At the Garrick Theatre, as the latest offering in the year-long Branagh Theatre season, director Sean Foley’s eight-year journey to introduce Francis Veber’s original 1969 farce Le Contrat (also made into the Jacques Brel-led 1973 French-Italian film L’Emmerdeur, which translates as “the pain in the arse”) to English audiences culminates with the West End season of The Painkiller. Foley adapted the story – now set in a London hotel – and first staged it at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 2011 with Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon, who reprise their roles here. Brydon is the titular pain who checks into the room next door to Branagh’s contract killer on a job. All key farce elements – slammed doors, dropped trousers, ooh-er-mister sexual innuendos and mistaken identities – are present and heavily accounted for.
Mistaken (or not) identity, though more intriguingly and fully explored, is also at the heart of Welcome Home, Captain Fox! at the Donmar Warehouse. Anthony Weigh has created a totally captivating new take on Jean Anouilh’s little-known 1937 play Le Voyageur sans bagage (“the traveller without luggage). The luggage referred to is memory: soldier Gene (Rory Keenan) lost his during the Second World War. After years in a veterans’ hospital, he’s ‘rescued’ by a social-climbing do-gooder (hilarious Katherine Kingsley) who’s convinced he’s the Missing in Action Jack Fox, from a wealthy Hamptons clan. She brings him home to the family pile, where, despite the life of luxury on offer, as Gene learns more about the kind of man Jack Fox was, the less he wants to be him.
The current French connection also extends beyond the West End. We’ve just had a high-profile all-female revival of Edmund Rostand’s 1897 classic Cyrano de Bergerac, adapted by Glyn Maxwell and starring Kathryn Hunter, at Southwark Playhouse
At the Print Room next month, there’s a second helping of Jean Genet, with the first revival in thirty years of his first play 1944’s Deathwatch (Haute surveillance), in a new translation by David Rudkin. (Opening at the National next week, there’s even – sort of – a third helping of Genet, and the most French-sounding offering, with Les Blancs (The Whites), which American Lorraine Hansberry wrote in 1970 in response to Genet’s 1959 play The Blacks: A Clown Show, or Les Negres, clownerie in French.)
Finally (or more likely not – I’m sure I’m missing others), there’s more French farce on offer with Tabard Theatre’s revival of 1907’s well-known comedy of errors (another hotel-set affair… with many affairs) A Flea in Her Ear, in a new adaptation by Sacha Bush, directed by Alex Sutton.