Seconds after it starts, Joël Pommerat’s version of Pinocchio plunges the audience into darkness. This is not uncommon in Pommerat’s shows, which are punctuated with blackouts and are dimly lit at the best of times. Pinocchio’s narrator – or, more specifically, its présentateur – is illustrating his blindness as a child, during which time he created a company of characters who remain at his side. A couple of them are picked out upstage in a spotlight, each wearing an animal mask that’s creepy rather than cute. With the help of his company, the presenter tells us, he has dedicated himself to one task: to speak only the truth.
It’s a code befitting Carlo Collodi’s original tale about the perils of telling porkies but also chimes with Pommerat’s modus operandi in the theatre. His shows brim with queasily uncomfortable truths – especially the bruising Cet Enfant (This Child, 2006), which presents troubling parent-child relationships. His shows for children are no different. Pinocchio’s audience learn, much like the wooden hero, that the world is full of random cruelty. If you hadn’t already guessed, there is no chirpy, Disney-style cricket in this retelling.
Pommerat created his theatre company in 1990 and a core of longtimers remain with him from the early years. The company is committed to touring widely in Europe and often has several shows on the road, all of them written and staged by Pommerat. This winter, they are presenting a new work about the French revolution, Ça Ira (1) Fin de Louis. Meanwhile, his Pinocchio, which was created at the Odéon in Paris in 2008, is being revived at that theatre’s studio space, the Ateliers Berthier. Pommerat’s company is named Louis Brouillard – the surname is French for fog, and the murky look of his shows owe much to his lighting wizard Éric Soyer, who often obscures rather than accentuates the actors’ features. When the cast of Cet Enfant took their bows, you felt that you knew their characters’ inner lives completely but that you were actually seeing the actors’ faces for the first time.
“It’s an idea I had that on stage you don’t necessarily have to reveal all the faces,” Pommerat told me when we met in Paris. “So the audience has something else to focus on – not just the faces but the bodies, too. In that way, you can see yourself in the actors. Just like when you read a novel.” As a result, the shows feel incredibly intimate, drawing you to the edge of your seat. On occasion, the company limits a theatre’s capacity to ensure that audiences can be as close as possible to the performers. Some seats are deemed too far away for you to be able to connect with what’s on stage: “You can see and hear the show,” he says, “but you’re not in it.”
Fatherhood led Pommerat to create his first work for a family audience. Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood, 2004) was dedicated to his daughter Agathe. He thought she would identify with the young girl in the story and wanted to interest her in the theatre. Further spellbinding takes on fairytales followed, including, in 2011, Cendrillon (Cinderella). David Lan of the Young Vic says Pommerat’s Pinocchio captures “the oddness, the crankiness of his style … the sense of magic, the melancholy that is everywhere in his work”. He praises the way Pommerat astonishes his audience. “It’s unusual to find somebody whose work is genuinely original in the sense that there isn’t another person on the planet who could do that, to my knowledge.”
As Pinocchio, Myriam Assouline has bruised eyes and wears all black, from her bizarre flying hat to her clumpy shoes. We are even wary of our presenter, who seems genial on the page but not on the stage, played by the shaven-headed, bare-chested Pierre-Yves Chapalain, his body covered in white chalk that gives him a ghostly glow. Pommerat’s presenters bring with them the air of cabaret. Je Tremble (1), created in 2007, opens with blackouts and our host telling us he will die before our eyes in the final scene. He calls upon us to “listen closely with both eyes” – a line encapsulating Pommerat’s all-in approach to the staging. Peter Brook, who brought Louis Brouillard to his Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris, says Pommerat is “one of the most outstanding and creative directors working today. He is not just a writer nor a director. As a superb artisan, he thinks simultaneously in terms of words, acting, decor, sound and social meaning.” He adds: “Whatever he does is often disturbing and needs our warmest reception.”
Pommerat was born in 1963 and grew up in Rochefort, south-western France, where his father was in the military. He says his parents weren’t theatre types; his sister introduced him to that world. “As a teenager, I didn’t read a lot of plays. In my 20s, I discovered Chekhov and Shakespeare. For a long time I felt very close to those references.” In his late teens he took up acting but quit after five years when he began to write. “I felt frustrated as an actor and that it was just not good for me. I spent a few years writing but not staging – and then became director of my own writing.” Since he established Louis Brouillard in 1990 he has created roughly one new stage work a year, plus radio plays and short films, as well as touring revivals.
He has a precise way of working with actors, writing in parallel to periods of rehearsal, sometimes creating characters with particular actors in mind. “I write every morning usually and in the afternoon I bring what I’ve written to the rehearsals and try it.” He sometimes films rehearsals, watches them again and continues with the writing. Does he encourage the actors to improvise? “When I stage improvisations, it’s not the speech or the text I’m looking for,” he says. “I don’t ask the actors to provide me with the final version of the text … that’s my job.” It is the improvisations, he says, that take him to the heart of the situations he is exploring.
Pommerat is committed to staging his own writing; you won’t find him directing The Cherry Orchard or Hamlet any time soon. He says that he always wants to “start from scratch, without references to existing work. But you’re lying to yourself if you think that – references always creep in.” One of the vignettes in Cet Enfant is unusual in that it was directly inspired by a scene from Edward Bond’s Jackets.
Fractured relationships recur throughout his works – as captured by the title of his 2013 show The Reunification of the Two Koreas, a study not of politics but of couples in crisis. In her review for the Financial Times, Laura Cappelle described it as being “like an anti-Love Actually for the stage … every scene is imbued with a desolate ambiguity”. (“You do feel that he’s holding nothing back,” says David Lan.) In his fairytales, the behaviour of, and the bonds between, parents and children are endlessly questioned, with no one escaping blame. In Pinocchio, we must ask if the old man is at all responsible for his puppet’s bad behaviour. Familial misunderstandings have profound consequences in the plays – such as when Cinderella disastrously misinterprets her mother’s dying words.
In Cet Enfant’s most striking scene, a pregnant woman speaks to her child and promises to spoil him rotten as a revenge for the woman’s neglect by her own mother. (The scene was filmed by Max Key in an English-language version; one of two powerful short films he created from Cet Enfant.) The accumulative effect of the play is gruelling and I found myself hoping for a chink of light – a joyful episode alongside this catalogue of complicated relationships. Pommerat says he wasn’t looking to give an exhaustive portrait of parenthood in the piece. In any case, he adds with a grin, happiness is impossible to represent on stage – and it’s often boring.
Pommerat wants to use the stage “to say what has not been said before. I’m working a lot on those moments in the relationships when you say these words for the first time.” He draws a distinction between truth and reality, saying: “For me, truth is unreachable and not interesting in theatre. I’m interested in recreating what we call reality through the artificial means of theatre. So it’s not a photograph of reality but a reconstruction of reality. This reconstruction maybe allows the audience to see every side of an object, whereas in reality you just see one side.”
Although Pommerat has been hailed by artistic directors in the UK, Cet Enfant is one of very few of his shows to be produced in the English language. Purni Morell, who runs the Unicorn theatre in London, says it is “really unlike other work dealing with family relations”. It was staged in 2008 at Southwark Playhouse, directed by Suzann McLean for Pilot theatre. Pilot did some outreach workshops with students to explore the scenes, including one in which a son confronts his father and says how frightened he has been of him for years. “So many of the students wanted to get up and play that scene,” says McLean. “We’re all someone’s child. We as adults can really connect to it. Have you ever had that moment of expressing how you really feel to your parents, and moving past the fact of really hurting them or the fear of how they are going to respond to you … to say how you really feel?”
Pommerat has the same aim in his work for children – he is attempting to challenge their “true capacity for feelings without censorship”. He says one reason he wanted to make theatre for children was “to try and speak to them in the way I wish I’d been spoken to as a child and also in the way I wish children were addressed in a more general way”. Certainly, the works respect and challenge younger theatregoers. Pinocchio’s bad behaviour is often amusing but few of the scenes are played expressly for laughs. The show refuses to spoonfeed the audience. It’s knotty and cruel, full of confused emotions and philosophical inquiry. After the puppet’s cries that he wants to be a real little boy, the presenter turns to the audience and asks if we think anyone can genuinely change in life. When he is unfairly imprisoned – an act that feels truly shocking, no matter how annoying we may find this unlikeable hero – the presenter says with a shrug that we can’t always explain everything in life. Sometimes terrible things just happen. The ending, happy enough on the surface, is shot through with pain and weariness. Any morals from the story are lost in the fog.
So what about that name, Louis Brouillard? “It is a real name or it could be,” Pommerat says. “Someone who could exist but doesn’t. It’s kind of an embodiment of the company. It could be the godfather of the company, this character. Brouillard suggests shadows, darkness …” There’s another wry smile. “That’s where I feel at ease, more than in brightness.”
En préambule et pour éviter d’inutiles déceptions : il faut prévenir les petites filles que la Cendrillon de Joël Pommerat n’est pas une princesse. Ni même une jeune femme. Plutôt un garçon manqué qui porte une minerve et un corset. Et le prince, me direz-vous ? Et bien le prince, c’est pire. Il est petit, vilain, au sexe indéterminé, genre freaks, échappé du grand cirque de Tod Browning. On l’a compris, la copie de Pommerat a pris quelques distances avec l’original.
Veule. Après ses adaptations du Chaperon rouge et de Pinocchio, on ne voyait pas très bien ce qui pouvait le fasciner dans cette mièvrerie à citrouille et pantoufle de verre. En réalité pas grand-chose. Car très vite, l’auteur-metteur en scène va bifurquer et quitter l’autoroute balisée du conte. Chez Grimm ou Perrault, la mort de la mère de Cendrillon sera rapidemment oubliée et ne laissera aucune trace. Chez Pommerat, il va devenir le cœur qui bat de sa nouvelle création. Malade, alitée, la mère lâche dans un dernier souffle à sa petite fille quelques mots inaudibles. Celle-ci croit entendre une promesse : celle de ne jamais l’oublier «sous peine de la faire mourir pour de bon». Sandra, c’est son nom, s’est donc fait offrir une montre qui, toutes les cinq minutes, s’illumine comme un sapin de Noël et chante une musique horripilante, pour ne pas oublier ce serment.
Elle n’a pas d’autres choix que de suivre un père veule et lâche pour emménager chez une belle-mère tyrannique, évidemment affublée de ses deux pestes de filles. Sandra vit emprisonnée dans la cage de son vœu mortuaire jusqu’à ce que le roi organise une fête en l’honneur d’un fils déprimé, qui attend depuis dix ans le retour d’une maman partie sans prévenir.
Clope. Comme dans Chaperon rouge et Pinocchio, l’héroïne se cogne à la vie des adultes. Et à un rite initiatique (de ceux qui vous font dépasser la peur et accepter la mort) pour se frotter à l’amour. Toute l’enluminure froufrouteuse du conte est là, mais détournée. Le château est une maison de verre. La pantoufle, un soulier vernis. Et la fée une magicienne foireuse, qui clope comme un pompier pour oublier son immortalité assommante… C’est nouveau chez Pommerat et totalement réjouissant : on rit beaucoup. La pièce ne se laisse pas enivrer par la pente douce du second degré. Elle reste tendue vers la résolution de son mystère : quels sont ces mots enterrés qui peuvent nous tuer à petit feu ou nous sauver ?
Portée par une épatante troupe d’acteurs belges (avec une mention spéciale à Deborah Rouach qui interprète une Cendrillon mutine et obstinée), la pièce constitue une belle porte d’entrée au théâtre de Pommerat. Elle malaxe la même matière première : celle du lien, familial ou social. Celui qui nous relie, nous tire ou nous étrangle.
Pourquoi le masochisme de Sandra la pousse à accepter toutes les corvées de la maisonnée ? Pas dans l’espoir d’embrasser demain un beau prince venu la sauver de sa destinée de souillon. Mais, nous dit Pommerat, pour meubler en désespoir de cause une vie écrasée par la douleur de la perte. Et quand Cendrillon se cogne à son prince, le jour du bal, le coup de foudre fait un drôle de bruit. Un «boum» qui sonne comme une pierre creuse. Comme si l’amour n’était finalement qu’une mise en résonance de nos douleurs enfouies par les ans.Grégoire Biseau Cendrillon de Joël Pommerat Ateliers Berthier, théâtre de l’Odéon, 75017. Jusqu’au 25 décembre. Rens. : www.theatre-odeon.fr