Friday, April 27, 2007

Kurt in Paris (Part 4)

PARIS Part 4


8.15am Tuesday 24 April 2007

Election night, and the whole of France talking its collective head off. Loudly.
But I didn’t need the wax earplugs. Surprised? Me too.
Why? Because when the action was on, I wasn’t in bed, I wasn’t trying to sleep. At 1 a m I was out the on the streets of Paris being a part of it all. It’s taken me more than 24 hours to really recover.

The day started off with a trip to ‘les urnes’. Pierre and Christophe needed to vote. Like much of France, they couldn’t make up their minds among the rather unpromising list of candidates, and they both ended up taking the middle route – Pierre, who shares my politics, as a tactical vote, and Christophe for negative reasons .. he simply couldn’t vote for the others! But at least they voted .. along with an incredible 85% of Frenchmen and women. It was a record turnout. Never since the war had the figures been so high and it is easy to see why. For once, the first round of the ‘Presidentials’ was a real contest. Only two could pass to the final round, and there were three distinct possibles, not to forget the National Front man who made it through to the final last time.
The physical act of voting, I have to say, was pretty unimpressive. One had to queue twice. First to be identified and receive ones voting papers, secondly to vote. The queues were long (no-one expected the 85% evidently!) and slow, and I sunned myself outside the schoolroom where all this was going on for a good half an hour whilst Pierre and Christophe did their civic duty.

Duty done, we lunched gently – I on a most delicious baked goat’s cheese and salad – after which Pierre went home to do some housework before the evening’s election-rendez-vous, and Chris and I headed back to Parmentier for the last day of, and the jury’s decisions in, the Festival.
We had just one play to see, at 4pm, and the title should have warned me. Une femme assise qui regarde autour. Very Picasso. Very impressionist. Ah, well. I’d had it all. A vaudeville-farce to start with, a powerful drama second, a camp monologue third. And I’d done pretty well. I’d understood pretty well everything. Story and dialogue. I was getting quite cocky.
Pride comes before a fall. Une femme assise was, there is no other word for it, ‘difficult’. By Samuel Beckett out of Charles Pierce. Once again it was a monologue (with two mute assistants). A middleaged woman in a red ball gown, surrounded by what I imagine was the paraphernalia of her life, reciting great detailed lists of the items in her room, items which mostly seemed to bring her back to what was obviously THE moment of her life when, aged 19, she picked up the trumpeter with bushy eyebrows to whom she lost her virginity (I think) at the Alcazar. Since some of his possessions are in the list that she babbles at crisp and beautifully-articulated high speed, I imagine he moved in. ‘She’ of course, when she finally removes her clothes to bathe, at the end of part one, is a ‘he’. Big surprise, I mustn’t say.
The trimmings of the piece included the release of a dove (symbolic or just a circus trick?) who spent the next part of the evening perched ridiculously (intentional I am sure) on Madame’s head. Plus some filmed items which were then played onto the wo(man)’s naked body. I don’t know why. And plenty of so forth. The assistants, alas, played in old-fashioned white-face.
The second portion of the play was on film. A drag queen turning herself from a man into a woman. Rather old hat and much too long, not to say a real anticlimax after the first part, for the stage performance of the man/woman was actually quite a tour de force.
I came out of it all mildly confused but relieved that it had nevertheless been a much more professional affair than the awful thing we had last seen, and was then even more relieved to find that the French people around me were equally bemused by what had been going on.

Christophe then headed off for the deliberations of the Jury. I not being one of them, cosied up in a corner with my book and a beer and waited. I didn’t have to wait too long, for during a brief reappearance of Chris – in mid-deliberation – I was introduced to well not exactly ‘my partner’ for the evening, but the man who was to make up our ‘fourth’ for election night dinner. Jean-Baptiste Bour (yes, we even got as far as surnames over the next half dozen hours) works, like Pierre, at the Institut francais where he builds and organises technical things. He has his own business constructing Internet sites and suchlike (‘Come up and build me an Internet site’ I murmured internally), and in fact it was he who originally set up the recording studio where I did my interview the other day. However, this was Election night, so we didn’t get into things technical (nor, actually, thank goodness, too much things electoral!), and by the time Chris had done his thing and was ready to lead us back to Plaisance, the Frenchman and the demi-semi-Kiwi were getting on in a rare fashion.

I interrupt this personal piece of remembering to record that, to my delight, the drama that we had loved so much did win the Festival’s Grand Prix, that its very young leading man rightly carried off the Best Actor award, and that the piece also won the prize for Best Director. In other words it took away all three prizes (of four) for which it was eligible, there being no female in the cast to take out Best Actress. Given the personalities and politics which usually go on in the awarding of Festival prizes, the result was very sensible and satisfactory. Bravo, le premier Festigay de Paris.

We taxied across Paris to home base at the Chineur, before heading on to Rue Alesia for dinner and the start of the results broadcasts.
Now, I think I have already given a glimpse of the home of Christophe and Pierre. Let’s just say that it is a 4 room flat which contains enough books and other possessions to fill a 24 room flat. Plus Berenice the thankfully small dog and a black and very un-small cat. So steering one’s way around can be just a little perilous.
Anyway, the essential (for this particular evening) TV lives in the bedroom, so Pierre’s morning ‘housework’ had consisted of shuffling enough towers of books from one area to another of the bedroom to create just sufficient space for four middle-sized people and dinner to squeeze in. Thus, I can report that I spent French election night sprawled across a double bed in le 14eme, alongside three Frenchmen – one conservative, one middle-of-the-road and one socialist – sipping a delicious white wine and pigging on a magret de canard stuffed with foie gras. before – while Chris made a lightning visit to Les Bains Douches to do his thing at the festival prizegiving -- devouring almost an entire bottle of Armagnac (Jean-Baptiste 1er, Kurt 2eme, Pierre 3eme) along with some of my magical Epoisses cheese (Kurt 1er, Pierre 2eme, J-B zero).
The evening made one thing clear. I am quite converted it seems! To white wine, that is to say, certainly not to socialism! And, of course, I don’t need to be converted to Frenchmen … although after some of the dreary monsters whom we watched parade across the screen during the course of the night, I should perhaps qualify that statement. But politicians are, alas, politicians, in no matter what part of the world, and French ones are just as sententious and self-important and lying as their British, Japanese or Bulgarian equivalents.

I should add here that I did get a few laughs from them. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the red firebrand of my youth, now it seems converted to ultra conservatism, and as desperately spotty and dreary as ever! And, the height of horror, the appalling, cheating, sometime Marseille football chief Bernard Tapie, now out of prison and sufficient of a national personality that even if he is surely banned from ever re-entering politics, the TV still treats as a known face and invites to be a pundit on the nation’s screens. Ugh. Well, if you didn’t laugh you’ld do the other thing.

The election, truthfully, was a bit of a bore. It was quickly evident that conservative and the socialist had it all over the middle-man and the National Front, and the only real interest was looking at the figures with the second round in view. It seems to me that the little fellow on the right is a shoo-in. He topped the poll with a solid advantage over the lefty lady, he will surely inherit the ten percent part of the poll of the Front National and, I would imagine, a good share of the middle-man’s 18 percent.. So? That would make it no contest. But who knows in politics? Who knows above all in France? Anyway, the alleyway between the book-piles and the bed is staying for the moment, and I am planning to be back in Paris for the Big Night on 6 May before heading on to England on 7th. My ‘partner’, the delightful sort-of-socialist, is already booked for the spot next me on the bed for the return date!

Am I having fun? You bet. Am I behaving myself? (chuckle) of course I am. So far. Give or take the odd cigarette. And a few nights looking on the wine when it is red. (Or, these days, white).

The evening ended, of course, in Le Chineur where, just short of 1am, I embraced my flagging companions with French flair before trotting the few metres down the road to the Hotel Plaisance and my unencumbered white bed.

Le Chineur

Much to the annoyance of my utterly po-faced Chinese host, I didn’t make it to 7.30am breakfast, and I got an injured sermon as I snuck out at 9.15am for my morning coffee and Internet session au Chineur. I actually got in a particularly long session, as Chris – who had firmly posited the 9.30 start – crawled in after ten! However, we were still in plenty of time for our first event of the day: a showcase of the musical The Lion King (which will be produced here, at the newly refurbished Mogador, in October) at no less a venue than the magnificent and large Theatre du Chatelet.

The Paris production of Le Roi Lion isn’t being done by Papa Disney, but has been subleased to a European firm which clearly believes in extravagance and in safety first. This ‘showcase’ was evidently designed to let the Parisian press (who, as everyone knows, doesn’t actually READ anything so simple as a Press package) know exactly what the show was, and it was very impressively done. A Parisian TV presenter talked and talked and talked, and introduced that nice man from Disney called Ron who I think I met with James Thane at some stage, whom she translated (or, rather, DIDN’T translate or even paraphrase .. she just said her thing) at too great a length for my tastes in versions of the various tales which are in any case in the Press Package. A short film of colourful extracts was shown, Julie Taymor was seen on film talking ... but happily, in between all the chunks of decidedly wearisome talk, and what were veritable filmed commercials, there was some music. The very fine South African lady who will play Rafiki yowled out several numbers in characteristic fashion, and some of the leads chosen for the French cast were introduced and/or sang. The young woman who will play Nala – by name Leah (Why do so many French artists lose their surname?) – was – give or take an unfetching frock -- quite splendid, the handsome, tall, very young and evidently inexperienced lad who is to be Simba will doubtless improve in rehearsal. He has a pretty if unformed voice which is an adequate (if it lasts) pendant to his looks and charm. But he also has a great deal to learn as a professional performer. The Mufasa was pleasing but, alas, we didn’t get to see the Scar – the token white man of the production, who has apparently trained 20 years in the Japanese method – do his thing.
The showcase – which started half a hour late, leaving le tout theatrical Paris to do its “Dahling haven’t seen you in ages’ stuff for a full thirty minutes, was followed by a vast champagne party in the glorious Covent-Gardenesque foyers of the Chatelet. We stayed briefly, Chris introduced me to several people whose names – given the noise, my hearing, my French and all the rest – I shall have to write down later, and then we sidled off, leaving the tout Paris théâtrale to its ‘Cherie!’s.

For we had a better date. A much better date. At the Bistro Beaubourg. Where they serve … tripe!
A long, cold beer (for the temperature was well up in the twenties) and a not-too-large-for-lunch bowl of steaming tripes a la Lyonnaise! How deliciously restful. How wonderfully real. How perfectly French can you get.
And then a familiar sound hit my ear. Our adjoining table was populated by .. four New Zealanders! Their German tour-guide had tipped them off about the Bistro Beaubourg: ‘no tourists’. So I think they were as shocked as I when I addressed them in New Zealandese. I couldn’t persuade them, alas, to try the tripe.

My ‘laziness’ too was about to get its comeuppance. Hup and away, and next stop the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Oh boy! It’s like a French version of the old British Library, domed reading room and all, with hall after hall of towering statues and 19th century relics. Like the British, the BN itself has actually been relocated to a spectacular quadruple-tower new centre which is I am told a model of artistic and user-friendly efficiency. But the ‘Arts et spectacles’ division has been allowed to remain in the original glorious old buildings, and that of course was the department to which we were heading.

With the 50th anniversary of the death of Sacha Guitry coming up early next year, the BN theatre division is devoting itself to preparing a whole vast series of events and publications around that famous writer and actor. Chris is, of course, involved.
And thus I got to penetrate into the ‘centre of operations’, a room in the library where boxes and boxes of scripts and scores, scrapbooks and folders of papers and photos, posters and music, all appertaining to Guitry and including his own (his secretary’s?) huge and all-embracing collection, are stored. Noelle Guibert, the chief executive of the thing, pulled down several of the boxes for me to leaf through. Amazing stuff! The first 2-act version of Mariette, as played for a Benefit, with no less than Sarah Bernhardt as the aged actress! A letter from a functionary at the French Embassy in London, explaining his efforts to get some pressure from the British aristocracy (Lord Cromer, for heaven’s sake) put on the Lord Chancellor’s office which had forbidden the production of the utterly delicious L’amour masqué on the British stage. For reasons, of course, of morality! The piece was eventually played in England. In French. Thus only the upper classes could be perverted, and the masses were left to their moral purity. Then there was a wonderful telegram from a minor English or Irish aristocrat, trying to hire Guitry and Yvonne Printemps to come and play the last act of their naughty play in her ballroom as after dinner entertainment for her guests. Name your price. Delicious stuff!
Box after box, treasure after treasure …

The Bibliotheque nationale Guitry archive

Alongside us, two young men with a computer were engaged in playing through the entire Guitry film opus, looking for illustrative material and film clips to be used in the various events. What a job!

I think I shall have to come back to Paris for some of this. January?
Hmm. So far I have events to attend in Paris in January 2008, February, March and April…. And October.
Is the drift of events trying to tell me something?

PS Chris brought with him, valiantly, a volume of my ENCYCLOPAEDIA. Noelle was impressed. If Gale Group get their sales department off its collective backside, I shall it seems have a book on the shelves of the Bibliotheque Nationale francaise!

Five o’clock. Time to drop anchor at Le Chineur. It has to be a taxi trip (11 euros). I am really weary. Last night’s late hours and slight excesses, the Lion King, that divine tripe and two large beers (although the New Zealanders found and ordered larger!) at lunchtime, all the excitement of the BN ... its been a big, big day.

But it is not finished. Chris had alarmed the skin off my tripe over lunch by dropping the fact of another interview! In French of course. And tis time not ‘entre amis’ but for ‘le grand publique’. On no less than France Inter, the country’s main radio station. The first of a new series on musicals which, with tongue a little in cheek, was to deal with ‘Musical Comedy and Religion’. I had begun to rack my brains for examples of this unlikely combination when the trip to the BN intervened, and by 5 o’clock I had relaxed into thinking that the thing was a non-event. For today, anyway.

No such thing.

As I sat sipping my second beer at Le Chineur and thinking, perhaps, of a nice wee sleep, a pretty young woman with a large handbag appeared. And out of the handbag came a microphone and a recorder…
I wasn’t sure whether I was wishing that I had had four beers .. or none!
I wasn’t sure whether my French was in top gear, or cruising to a weary halt..
Anyway, under the newly respectful gaze of the staff of the bistro (who now know me pretty well, if not what I ‘do’), Mme Jocelyne Giani and I were given a corner in an unpopulated area of the restaurant (typical French background buzz!) and away we went.
Unfortunately, Jocelyne’s first question was about the current state of the musical theatre worldwide, so I had to pretend that I knew what was going on. I’d noticed, anyway, that there is a decided increase in activity in France, so I leaned on that. Then we got on to the religion thing. She mentioned Jesus Christ Superstar. Heck, I hadn’t thought of that! I managed to come up with the Nuns’ chorus from Casanova of which I rendered several lines in my rich basso profondo, – to Chris’s and the animatrice’s delght and to the amazement of passers-by and the folk in the bistro -- I remembered the awful Noah’s Ark musical we did in London where God’s Voice was heard – though not singing! – I remembered Valmouth with its singing camp Cardinal (but maddeningly I forgot to say that Robert Helpmann had played the part), and its babbling nun .. and happily that was sufficient.
Of course, when I got back to our table, to which Pierre Philippe had now been joined – other more obvious examples (eg La-haut, although its not God there but, as in Carousel, St Peter) came forth, but ‘tant pis’.
I wasn’t sure that I’d been very good or interesting, but my interviewer seemed perfectly satisfied, and to my delight told me that I had a very attractive accent. I think perhaps that I was a little Marlene Dietrich-ish. After the previous night with the Armagnac and cigarettes, I was (when speaking softly as one does for radio) down to my double bass register, complete with sexy (?) crackle!

Showbiz is showbiz. Before the interview, I’d been all ready to call it a night. Now the ‘showoff’ adrenalin was running, and I had a second wind.
The wonderful Pierre had come in from his country home in Bourgogne, and he had brought me a present. A whole Epoisse cheese from the very home of that unparalleled fromage! Alas, no-one else among les amis seems much to care for it .. in fact Pierre had telephoned Chris while we were at lunch to demand where the hell were we so that he could offload the ‘smelly monster’! .. but that means all the more for me. I shall let it ripen a wee bit more and take it down to La Mayenne to share with Jack and Hilary!
Pierre had also brought me a bottle of his local wine and .. a dedicated copy of his novel L’air et la chanson. I’ve almost finished reading Chris’s copy, but I shall definitely venture very soon a second time, perhaps on the ship as long as there is a French dictionary there. For Pierre’s flowing language is rather like his flowing personality – full of rich and recherché moments – and I need to investigate both with care.

Around 8.30 we had to call it a day. Chris had magazine articles to write which should have been delivered that day, Pierre had been up at 6.30am in preparation for a professional breakfast (the morning after an election! What was someone thinking of?) and was wilting, le grand Pierre had a rendezvous, and my second wind had dropped to a tiny breeze. So, with my wine and my cheese and my book under my arm (oh! Vive la France) I toddled back to the Hotel Plaisance and a 10 hour sleep.


Its 10.30am. Christophe is theoretically (and I hope in reality) hard at work on his many due, overdue and soon due articles, Pierre will have been hours at his desk at the Institut, le grand Pierre is at Gaumont doing something inscrutable with morceaux of the ancient film stock of which he alone knows the secrets, while I …
I have taken my coffee and croissant in the hotel (I WILL get a smile out of Monsieur le Chinois!), bathed, transferred yesterday’s photos to this machine, and done my six pages..

I have theoretically only another two days in Paris. But I am coming back. Next week. In the bit of my journey – the only bit – that wasn’t set in aspic before I set out from New Zealand. After my visit to Jack and Hilary and the horsey countryside of Mayenne, I plan a few days more at the Hotel Plaisance, at Le Chineur, and in the company of Christophe and all my other new French friends. And, of course, I have a date on the double bed for Elections Act Two: the Final.

Goodness, it is funny being back in ‘the world’. And when you have Christophe Mirambeau around, you are thoroughly ‘in the world’ like it or not. (I do). No backsliding. No gentle retirement. He is now talking of an hour interview on France Musique … an HOUR! .. next week, already….
Merde alors!
Who needs an agent?

I guess I had better harbour my forces, so an hour of feet up, I think, in preparation for this afternoon. Then off to the Chineur for my emails and a double expresso. Then .. who knows? .. except that at 3pm we return to the Chineur to meet up with Alain Marcel, another Parisian writer and director whose translation of Little Shop of Horrors I raved over in my Musical Theatre on Record. How grand it is to meet folk about whom you have written with enthusiasm. The other face of the coin I prefer cowardly not to face! Anyway, Chris tells me he is another ‘grand raconteur’ like le grand Philippe. Suits me! For, you might be surprised to learn, I love to listen…

As well as talk.

Which you know already.

Until soon

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