Okay, so French theatre is crazy. Now, I’m no stranger to non-naturalism. In fact, I’ve always thought of myself as a thespian type, often nipping up to the National with my under-25s discount card and booking myself into the most bizarre production I can find.
I’ve seen one-man monologues and homo-erotic nudity and people making music by banging kitchen sinks. I’ve seen Helen Mirren ‘consumed with an uncontrollable passion’ for her twenty-something on-stage stepson (Phèdre at the National) and The Good Person of Szechwan tripping out on drugs as the company danced around her, wearing creepily-painted smiling sacks over their heads.
I’ve even seen Waiting for Godot, a play in which literally NOTHING happens, save a few carrots being thrown around and the odd snap appearance of a luminous little boy-come-angel.
But nothing prepared me for the French performance of Insultes au Public at the Volcan, Le Havre, or indeed a second theatre extravaganza at the local Malraux Museum, a production so ‘out there’ that I left without even knowing the name of it.
Insultes au Public consisted of five actors, the audience seated on small red leather rotatable cubes actually ON the stage, frequent and unannounced blackouts and a whole lot of poetic verse that followed the format ‘nous (we).....blah blah blah’, ‘vous (you)....blah blah blah’.
The language itself was surprisingly easy to follow, however not quite so clear was the exact reason why each audience member was given a radio and headphones upon entry.
At various moments during the piece, we were all directed to put on said headphones, the idea being (or so I assumed) to give the feeling that the actors were speaking directly into their ears while fuzzy incongruous music played quietly in the background.
At the beginning, we were all required to hand over our coats and bags, which were hung on costume rails at the side of the stage, and as the actors introduced the main point of the production; namely that there was no difference between us and them, they each selected an audience member’s coat which they then wore for the duration as they circled us shouting insults at individuals.
It was here that I slightly struggled with understanding due to the various slang words used, though I did pick up a spiteful cry of ‘mouton!’ (sheep) at one point as well as the word ‘loserrrrrr’ said with a thick French accent, whilst my friend John heard a much more shocking bellow of ‘Nazi whore’. How he knows the French for this I’m still not sure....
I was under the impression that this would be the extent of France's outlandish theatrical offerings, yet the second ‘nameless’ show (previously mentioned) somehow managed to prove me wrong. I’d love to tell you what it was about, but the truth is to this day I have absolutely no idea. All I know is we, the audience, had to follow a group of actors around a museum as they posed as cleaners, performed a synchronised broom-sweeping dance, created a 3D house out of what looked like ‘Police Line Do Not Cross’ tape and contorted lengths of string into the various complex shapes.
At the end, a few audience members were given headphones (clearly the French love to incorporate technology into theatre these days) and called forward to aid with some form of bowing routine, the idea being they could hear the instructions, but for everyone else the room remained silent.
Myself and one of my friends were among these ‘lucky few’, and - having previously been reassured that it was all ‘très facile’ - headed sheepishly to the front.
Turning on our radios, we awaited the first command, and as everyone took three steps to the left and raised their right arm in complete unison (a ‘heil Hitler’ pose possibly?), I realised with growing horror that my headphones weren’t working. Typical. However, drawing on all my previous (Kentish village hall panto) expertise, I remained professional ‘dahhhhling’, and I’m fairly confident I pulled it off.
I even left the building with a free packet of ‘poussières d’art’ in my pocket (literally, ‘arty dust’, ie dust swept from the museum floor)... Your guess is as good as mine.
Speaking of headphones, I’ll leave you with my latest technology-related anecdote. In England, people on buses largely ignore each other. Whether plugged into an ipod, calming a screaming child or simply staring out of the window, there is very little interaction.
Usually, the same applies in France. Save the odd bus driver's ‘bonjour’ or exchange of sympathetic smile with an old lady, the normal etiquette is to mind one’s own business.
However, on one recent evening, this was not the case. As I bopped along to Jason Derulo’s It Girl, I felt someone tap my arm. Obviously, it was a sleazy French man, who with what he clearly thought was a flirty smile (but which I interpreted as incredibly creepy), offered me one ear of his own headphones.
At first, I played the friendly card, shaking my head with a cordial indifference. But he was insistent, and after several ‘non mercis', I dubiously accepted the earphone. Although I don’t remember the exact song lyrics, they went along the lines of ‘you’re the one I’ve waited for/now that I’ve found you I know it’s meant to be/stay with me baby’... you know the type; the crooning English love ballad.
Unfortunately (or fortunately in my case), we then reached the charmer’s bus stop and he was forced to leave this beautiful slow-motion moment with the girl of his dreams *cough*, and return to bleak reality, but not before he blew me a kiss, clarifying ‘c’est moi et toi ma chèrie’.
Only in France.