Sunday, January 23, 2011

Interview with Dan Jemmett

It has been 12 years since a little known director from London’s experimental fringe created Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu roi” with three actors, some kitchen utensils and a bunch of tomatoes, at the Théâtre de la Cité internationale. Dan Jemmett’s approach to theater – playful, visual, rooted in formative experiences as a child of actor-parents, later as a street puppeteer while at Goldsmith’s Art College in London - has served him well in that time; he now holds a long list of productions in France (nearly two a year) and a reputation for being a director who can wring magic from even the poorest text. His work includes creative retakes of Elizabethan classics, along the lines of “Shake” (a revisited “Twelfth Night”), “Dog Face” (Thomas Middleton’s “The Changeling”) and “Presque Hamlet”; a few contemporary risks like “William Burroughs surpris en possession du Chant du vieux marin de Samuel Taylor Coleridge” by Johny Brown, “Le Musée du désir’ by John Berger, and a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”, with English band The Tiger Lilies; as well as five operas and two acclaimed productions now in the repertory of the Comédie Française: “Les Précieuses ridicules” and “La Grande Magie”. Success rarely taking a straight road, however, Jemmett has navigated some challenging turns: flops, to be blunt, such as at the Théâtre de Marigny last season with the critically excoriated “Le Donneur de bain”. His newest play, “La Comédie des erreurs”, finds Jemmett returning to familiar ground, with cross-overs in theme, set design and cast from his first big success in France (“Shake”, Prix de la revelation théâtrale (New Talent Award), awarded by French theater critics, 2002). The production provided the opportunity for some frank conversation on the day before the show opened at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord.

Molly Grogan : What motivated your choice of “The Comedy of Errors,” and how did you decide to use just two actors to play the two sets of twins [the brothers Antipholus and their servents Dromio]?

Dan Jemmett: I always liked the play. It's performed a lot in England, very badly, I think, mostly because it’s kept at a certain face value: it’s a farce, its accessible to children and its sort of a beginner’s Shakespeare piece. But I was struck, even as a child being in it, by a sort of grace that was present. And of course the asides that the two Antipholuses have to the audience; in general, in an Elizabethan text, the asides interest me because they immediately break down the conventions. And then the desire to reduce it to, not a Commedia piece, but a tréteau [traveling stage] with as few actors as possible: that’s appealing because it means you have to think differently; can the attempt at representation, whether its scenic or the actors’ characterization, really be sketched? It’s a form that maybe has stayed with me since working with puppets. It allows perhaps for a space to open, a space between the performance and what is being said, somehow; it allows us to breathe. It’s sort of a way of commenting together on the kind of theater we’d like to show, without it ever being ironic. I’d like to think it calls up an intelligence that is there in the audience to play with the form of theater.

Shakespeare wrote “The Comedy of Errors”, I imagine, thinking that different actors would play the twins, which is impossible because you spend your whole time, in productions I’ve seen, trying to make the two twins look as much the same as possible, when you know they’re different actors. At the end, you have the dévoilement, where two actors have to look at each other pretending that they’re twins, when they’re not. It’s horrible. We spent our time erroneously, to start with in rehearsals, wondering how we could make the difference between the two, and then I thought, “That’s ridiculous. They should be the same because that’s the whole point.” [To show which Dromio or Antipholus is which] we use vaudeville techniques, glasses, hats, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a sort of a poor attempt to differentiate between the two. Then, the action sort of stops, and the text in the last scene of the dénouement, when everything is sorted out, happens in a more abstract way, meaning the actors lose the attempt at characterization and become the actors giving the text. I’m not quite sure what it means but it seems in the moment to allow us who are watching it to take what we want out of the questions of identity that have been set up, about finding not just a twin brother but finding oneself somehow. I don’t know if it feels slightly hermetic, but I can’t quite take it beyond a certain point. I can set the thing up and ask the questions by doing it with two actors like that, but then the resolution is something that is left.

MG: What’s keeping you interested in theater?

DJ: Well, I feel its sort of changing now. I went through a phase of accepting work that I hadn’t chosen, to do commandes, opera, the Marigny, the two pieces at the Comédie Française; they weren’t me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been doing quite a lot of that, and now with this work, I wanted to try and say “Stop” to that and make a smaller piece, a chamber piece, with a text that I wanted to do. On the back of that now, I’ve still got a few more commandes coming up, but I’m starting my own company in Paris with a producer, and in the autumn I’m going to do again one of Jarry’s ‘Ubu” pieces: “Ubu enchaînée” (*). I’m going to start with the same idea [as with “Ubu roi]” and see what happens if I spin off of that. I think there is maybe a stage in the careers of young-ish directors where you do some work, and people think that’s interesting, and then you think, “I need a career”, and you’re not sure in fact how it works. You’re taken by imposing individuals and producers, and it’s difficult to find any sense of autonomy in the middle of all that, but you’re seduced by it as well. I feel anyway, personally, that it’s time to take stock a little bit of what I have done and what I want to do and also to realize there are some things I just can’t do, certain ways of making theater that I’m not suited to make: the choice of material and the size of the theater, the architecture, the audience, all things that are very important. I was very gung ho, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

MG: It worked more often than not; the Comédie Française pieces were very well received.

DJ: That worked very well but the Marigny was a horrible experience and the Opéra Comique [“Beatrice et Bénédicte”, 2010] went very well but it could have gone very badly. I suppose one gets a sort of reputation for “Oh, he’ll do it because he can do crazy things…” A lot of this stuff is quite bad. The Berlioz score I was given was impossible. I managed to make something work, but if they asked, “What would you like to do?”, well, I’d be very happy directing “The Marriage of Figaro”, for example; that’s something I feel I could do. You say, yes I’ll do that. Why? Because it’s an interesting experience and it’s the opera but […] it’s such a personal thing to do and yet you find yourself in a position where your whole reason why you wanted to make theater and the whole personal relationship you have with it completely means nothing because it’s a vast machine. I think there are a lot of directors who get burned. I have been, variously, and I want a change.

MG: It’s unusual for a director to go back, truly, to where he began, as you are…

DJ: “Ubu enchaîné” is the sort of logical conclusion to “Ubu roi”. I suppose I wanted to go back and do that as the first thing in the company because it is a pretext for making the kind of theater that I’m interested in. It’s going to be working with objects again and three actors. Jarry is a universe that appeals to me for several reasons. There is a very impertinent voice there. I like the way in which somebody [Jarry] came to the theater having already made these puppets. On the first night of “Ubu”, he made a speech and said, “I would have liked to string the actors up like puppets but we couldn’t”… I thought that was an interesting belief that he, a little bit like Edward Gordon Craig, didn’t quite believe in the actor, and I don’t think I do. It sounds terrible to say that. [laughs[ I’m aware of the necessity of the actor and I like actors who don’t quite take themselves too seriously and who are aware of the limitations of it, so then you can do something else. The idea that I had originally of taking the three actors interests me, it becomes like a Guignol; there is some strange freak show. I like to go back to the Punch and Judy. And I think that politically there’s something interesting [in “Ubu”], and if one can find a way of making an “Ubu” feel something today, not just a museum piece… You look around and you see people like Sarkozy and Berluscuni and Bush and you think there is something to say there, surely…

MG: What makes you want to continue to work in France?

DJ: I think England is sort of finished now. I went back about six years ago and just the conditions of work there and the way in which the work is made are now kind of alien to me. In any case, when I was working in England with this experimental company, Primitive Science [formed at Goldsmith’s], we hated theater. We wanted to do it in our own way. It was a way of making up our own rules. It was very underground. I miss that, the kind of political voice that that had at the time, after the Thatcher years. Even though we didn’t really know it, we were doing it because [the situation] was so awful. There was no provision for making experimental work; it was all very mainstream. So the simple gesture of making that work was political in a sense. In France, it becomes quite quickly, not mainstream, but the culture, accepts and values those ideas, so you’ve got no opposition. I suppose I sort of miss that, or I kept that, but there’s no reason; I have nothing to be in opposition against, really. But that sort of iconoclastic, punk voice is something that is left over from being born in England when I was, I think.

I’ve been here for 12 years and I’m still feeling I’m an outsider in many ways. An outsider in the sense that… I have no problem feeling being part of French culture, but there is just a recognition that however long one lives in France, one never really understands the French. They are the way they are. It’s true that in France the seriousness, intellectually, is possible in a way that in England it just isn’t, or in the States. So I am where the work is, where I can make the work.

MG: Where is home then: more an idea than a place?

DJ: Even Paris I find sometimes very conservative, not much fun. And yet you think well, there is another space, that is a kind of freedom here, which is an intellectual space, which isn’t pretentious either; its just a French quality, and that allows for the work in a way that couldn’t happen anywhere else.

* Starring Eric Cantona, scheduled at the Théâtre de l’Atelier

See review of "La Comédie des Erreurs" at

Photo Credit: Mario del Curto

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