LES PARENTS TERRIBLES **** DUNDEE REP THE WINTER’S TALE *** GLASGOW UNIVERSITY QUADRANGLE
IN THE age of terror and “family values”, Sigmund Freud and his ideas are out of fashion; but all the same, it’s worth remembering their explosive influence on many of the great sexual and social revolutionaries of the 20th century. Jean Cocteau – born near Paris in 1889 – was one of those revolutionaries, a bisexual man in an age when gay relationships were still publicly taboo, and an avant-garde novelist, playwright, poet and film-maker whose powerful aesthetic style helped define two generations of rebellious counter-cultural art.
Despite the elements of surrealism in his work, though, Cocteau always remained fascinated by the bourgeois family life into which he had been born and by the traditional representation of it in theatre; and his 1938 play Les Parents Terribles – now revived at Dundee Rep by the brilliant Glasgow designer-director Stewart Laing – is a product of that fascination. At one level, Les Parents Terribles is a boulevard comedy – almost a farce – about a middle-class family in meltdown. As the play opens, the mother, Yvonne, is slumped in a coma on the floor of the grubby bathroom of the family’s Paris flat, brought low by the fact that her only son Michael – a spoiled but amiable 23-year-old whom she adores with an unhealthy passion – has spent the night away from home.
The plot takes an even more melodramatic turn when it emerges that Michael’s new love – the pretty 25-year-old Madeleine – is also the mistress of his father George, the husband Yvonne has been ignoring and neglecting ever since the birth of her adored boy; and events come to a head at a ludicrous meeting in Madeleine’s flat, where Michael’s clever aunt Leo indulges in some absurdly Machiavellian manoeuvring, largely for her own ends.
The aim of the play, in other words, is to rip the mask of respectability from the face of the family, and to reveal the seething, destructive Oedipal passions beneath, as they threaten Michael’s vulnerable new love. Cocteau’s trick, though, is to set up the familiar structure of a farce, but then to people it with real, trapped, modern human beings whose suffering is as tragic as it is extreme; and it therefore makes every kind of sense for Stewart Laing to update the action to the early 1960s, that decade when every self-respecting middle-class kid rebelled against an older generation that seemed suffocated by polite hypocrisy and lies.
On a vivid double-letter-box set like a pair of wide cinema screens – Madeleine’s cool, white loft apartment above George and Yvonne’s cluttered, stuffy flat – the Dundee Rep Ensemble, currently on a roll after their well-deserved triumph at last weekend’s Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland, play out Cocteau’s melodrama with a powerful, tightly contained combination of intelligent irony and sheer emotional commitment. Just here and there, the style slides a little too much towards muted television naturalism; even at his most emotionally observant, Cocteau is always thoroughly theatrical.
But by and large, the five-strong cast turn in performances to treasure, notably Ann Louise Ross’s furiously irrational yet somehow appealing Yvonne; Irene Macdougall’s steely Leo, and Kevin Lennon’s bouncy, innocent Michael, a classic beat-generation juvenile lead in white T-shirt and turned-up jeans. As always, Laing’s production looks and sounds superb. This time, though, he also offers us a powerful and timely reminder that the idea of “family” is always an ambiguous one; and that the price of outward stability and respectability is often immense inner tension, and a series of lies and myths which are finally bound to implode, with a force both liberating and destructive.
When it comes to imploding family passions, though, there’s no rivalling the dramatic genius of William Shakespeare, whose breathtakingly bold late romance The Winter’s Tale cuts straight to the heart of the matter by taking such a violent implosion as its starting point, and then setting out to examine what can be saved from the wreckage. In the first scene of the play, the anti-hero, Leontes, becomes suddenly convinced that his queen, the beautiful and virtuous Hermione, has been unfaithful with his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and that the child she is about to bear is not his. He imprisons Hermione, and orders his newborn daughter to be abandoned in a wild place, condemns his young son to die of grief; then spends the rest of the play in a slow search for redemption.
In their brisk, cut-down but conventional-looking version of the play – playing in Glasgow this week as part of the West End Festival – the Shakespeare’s Globe company from London, under the direction of the excellent John Dove, can do little but lead us clearly and concisely through the story, which they do with admirable good nature and professionalism, despite the odd rain shower. The fierce doubling required to deliver this play with a cast of nine creates some odd effects, and it’s slightly painful to anyone who cares about the under-representation of women on stage to see the plum part of Paulina, Hermione’s waiting-woman, taken – albeit with commendable discipline and seriousness – by young Michael Benz, in a matronly frock.
But Michael Taylor’s design strikes just the right note of informal but dignified summer storytelling; and on his simple catwalk set Sasha Hails emerges as a lovely, fragile yet indestructible Hermione, with Fergal McElherron in superb barnstorming form as the old lord Antigonus and the rogue Autolycus. And the power of the story is undimmed by wind and rain, reminding us that centuries before Freud was born, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the romance of family life, about how cold reality fails to measure up to it, and about how we still need that romance nonetheless, to drive us on through the generations.
• Les Parents Terribles is at Dundee Rep until tomorrow; The Winter’s Tale is at Glasgow University Quadrangle until Sunday. For details of Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland nominees and winners see www.scottishtheatreawards.org