Obituary: Patrice Chereau, film, theatre and opera director

Patrice Chereau: Formidable man of the theatre who was just as successful directing films and opera. Picture: Getty
Patrice Chereau: Formidable man of the theatre who was just as successful directing films and opera. Picture: Getty
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Born: 2 November, 1944, in the Loir, France. Died: 7 October, 2013, in Paris, aged 68

Patrice Chereau, the French director of opera, theatre and films was renowned for his incisive and detailed direction of such films as La Reine Margot (starring a host of French stars led by Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil). He had the ability to visualise scenes on a grand and glorious scale – La Reine Margot, for example, was a feast for the eye as well as dramatically griping.

Chereau brought these powers of invention to opera when he directed The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1976 when he was just 31. The celebrated production was conducted by fellow Frenchman Pierre Boulez and filmed by the BBC.

The entire production was later shown every Saturday night – act-by-act – over several months. With Humphrey Burton’s instructive introductions the series gained remarkably high viewing figures.

Chereau’s ability to shed new light on the classics earned him wide respect. He was equally at home in theatre, opera and film, telling a journalist two years ago: “For me they are exactly the same – telling stories with actors.”

In one of only two professional visits to the UK, Chereau appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 1995. He performed and directed in the Drill Hall in a two-hand play with the Theatre de l’Europe in Dans La Solitude des Champs de Coton. The appearance of such a European star marked something of a coup for Brian McMaster in one of his first years as director of the Festival and was greeted with acclaim by the critics.

The play, by Bernard-Marie Koltes, dealt with a mysterious seller who never revealed in what he was dealing and then trying to strike a bargain with a buyer who was reticent to reveal what he wanted to buy.

Chereau performed the play in Edinburgh with his long-time partner Pascal Greggory. It was given in French and certainly confused many, but The Scotsman praised it for “its unpredictability and intensity of the acting – and for the atmosphere created by effective lighting and choreography”.

Patrice Chereau was the son of painters who grew up in Paris where he enrolled in the theatre programme of a prestigious secondary school at 16. When he was 19, and at the Sorbonne, Chereau directed a production of Victor Hugo’s Intervention that was so successful that he decided to leave university and become a director in Paris. He soon established himself as a major force in French theatre and formed a formidable partnership with the playwright, director and film-maker Roger Planchon. Chereau also became widely recognised for his artistic direction of the Theatre des Amandiers in Nanterre.

Throughout his career Chereau held strong political views – in 1962 he demonstrated against the French war in Algeria.

In 1979, he backed Vaclav Havel in Prague, and in 1994, he screened La Reine Margot in Sarajevo during the brutal siege. In 2000, when the far-right became part of Austria’s coalition government, he boycotted the Salzburg festival. His politics remained totally central to all Chereau’s work on stage.

This was exemplified in his ground-breaking Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. He updated the action to the 19th century and replaced some of the mythological scenery with industrial age machinery. For Chereau, the story was a Marxist allegory of capitalism and the exploitation of the working-class. Such a concept had never been seen at Bayreuth and was roundly booed. At its final performance at Bayreuth, in 1980, it was given a 45-minute standing ovation.

Other opera productions included Berg’s full-length Lulu and Wozzeck, Don Giovanni, Tristan und Isolde and Elektra at Aix-en-Provence this summer.

His films allowed his vivid imagination to run wild. The sheer scope and magnificence of La Reine Margot is impressive. Not surprisingly it won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and five awards at the César Awards.

In all, Chereau directed ten films, including Son Frère and Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train. His first film in 1978, Judith Therpauve, received considerable acclaim, not least from its star Simone Signoret.

He only directed one film in English, the highly erotic and controversial Intamacy. It was made in 2001, based on Hanif Kureishi’s novel starring Mark Rylance, Timothy Spall and Kerry Fox. The film triggered a widespread debate about unsimulated sex on screen. It later won the Berlin film festival’s Golden Bear award.

Chereau’s only other professional visit to Britain was for his production of Jon Fosse’s I Am the Wind at the Young Vic on London’s South Bank.

Chereau was a formidable man of the theatre – called a “theatrical visionary” by many commentators – who was forthright, demanding and modest. “Theatre has helped me to live” he once said.