Stage Animal / French Without Fears

Parisian theater director Bernard Murat was in Tel Aviv recently for a master class on performing Moliere and Marivaux.

Last week I waxed enthusiastic about German theater, after a touring production here that was quite representative of its character. Incidental to that, it occurred to me that the Israeli theater mainstream has, for years, been under the influence of theater in the English language, particularly from England (but also the United States ). I have also never concealed my personal admiration for the quality of the English theatrical tradition, which to a large extent shaped my taste.

But the truth must be told - even if we aren't seeing it on stages in Israel (with the exception of extraordinary instances thanks to isolated and enthusiastic preachers ) - there is also a fascinating theatrical tradition in countries like France and Spain. And it is in this context that we must regard the recent master class held at Tel Aviv University's theater department by director Bernard Murat.

Bernard Murat (left) during his acting master class with acting students at Tel Aviv University
Nathan Schori

Murat, an experienced and veteran director (born in 1941 ), runs Paris' Edouard VII Theater. In Paris, the capital of a country where the inhabitants do not really like to speak English, sits a theater that bears the name of a Briton, King Edward VII of England, who was known as "the most Parisian of the kings of England." Its first manager was Sacha Guitry, all of whose plays - according to what is written about him on the Internet and his own acknowledgment - Murat knows by heart.

The theater is currently performing Guitry's 1938 play "Quadrille," under Murat's direction. The Edouard VII Theater is commercial, unsubsidized on principle and dependent on the audience, box office and loyal theatergoers. Murat stages two productions there annually, often with the participation of well-known film actors, and he runs the productions for as long as there is an audience.

Fortunately for him, failures are few, he says, and when a production isn't going well, they simply stop it and put on another. In recent years, among others he has staged "Kingdom of Earth" (aka "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" ) - a little-known play by Tennessee Williams, with Johnny Hallyday - and plays by Harold Pinter, David Hare, Georges Feydeau and, of course, Guitry. The Israeli audience knows Murat - not directly - via the production of "Le Prenom" ("The Name" ), now on at the Beit Lessin Theater with Dov Navon and Lior Ashkenazi. It was Murat who directed the world premiere of this contemporary play by Alexandre de la Patelliere and Matthieu Delaporte at his theater in 2010.

This play is also Murat's first introduction to theater in Israel. He saw a video recording of the production in Israel (directed by Moshe Kaptan ) and was impressed by the actors. In his opinion, the version staged here is similar to his own production.

Moreover, this play is the link between him and the university: Murat and his theater donated the proceeds from one "Le Prenom" performance to the French Friends of Tel Aviv University, for its scholarship program. It was in this context that he visited last year.

This time he came for an intensive one-week visit, half of which was devoted to an intensive master class for 15 selected students from the theater department. (Contrary to the department's academic image, these students are studying practical acting and directing. ) At the initiative of Prof. Nurith Yaari - whose two main fields are Greek theater and Hanoch Levin's plays, but who is a sworn Francophile and Francophone - Murat came to tutor Israel's future actors in the art of performing Moliere and Pierre de Marivaux. This workshop, too, was made possible by the French Friends of Tel Aviv University.

Murat has a theory about the connection between Moliere's "Tartuffe" - which was written in 1664, mocked religious hypocrisy in the court of Louis XIV and is known (perhaps too much so ) worldwide - and Marivaux's "The Double Inconstancy," which was written in 1723.

International language

However, what bothers Murat when he arrives at his Tel Aviv hotel the day before the master class is the fact that he is supposed to instruct actors in a language he doesn't know. Though he did direct in Italy 10 years ago, there is a difference between directing a play he knows and instructing student actors in material that is not familiar to them. He reassures himself with the fact that theater is an international language. When I ask what, in fact, it is possible to teach actors with or without a common language, he explains in picturesque language the difference between "speaking thoughts" and being "inside thoughts."

Murat is a very well known and successful director in France. Some of the plays he directed have been made into films or have been filmed as theater for television (a phenomenon that exists in many places in the world but regrettably not here ). Many filmgoers in France know his voice without being aware of his name. In France, almost all foreign films have a dubbed version. In his days as an actor, Murat gave his French voice to characters played on screen by the likes of Michael York (in Richard Lester's 1973 film "The Three Musketeers" ) and Woody Allen, in all his films from "Bananas" (1971 ) to "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993 ).

Actress Lana Ettinger was assigned to Murat to ease communication between him and the participants in his workshop. Ettinger grew up in France and she accompanies him everywhere, translating what he says into fluent Hebrew. She accompanies him in the workshop room, even translating his body language - faithfully, it seems. The experienced Murat, who comes from the language and world of Moliere and Marivaux, has one thing in common with the young actors and actresses who have grown up and live in Israel. He has never directed a play by Moliere (though his first steps onstage in France were as an actor in Moliere's "The Learned Ladies" ). The reason for this is that he admires the playwright too much, and has not yet resolved the question of how to present him correctly. By much the same token, the participants in the workshop - like the whole of the Israeli audience since the inception of the Hebrew theater - have never seen a play by Marivaux. The only translations of his works into Hebrew were done by Yotam Reuveni, at the initiative of Beit Zvi's late director, Gary Bilu. Only this season will Jerusalem's Khan Theater put on a play by Marivaux ("The Game of Love and Chance" ), directed by Gita Munte.

Murat's thesis on the development of the theater and society in France between Moliere and Marivaux has to do with the process of the enlightenment and democratization of the characters in the plays and the audience that watched them. Though "Tartuffe" is a condemnation of religious authoritarianism, in the end it remains within the normative framework: The impostor is exposed and the status of the king is strengthened in the eyes of the spectators of the play (and its characters ), even though ultimately the king sacrificed his favorite playwright (like most Moliere scholars, Murat believes Moliere fell ill and died as a result of the struggles over "Tartuffe" ).

Compared to "Tartuffe," in which order is restored - even if only artificially - Marivaux's play presents the audience with a young woman abducted by a prince who claims to have fallen in love with her. However, despite the difference in class and power, she refuses to submit to her fate. Not only does she refuse to do the lord's bidding, she succeeds in forcing him to give her up, to release her and to marry her to the man she loves, at her demand. When the prince surrenders to the will of his servants, they are prepared to accept his authority. As Murat says, what we have here are characters from among the simple folk who don't yet know how to read but already know how to think.

Murat has already directed Marivaux's play several times. He makes clear the problem that a director, actors, and audience have with this playwright: The entire first act is exposition, in which the characters converse among themselves and give the audience information essential for understanding the plot. From Murat's experience in the French theater, he knows that even if the actors have wonderful elocution and deliver the lines in ornate language, seemingly without effort, the audience and the actors have a need for something to happen, for a situation.

In the play's first act, Silvia wakes up and discovers she has been abducted and imprisoned. In Murat's version, she is one of many prisoners in the prince's harem. She wakes up, takes advantage of the fact that her fellow prisoners are sleeping and steals over to the door. When she opens it, she encounters a servant who has come to try to persuade her to consider her situation and submit willingly.

The transition from the secretive tiptoeing over to the door and the face-to-face encounter with the servant behind the door is designed to put the actress and the character into a "situation." This imbues her with energy and umbrage, and also builds up the character of the servant, who arouses laughter in his attempt to soothe the tempest of emotions with logical and courteous arguments. After the explanations, a couple of actors try to play the "situation" holding pages of text in their hands (professionalism assumes that actors know the text by heart before the first rehearsal; one might have reasonably expected that, before a workshop with a teacher from abroad, acting students would have made the effort ). Still, it transpires that theater is an international language. Murat produces the scene and turns to the actress: "I assume it is possible to play this better, but I doubt it is possible to play it faster."

Though Marivaux is the bread and butter of French actors but is unknown territory for the Israelis, Murat is aware of the devastating power of the classical. And of the fact that if one tries to perform it properly in its own terms, it is liable to lead to more boring theater. He, as the manager of a theater that depends on the audience and the box office, cannot allow himself to bow to the classical in the name of tradition. And he knows it is possible otherwise.

At the end of the 1980s, he directed this Marivaux play with Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart, and it was performed in Paris and around France about 150 times. "That was three times more than the play was performed in France at the Comedie-Francaise ever since it was written," he says.

When the inevitable question arises of how actors perform Moliere's rhymed and metrical text in a natural way, Murat acknowledges that this requires special skill, especially for characters who are not in a pressured emotional "situation." As an example, he chooses Cleante's monologue from the final act of "Tartuffe." Hearing him read/act a logical argument while maintaining the consecutiveness of the statement and without missing a single rhyme or a single syllable of the alexandrine meter is a lesson in itself.