We spoke with Andrew et Lesley, founders of the theatre troupe Panache Adelaide French Theatre Company. Panache presents “La Nuit de Valognes” a play by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt from tonight until Saturday 10 November.
Why did you choose this play, “La Nuit de Valognes”?
Andrew : We know the works of Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt well.
Lesley : That’s true!
Andrew : He is known for Oscar et La Dame Rose – it’s a little novel – I don’t know if you know it. It’s a delight of a novel, a short novel. He also wrote M. Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran. A great film was made from it with Omar Sharif. A marvel.
We knew him in this way and then, when searching for plays about 2 or 3 years ago, we stumbled upon Le Visiteur, a play by Schmitt about Sigmund Freud. It’s a very, very good play so we performed it in Adelaide. We did Le Visiteur. And then, last year, we did Le Bâillon, a little dramatic monologue of about 40 minutes by him. In doing that research for those plays, we found La Nuit de Valognes and Carole Mallett, the lady who does our directing most of the time, very much liked the play and said that she wanted to do it one day. So there you go, we are doing it.
She is clearly a very motivated director!
Andrew: Yes, it’s important that the director wants to direct the play that you’ve chosen! And with this play, she is very invested.
She spent so much time with this play in order to make her vision a reality, because she has a vision of the play on stage, the character development, the interpretation. It’s definitely her baby!
What does she do in her everyday life?
Andrew: She is a retired drama teacher but francophone as she is Québécoise. She also did a lot of theatre in Victoria.
Lesley : She works with other groups in Adelaide too.
Andrew : The volunteers. That’s for sure. She did her drama classes at Flinders.Even if she is Québécoise, she did her studies at Flinders many years ago. So there you go, it was her that contacted us originally. I think that she had first contacted the Alliance Française, to find out if there was anyone interested in theatre in French and so she was sent over to me and things started like that.
Lesley : And it’s been a few years now. Since 2014?
Andrew : Yes. She directed LeVisiteur (2015), Musée haut Musée Bas (2016), Le Prénom. Yes, many plays.
What can the audience expect from your performance of “Le Nuit de Valognes“?
Lesley : I think the audience has no idea about it! It’s Don Juan but then it’s also not Don Juan. It’s Don Juan who is no longer Don Juan, in the end.
Andrew : Everyone knows that Don Juan was the man who seduced many women.
Lesley : A big seducer.
Andrew : And in Spain, 2003. L’aria du catalogue… So he’s a big seducer. You come into the play thinking that. And in the first scene, you think that but there is going to be a confrontation.
Lesley: Don’t say too much!
Andrew: We see that it’s not as clear-cut as that. And that in effect, there have been changes, perhaps in Don Juan’s life. We don’t want to say more. The audience can expect probably to be surprised by what is going to happen.
It’s also interesting that the last words of the play are those of Sganarelle, saying that Don Juan has given him his pay. And in the last line of Molière’s Don Juan it’s this same Sganarelle who complains that Don Juan hasn’t paid him! I don’t know if Carole knows that.
But is it a comedy, a tragedy?
Andrew : It’s a drama.
Lesley : A drama with many aspects.
Andrew : Yes. In the first act with the five women, there is some very lively dialogue.
Lesley : I was going to say lively. It’s not physical comedy but quite lively and witty.
Andrew : There’s lively dialogue, quite refined. And then there is the character of Sganarelle , who is Don Juan’s slave – which is a character from the Comedia del Arte. So he has appeared in many different plays.
Why is the myth of Don Juan so interesting to deal with in plays?
Lesley : Because it’s a mythic character who has influenced many artists. There are operas, plays by Molière, Schmitt resumed the theme. There are many others as well. The Opera of Brisbane is looking for 300-400 women to appear nude on stage, it’s suggested in their summary of the play that it falls into the Me Too movement. So there is already something else in Australia happening on the theme of Don Juan.
There is no doubt that the character of the seducer attracts people . It attracts men to know how it’s done. It attracts women.
Do you have specific criteria by which you choose your actors?
Andrew : Yes (laughing), that’s right we look under all of the little rocks to see if there are any actors. No. One of the difficulties we have here is knowing whether to choose the play or the actors first.
Lesley : In the end, it’s about choosing actors according to their availability because there are some who aren’t always available. We have Australians who learn French but also French people who live in Australia.
Andrew : So, having decided to perform this play, we already had an idea of the actors who might be available and from which we could draw our cast. But we had to put on auditions because we didn’t find the right person. It was necessary to contact certain people to mobilise them. It’s always like that with our plays.
Lesley : And especially with this play; we needed 5 women as victims and 7 women all up.
Andrew : Everyone has a lot to say. There is almost no minor role. We would say that in Don Juan, all of the actors are of equal casting.
Did you have a specific profile in mind for the character of Don Juan?
Andrew : We knew that we have a perfect Don Juan.
Lesley : And the director really wanted it to be him.
Andrew : And once he accepted… You will see Don Juan. He is really the image of Don Juan.
We already spoke about what the audience can expect from the show but why should people come to see the play?
Andrew : Because it is in French and if you like the French language and French culture, it is one of the very, very rare occasions to see a play in French in Adelaide. So if you don’t come to see it, you will miss your chance for this year. It’s over. We put on 3 shows each year and the French Club of the University of Adelaide do one in their student way, I respect their tradition – it’s been going on for 50 years.
Secondly, it’s a very beautiful play and I wonder if it has ever been played in Australia. It’s perhaps a first for Australia. Schmitt, I must say, he likes words. He is an original playwright with very beautiful ideas.
So there’s two good reasons.
I am not performing in this play but I think that Carole always directs something interesting. She has a good dramatic sense and even if it is sometimes difficult to translate her ideas into reality. If we work on it, we get there. In the end, it works. So that’s it. Her vision of the play is very good.
Panache Adelaide French Theatre presents its performances of “La Nuit de Valognes” at the Star Theatres, Hilton, from tonight Thursday 8 November until Saturday 10 November. Adult tickets are at $30 and there are reduced priced tickets for members of the Alliance Française, Adélaïde Accueil and of Panache.
You can purchase your tickets for “La Nuit de Valognes” here.