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Friday, 12 November 2010

Blocking the Blind - Exploring 'Le Baiser dans la nuit' - Part 2

Level’s dreadful scene has been revived and replayed almost as often as the Grand Guignol format itself, and recent years have seen an increasing number of productions across the world. Whether it is the simplicity of its staging, the effectiveness of its writing and set-pieces, its iconic position within the repertoire or simply its relatively widespread distribution in English translation, Le Baiser dans la nuit has remained the poster child of all things Grand Guignol. The purpose of this concluding discussion (the first part of which, dealing with its origin, early history and broad themes, can be found here) is to consider the play in modern performance, and the issues which these revisitations have raised for theatre makers. Rather than attempting anything like a comprehensive investigation of the multitude of 21st century adaptations, I will instead consider a small number of notable revivals, and focus upon versions which we ourselves have produced, as well as those which we have seen and considered particularly interesting. We have so far considered vitriol vengeance in theory, and it’s time to turn to practice.

Our own involvement with the play began in the spring of 2006, when we obtained a copy of Richard Hand and Michael Wilson’s own translation of the play. Their own student company had initially performed it at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe, and it had later been revived in 2001 by the Instant Classics Theatre Company. Hand and Wilson developed the adaptation in their own drama laboratory, and as such their translation presents a working copy of the script which these sessions created. It does not purport to be an entirely faithful rendering. The first task, then, was to produce our own translation, which we believed to be necessary to develop an original approach. Specific issues concerning translation and the Grand Guignol will be investigated by my co-director Tom in an upcoming article, but it is necessary to briefly consider the issues it raises which relate specifically to a directorial approach.

Level’s script, though fleshed out from the barest bones presented in his short story, remains sparse. The opening discussion between the doctor, nurse and Henri’s brother gives some indication of his social class, from which implications regarding Jeanne’s can be drawn, yet there is little extraneous information. Henri’s character is barely touched upon, a fact which is further complicated by his evident deceptive attitude. There is the inarticulate bandaged figure who refuses to elucidate his actions to those who question him, there is the partially repentant lover, who torments Jeanne with his faux-martyrdom, and there is the brief final glimpse of a monster of vengeance, entirely consumed by grim cravings for revenge, or satisfaction. There is precious little which could tie him to an earlier life, or to an existence before his face was taken from him. There are other issues too, the opening scene is strangely unnecessary given the later repetition of information in Henri and Jeanne’s duologue: it seems to add three characters for no clear reason, and test the audience’s patience. In our 2006 production our translator Leo Shtutin chose to omit this scene, and rely upon the flashes of expository dialogue in the second section. When we came to restage the play in a new translation as part of the 2010 Camden Fringe, we retained this cut. However, the majority of companies do retain the opening section, though generally omitting the character of Henri’s brother. In 2006 there were two US productions, the first staged by Portland, Oregon based company The Tragedies, and the second by Nosedive Productions in New York. The opening moments of the latter’s version can be seen below.

Opening scenes in Nosedive Productions'
2006 performance

Most recently of all, new London company Nouveau Guignol  staged the play as the climax of their single night event at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington, and again, included the opening scene. This decision in the case of each of these companies may be heavily influenced by Hand and Wilson’s treatment of it in their loose translation, and interestingly each has selected to faithfully block the scene according to the stage directions. Henri is always seated, with his back to the audience, and is addressed by the doctor and nurse, whose reactions to his face provide the only indications of the horrors to come. The effectiveness of this approach cannot be doubted, and the inclusion of this scene, blocked in this manner, provides both a streak of black humour, and builds suspense regarding the appearance of the bandaged patient’s face. The inability of even the doctor, a trained and experienced medical man, to control his emotions on viewing Henri’s face is a powerful moment, and the effect of a central character remaining with his back to audience for an extended period of time is a sufficient break in theatrical convention to appear unnerving in its own right.

Though alternative translations have occasionally been premiered, including those by Leo Shtutin as well as by Alice Saville and Tom Richards for our own company, and by Tristan Langlois, in a production which opened The Sticking Place’s now annual Halloween ‘Terror Season’ in 2004, the influence of Hand and Wilson’s published translation should not be underestimated. Their version chooses to substantially cut down the encounter between Henri and Jeanne, effectively creating a short two-act structure, in which the Doctor and Nurse scene occupies almost half of the stage time. Perhaps most significantly, their version leaves the moment of Henri’s unbandaging for the very climax, relying upon the shock of his injuries to cover the actress applying her burn make-up. Hand and Wilson (2002) describe the concept behind this approach:

The solution we found was to transfer the focus of attention from Jeanne to Henri immediately after he has poured the acid onto her face. The ‘acid’ was in fact stage blood, used in case anyone caught a momentary glimpse before Jeanne covered her face with her hands and writhed in agony on the floor. Henri, meanwhile, moved centre stage, increasingly manic in his moment of revenge and became the focus of attention. This offered Jeanne the opportunity to reach under the drape which covered the chaise longue to a dish containing a mixture of raspberry jam, stage blood and Vaseline, which she was able to smear over her face before finally revealing herself to the audience…

This approach has the advantage of producing a truly shocking and classically timed horror climax. The final moments become a true spectacle of mutilation, with Henri as the ascendant and triumphal monster, now complete with his dreadful bride. Nouveau Guignol made particularly effective use of this approach, and with the aid of MaXimal Effects, expanded its grisly potential by replacing Hand and Wilson’s raspberry jam with an horrific prosthetic, applied by the actress (Sarah Strong) while Henri ranted, raved and unravelled.

Horrific prosthetics for Jeanne (Sarah Strong)
in the Nouveau Guignol (2010)

Their climax, in which Jeanne clawed her way towards him, moaning through her injuries, was superbly realised, due in no small part to the audience’s shock at the extent of her sudden disfigurement.
Our own recent production, however, selected a different approach, and one which emphasises the gradual build of horror and the discomfort generated by blending romantic (as well as sexual) undertones. Rather than placing the unravelling at the climax, it instead occurred mid-way through Henri and Jeanne’s encounter. The purpose of this is to emphasise the painful sense of responsibility which Jeanne feels towards her erstwhile lover, and the psychological torture which he inflicts upon her. It becomes a strange blend of the sickening and the clinical, as Jeanne becomes his temporary carer, and his utter vulnerability is evidenced.

Jeanne (Laura Steel) unbandages Henri (Simon Pennicott)
in our dress rehearsal, 2010.

As she removes his bandages, he writhes in pain; an extension of her earlier unease when he requests that she slip her fingers under the gauze to feel his empty eye sockets. Later, when he comes to request a final kiss the fact that his face is already revealed heightens the perversely sexual encounter between a beautiful woman and hideous monster. Henri becomes more pitiful, and less terrible. It is a trade-off, and one which we have been willing to make in our productions because we have always considered the play as a slow burning horror in which an overly shocking climax would be inappropriate. This does, however, have a knock-on effect concerning the preparation of the final reveal. There is simply no time for the actress portraying Jeanne to apply prosthetic make-up of any kind, as the audience’s attention is fixed solely upon her plight in the final moments. We made the decision to concentrate primarily upon the performances, using a thick and lumpy fake blood in the vitriol bottle to simulate burning flesh, and bringing down the curtain second after Henri’s attack.

The potential of striking make-up and onstage effects must also be weighed against their practicality when considering the facial prosthetics for Henri himself. His face is to be the focus of much of the play’s dialogue, as well as the focal point for the audience’s nervous attention, and strong decisions must be made concerning its presentation. On each occasion that we have performed the piece, we have chosen to entirely cover the performer’s eyes with the make-up effect. Both Helen Damon (who produced the effect in 2006) and Donna Griffey (who did the same in 2010), rendered his eyes as black pits, surrounded by encrusted and weeping flesh. The play’s emphasis becomes, as it is in Level’s original, on the loss of his sight as much as his looks. He exists as a repulsive thing in the dark, and seeks to drag Jeanne with him.

Henri (Jack Cooke) from our 2006 production.

The obvious challenges which this approach creates are that the actor is entirely blind throughout the performance, so that all movements, blocking and stage combat must be memorised and rehearsed to the finest detail. The actor is unlikely to be entirely aware of the location of Jeanne, and his ability to wrestle with her and overpower her, as the play’s final moments require, is severely limited. In choosing this approach, we relied heavily upon the skill and dedication of our performers (Jack Cooke, 2006; Simon Pennicott, 2010) to rehearse blindfold almost from the very beginning, and retain the audience’s attention without the possibility of eye contact. Nevertheless, the potential for onstage conflict and physical tussling is limited, Henri must remain in contact with Jeanne at almost every moment, and there can be no pulled punches or slaps. This places additional strain upon the actress, who must not only lead much of the movement, but also heighten the perceived level of threat and violence through their vocalisations and their screams.

The difficulties which a blinded performer places on issues of blocking and stage combat have been perceived from the earliest performances of the piece. It seems clear that from the 1912/3 production onwards, the Parisian Grand Guignol used a blindfold to obscure Henri’s eyes, and that the make-up was similarly opaque. Sketches of the scene from early performances demonstrate their solution to the problem, which we ourselves used for our 2006 production, where Henri grasps Jeanne from behind, pulling her tight up against his chair. From this position an illusion of restraint can easily be generated, and her terrified face remains in full view of the audience throughout. In our 2010 production, Jeanne (played by Laura Steel) was instead thrown to the floor, with Henri leaning, spider-like, over her, before wrestling her onto her back and applying the vitriol. It is a broadly effective solution, and though it renders the fight somewhat static, it removes the central difficulty of persuading an audience that Jeanne is entirely at Henri’s mercy, and that his blindness would offer no hindrance to the execution of his plan.

Another approach entirely is to omit Henri’s blindness, either suggesting that his eyes are gradually degenerating or simply focus upon his other physical injuries. The former approach was adopted by the Nouveau Guignol, and though it arguably took something away from the horror of his own situation, it allowed for a truly chilling and brutally violent conflict, in which Henri’s final assault was riddled with explicit sexual undertones and became extremely difficult to watch. Nouveau Guignol utilised a full-head mask for Henri, and though his eyes shone out from beneath a crack in his bandages, grotesque details such as his scorched scalp and horrifically scarred neck more than compensated.

Not blind but still monstrous,
Henri (Graham Townsend) from
the Nouveau Guignol, 2010.

Other companies have dispensed with the make-up altogether, and questioned the necessity for prosthetics to supplement what will always be a fundamentally human story. Washington’s Molotov Theatre Group produced a version in 2008 in which Henri was simply bandaged, with clean white gauze, his eyes visible and his face untouched.

Molotov Theatre Group rely on their
audiences imaginations as Henri (Bryant Sullivan)
menaces Jeanne (Leslie Sarah Cohen).

Though there is no specific reason why this approach could not succeed, lukewarm reviews which dubbed the season a ‘mild stab at Grand Guignol’, and questioned ‘surely the original productions were more thrilling than this?’, demonstrate the expectations which the Grand Guignol brings with it. Though performances will always be the single most important factor in the success or failure of Le Baiser dans la nuit, an audience at the Grand Guignol expect to be in some measure satisfied, and a refusal to engage with the visual elements of the play as well as the intellectual can appear prissy, or simply melodramatic.

That the play is still performed, and these questions which must have plagued the effects artists and performers of the original Grand Guignol are still being wrangled over and discussed across the world is surely indicative of the rare power of Level’s play among the repertoire. It could be argues that it is not the strongest piece of writing from this period of the Grand Guignol; that De Lorde’s plays are its superior in structuring, in characterisation and in payoff, but the strange attraction of Level’s play, its symmetry and simplicity, have given it a life which no other horror play can boast. The seductive visitor and the blindfolded monster, the beauty and the beast, will always find their way back to the stage; it would hardly be the Grand Guignol without them.

- Stewart Pringle

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