We don’t see many of the French playwright Jean Anouilh’s works, he seems to be quite out of fashion at the moment. The Waltz of the Toreadors give me some reason as to why this is the case. However Anouilh’s work falls into several categories, this being one of his black comedies, so is not wholly representative of his oeuvre which includes more serious allegorical pieces and histories.
Veteran adaptor Ranjit Bolt serves up a new translation for the revival of this 1952 play at the Minerva Theatre (Chichester). The production is laudable (a rare play by a neglected playwright is usually welcomed by me), but it is not wholly successful. The play at first seems like a mild farce, but then becomes a more interesting glimpse at sexual dysfunction and obsession, but it never fully commits to the latter path. Angus Jackson directs a cast led by Peter Bowles as General St Pe, retired and living in his country châteaux with his bed ridden wife, now writing his memoirs with the help of a young orphan (cue a plot twist). The cosy pre World War One life of St Pe (it’s 1910), has a jollity that would probably be missing from the life of the next generation of soldiers. He talks of disgusting cruelties perpetrated by the French towards their colonial subjects with casual jocularity when dictating his memoirs (colonial misdeeds seem so far removed from real life at home and can be laughed at, war at home can not be treated in that way). So he has a darker side to him than a wistful sex obsessed toff would normally show in a sex farce. He is also deeply troubled by sex despite his surface obsession with woman and his purported success with them. He is fixated by one woman whom he has never slept with in over 20 year of romance, he clearly has no time in the bedroom for his needy hypochondriac wife either (who he was supposedly planning to leave for his other woman, but clearly never really would or could).
The General is a man who has got the clubbable manly persona, but has no real ability or probably deep interest in the woman he talks about. I think this sort of behaviour is actually quite common amongst some men, not necessarily a total disregard for women or their wives, but a ritualistic obsession with sex and conquest (like the guys who comment extensively about Page 3 ‘Girls’ to each other on the bus), that says just as much about male posturing as it does about sexual prowess.
Peter Bowles is his usual suave self, with a dark streak of self doubt and teetering on emotional crises as the virginal General. Maggie Steed plays his wife beautifully, so annoying that you can understand her husband's coolness towards her. Nicholas Woodeson plays his confident and her doctor (and admirer) with in a solidly doctorish manner. Parts of the play remind me of Bernard Shaw, particularly the drawing room rhetoric and Ranjit Bolt also helps things along with his modish, but never jarring, translation. The play ends with the General as a very sad and lonely figure, setting about to seduce his new maid (for another eternal non consummated romance). He has been usurped by the younger generation, not needed anymore, but desperate for approval and company.
The play is enjoyable enough if you like farce, but parts of it didn’t make me laugh at all, it was most effective for me when more serious matters of motivation were touched upon, ending poignantly.