REDEFINING FEELINGS IN AN AGE OF ANGRY ANGST
“We are three people trying to redefine feeling” they say. They do this between Paris, Munich, Salzburg and Greek islands, and either side of World War I. Both the French bohemian artist Jim ( Alex Mugnaioni, saturnine, tall and informal in braces) and his Germany literary friend Jules (Samuel Collings, always in a collar and tie) are sent to the front, and each dreams fearfully that he might have to kill the other. But the war is only a four-year interference in their quest for feeling, brought to a head by a statue on a Hellenic island with an “archaic smile” and a mouth “hungry for kisses . Or perhaps blood”. Shortly afterwards a German girl Kath – Patricia Allison, gamine and sharp and striking – turns out to have just that smile, and they both need her. And get her. Or she gets them.
After its triumphantly sad-funny Madame Bovary (https://theatrecat.com/2022/11/23/the-massive-tragedy-of-madame-bovary-jermyn-street-theatre-wc1/) the Jermyn now tackles a less bourgeois French classic novel, minor but made famous by film. Say “Jules et Jim” to a whole generation, and a wistful sigh goes up. I suppose every period of moody students finds a sympathetic dead movement to glamourise its depression and romantic confusions. Once it wasThe Sorrows Of Young Werther, then Byron, and when I grew up in the 60s there was a fascination for Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Anouilh: all that enraged nihilistic creative individualism and determined sexual freedom of the 20’s and 30’s. Ideally conducted in French. With a suicide.
So when in 1962 François Truffaut found an autobiographical novel by the Dadaist Henri Pierre Roche, and made the film with Deneuve as the woman shared between the two male intellectuals, one French one German, it was catnip. Chaps insisted one saw it and appreciated both their taste and the presumption that only by going to bed with them could put a girl prove herself an existential rebel woman with an archaic smile who jumps impulsively in the Seine, switches lovers, demands babies and ricochets across Europe on a whim.
This is a new treatment by Timberlake Wertembaker who felt that in the film there was not enough of Kath, the woman (face it, this is primarily a story of a devoted male friendship, stirred and focused by her). I usually love this playwright, but here, as the three protagonists narrate the long story directly to us most of the time , the men’s monologues in particular get painfully overlong. And of course, inevitably a bit repetitive when basically the story is that Kath draws them both, marries one, has two offstage children of whom she seems to take little emotional notice except when demanding one “I am a mother first of all!” , then falls for the other man. And sets up a menage a trois , reverts, reverse-ferrets again, and for a while runs off with yet another chap.
Jim gets actually ill from all this “there is only so much strain a heart can take” while stolid German Jules shakes his head and decides to write “A German Buddhist Novel”. They all repeatedly speak of how they had to reinvent the rules, but the only happy moments seem to be when the lads are together, theorising about feelings over a cafe table like any old codgers in a leather-bound club, before the next time Krazy Kath sticks her oar in.
It’s preposterous, should be funny in a dry French tragic way, and is well performed (though Allison could give Kath more attraction than angry discontent.) But though the audience did laugh once, it felt a bit guilty. I am quite grateful to be reminded of the sort of contemporaries who thought all this was holy writ, but ninety minutes was enough.
jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 27 May