Brigitte Haentjens crosses swords with Shakespeare

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Richard III © Yves Renaud 2015
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Richard III © Yves Renaud 2015
Richard III © Yves Renaud 2015

By Raymond Bertin
(Text first published in the Théâtre français' Cahier SIX)

First in March at the TNM, then in April at the NAC, Sébastien Ricard incarnates the tyrant king Richard III, supported by a cast of top-notch actors. Under the Sibyllines banner, Brigitte Haentjens directs a Shakespeare play for the first time. She discussed her anxieties and intuitions about the piece.

For a director with extensive experience in contemporary works and theatre solidly anchored in its times, as is the case with Brigitte Haentjens – whose distinctive, audacious career is the stimulus for very interesting reflections in her recent book Un regard qui te fracasse – tackling Shakespeare represents several challenges. “I find his work monumental, a sort of foundation stone of theatre, after the Greeks.

"When I was younger I didn’t feel I had the maturity to take on Shakespeare,” she said two months before rehearsals. “I came to his plays via Büchner and then Brecht. I find there are many points in common between the plays of Brecht, his early work at least, and Shakespeare.” In her book, she deplores the overwhelming Brechtian jurisprudence, “...the famous distancing or alienation effect, a theory about theatre that Brecht came to belatedly, but one that was already present in Shakespeare.”

During the interview she praised the “bastardy” of the writing of both playwrights. “Brecht’s first plays were more or less collective creations, bits of bravado for the actors. It’s the same with Shakespeare. He has a troupe with two comic actors? Well then, he writes comedy scenes for those actors. In his early plays and in Richard III, we can feel that collective aspect, that parcelling out, and the hybrid aspect where tragedy and comedy, the popular and the poetic, coexist. Although we have few references as regards Shakespeare’s era – Brecht is much closer to us – I have the impression that both were experimenting with a sort of high quality popular writing that was dialectic and not simplistic.”

“As for distancing and the alienation effect, in the Globe, the space where Shakespeare’s plays were performed, distancing existed from the get-go: everything was in full view of the audience, there was no so-called fourth wall, and plays were performed in the light of day. If there is one character who represents distancing, it is Richard III when he speaks to the audience. I’m convinced that his character was Brecht’s inspiration for Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. He is similar in attitude to Richard, the sleazebag who makes the audience his accomplice.”

Through her favourite actor Sébastien Ricard as Richard III – in a role quite naturally meant for him – the director sees a strong connection between the Drum Major that Ricard played in Büchner’s Woyzeck (which she staged in 2009) and Mack the Knife (a role he performed in 2012), and his current embodiment of the dark and sordid Richard III. A damned theatrical character, Richard III is one of those monstrous heroes who leave their mark on actors.

“There are many horror stories about what can happen to actors who play Richard,” says Brigitte Haentjens, who in her book evokes the risk inherent in certain roles, the risk of “leading the actor into a veritable descent into hell. You have no idea of how dangerous theatre can be, and that’s not just a platitude! I know because I’ve seen actors step through the looking-glass during certain performances. But Sébastien has a strong psyche, he knows how to protect himself and I’m there to help him.”

Trust your intuitions

A true practitioner, Brigitte Haentjens notes that rehearsals are critical. Although she had intuitions about how her Richard III might take shape, she also knows what she doesn’t want.

“I’m not interested in period costumes and all that. The set designer Anick La Bissonnière and I travelled a long road. We roughly defined the space as very simple, a bare stage, but were wondering how we could change the stage picture. We joked that it’s always the same thing – a stage floor with actors!” (Laughs.)

There is thus no evocation of a space, the director wishing to stick to the essence of theatre, as did the ancient Greeks. “I wanted a chorus, a form of interchangeable community, something very simple that allows people to exist. But until the work in rehearsals gets underway, I’m quite anxious!”

While she finds it difficult to talk about a play before it is up and running, she acknowledges that the work on this piece began about four years ago with her long-time collaborator Jean Marc Dalpé, who knows her quite well, having worked with her at the National Theatre School. He wanted to do the translation. “What I like about Jean Marc’s work is that he can take into account the different levels of language in Shakespeare. A translated text must be alive. His work on Joyce’s Molly Bloom was very subtle, very sensitive. These texts must be very accessible to us, very much rooted in the present,” stressed the director.

After numerous table readings with the outstanding actors, Brigitte Haentjens directed a workshop in May 2014, “not necessarily focused on the text, but more on an intuitive approach to movement so as to find a common language for the group, so that everyone would feel part of the story.” That group spirit is important to her, so much so that she included clauses in the contract to allow for several all-cast rehearsals.

“But it’s complicated,” she adds, “because in rehearsal we have to begin with Act IV. It’s strange, but that’s how it is. There are a lot of scenes, and it’s never the same persons who appear in the scenes. It’s difficult to manage. In a show like this, we have to work as much on short scenes as on group scenes. It’s even harder than with L’opéra de quat’sous, where there were five tableaux. I struggled with that at the time, it gave me insomnia. This time there are five scenes per act, a total of some thirty scenes, yet they flash by. It’s not easy, and I’m frightened, I’m scared!” (Laughs.) She admits that once the preparation is over, as is the case now, she is more anxious about things than when she is working with the actors.

A fascinatingly complex character

Brigitte Haentjens says that one of her strongest intuitions was “the feeling that things had to keep moving. That’s what Shakespeare is. It is not psychological theatre, it’s not theatre that takes its time to set up a situation. There’s a very exciting aspect, but it’s not easy to pull off when you’re working with 20 people, with so many characters.”

She was captivated by Richard III.

“The play is very interesting in political terms, and also psychologically. I find the nature of a character like him really interesting. Oddly enough, there are a lot of people like that in society, even though they are not killing people. There are more and more “narcissistic perverts” who thrive on destruction.

What is also fascinating in the case of Richard is the quest for power. Basically it is not power so much as the fact that he wants to dominate others. As soon as he acquires power he starts to go mad, to lose his way, for he no longer has an objective. It is a demonstration – acquiring power and then not using it, devoid of any social, political or sociological ambition. He has no plan or direction! He has a goal, but once he has achieved it, the objective no longer exists.”  

The director views the role of women in Richard’s entourage as crucial. She sees him as being shaken by the curse made by his mother the Duchess of York. “On the psychological level, he is obviously someone who has not been “seen”, that is loved by her specifically. Her curse causes him to waver. That dimension of fates and spells was very much a living, feared presence at the time.”

Haentjens feels that the major scenes of the play are those where Richard is with women, for they are allowed to express themselves. “It’s as though the women force him to find the best in himself, to put his money where his mouth is. That’s also why I wanted Sébastien for this role, because he is a man of his word, someone for whom every word counts.” With actresses like Louise Laprade as the Duchess of York, Monique Miller as Queen Margaret, Sylvie Drapeau as Elizabeth and Sophie Desmarais as Lady Anne, these scenes will certainly not be lacking in intensity.

1. Brigitte Haentjens, Un regard qui te fracasse: propos sur le théâtre et la mise en scène, Boréal, 2014.

This text appeared in issue 153 of Jeu.

RAYMOND BERTIN is a journalist and teacher. He was a theatre and book critic for the cultural weekly Voir before joining the editorial staff of Jeu in 2005.

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