Genevieve Page’s tour de force

At the end of a long day of rehearsals Genevieve Page is tired. But her eyes are sparkling and the legendary French actress’s grace is intact. Christos Lambrakis wished to present a French season at the Athens Concert Hall, incorporating music and other events. He asked me to come up with a production of French theater, says Page to Kathimerini English Edition. I was thrilled, it is an incredible gift. The gift turned into a landmark experience for Page, who similar to an exquisite piece of haute couture craftsmanship, embroidered the sur mesure production. In a way, as I am so old, I am French theater. I have interpreted more or less all the roles, alongside the greatest actors and companies, says Page. It was very difficult to know where to start from. So I took the greatest French authors and man’s various facets since his birth: love, war, politics, fascism, passion and tenderness. Theatrical Walks: Four Centuries of French Theater, which opened last night, continues tonight and tomorrow and is part of the Week of French Literature and Music organized by the Athens Concert Hall. The event will be followed by an evening with the Toulouse Capitol Orchestra conducted by Michel Plasson on October 24 and 25, while pianists Dimitris Giakas and Dimitris Sgouros together with mezzo soprano Dafni Egangelatou, are preparing an evening of French poetry and music on November 2. It took me a year, not to prepare, but to do nothing, just to close my eyes and think, one year, says Page. And slowly a few scenes came forward deriving from certain authors. For example, from Moliere’s works I was in between Alceste or Don Juan. I chose Alceste from ‘Le Misanthrope’ as it seemed that it was essential to portray the honest man trapped within the codes of conduct of his time. And a certain form of sincerity can never exist if we obey too far what is governed by the elite, such as the court, or a way of bowing to certain rules, where the honest man explodes and is chained. This is also touched upon in literature, showing to what extent literature is deformed by the same things, the media, for instance, by codes, by fashion, by mediocre people who impose a certain code from which the real poet wants to break. And more so today. And so the evening begins with Racine’s Athalie, the queen who dreams of her own death after coming to power by murdering the royal family. When the curtain was raised, I wanted the Greek audience to find exactly what we find, which is Greece, on stage. We all came from here, says Page. The journey continues with Courteline’s light-hearted 19th-century Gros Chagrin, in which two ladies discuss the problem of not having one; then comes Moliere’s classic Misanthrope in which Alceste believes that the truth should be spoken no matter what the cost; next is Victor Hugo’s romantic drama Ruy Blas, where at the end of the 17th century in the Spanish Court an impossible love affair ends in death. The extraordinary event continues with a work by Alfred Jarry – considered the forerunner of the Theater of the Absurd – and Ubu Roi, in which an older man is set on conquering Poland but only succeeds in portraying his stupidity. Next in quick succession come: Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio, where a man befriends the tyrant and shares his vices in order to save his country as the prisoner of a secret; Marivaux’s quintessential La Fausse Suivante, where a young heiress takes on the role of a valet in order to sound out the feelings of her betrothed; and the evenings’s events conclude with Paul Claudel’s L’Echange, in which at the end of a performance, a tired yet satisfied actress talks about the theater, before leaving. While the performance’s concept belongs to Page, the theater is all about the team. In this case she is surrounded by elite talent, sharing the stage with fellow-actors Anne Consigny, Jean-Paul Bordes and Alain Mottet. Direction is by Pierre Constant, with set design by Robert Plate, costumes by Lilly Kentaka, as well as with the participation of cellist Christopher Humphrys. The excitement aroused by the performance is also built around the reaction of the audience. The idea here is to present certain aspects of the French tradition to those who are already familiar with it but also to include those who are not. And that is the challenge Page faced. Twenty years ago I would have replied that I was not able to do it, says Page. Today, I’m so full of all this I didn’t even ask myself whether I was able to or not. Furthermore, the Athenian project offered the actress the opportunity to attack new roles, parts which she had never interpreted before. People always asked me what I would like most to play; when I was young I always replied that it would be the Infanta in Hugo’s ‘Ruy Blas.’ But then there was always a certain style and I didn’t really fit the character, so I never got a chance to interpret the role, she says. Today, I do as I please, and therefore I’m playing the Infanta. Obviously it is 50 years too late, says the 71-year-old actress. I never hesitated between theater and a good film, says Page. There was a moment in my career when I could have developed my career in film in America. That’s when director Jean Villar asked to meet me, along with Gerard Philippe. I was about to sign an important contract and my agent was not happy. I was very young, but I already knew what I needed. And so while Page’s beauty and expression has been captured on a rich filmography, ranging from Fanfan la Tulipe to El Cid, Belle de Jour and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes her home has always been the stage. Yet, well before she immersed herself in the arts, Page’s first passion was a literary one. And while her life has been enriched with the presence of monstres sacres such as Jean-Louis Barrault, her major influences came from Balzac, Proust and other old masters. Yet for Page, what lies in between literature and art is life itself. We are sitting here in this great place while meantime the world around us is crumbling, says Page. Man needs to get out of himself. There is this beautiful phrase: ‘There are two ways of getting out of oneself: ecstasy and entertainment.’ I hope that these performances at the Athens Concert Hall will be entertaining and perhaps, at a certain point, offer a little bit of ecstasy. We need this more than ever. For this mother of two and grandmother of four – with a fifth on the way – art will follow life. Today they are going to make films about the blind man who came down from one of the Twin Tower’s 70th floor with his guide dog; I believe we’re going to go back to the truth of the individual; the same goes for the theater. We need an absolute truth; we are all facing death. Humanity needs to recover its soul, otherwise we will be left with ashes. Four Centuries of French Theater is at the Athens Concert Hall, tonight and tomorrow at 8.30 p.m. in the Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall located at 1 Kokkali and Vas. Sofias, tel 728.2000.

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