New endeavors and old demons

Patrice Chereau’s decision to perform Fyodor Dostoevsky’s monologue «Notes from Underground» comes as little surprise, because the famed French theater, film and opera director is not just an avid reader but also a master at working with and analyzing texts, and at working with actors. Normally reclusive and hard to reach for interviews, Chereau provided some surprisingly frank and revealing answers in a recent interview with Kathimerini that was set up in order to discuss two appearances he will be making with the play at Athens’s Ilissia Theater tomorrow and Friday as a guest of the Attica Cultural Society. Chereau admits to a close kinship with the main character of «Notes from Underground,» feeling «like a brother» to him. What gave you the urge to perform Dostoevsky’s «Notes from Underground»? It came about through a series of circumstances. It has been several years since I thought that I might be asked to do readings. The first I was asked to do was by Borja Sitja, the director of the Barcelona Festival. It was 2000 and I read a novella by Spanish writer Antonio Munoz Molina. A year later, I was the one who called Borja Sitja because I felt the desire to do it again. And that was when I first read «Notes from Underground.» I had only just discovered it. I had heard about it, I read it and was awestruck. This piece allows you to see the thread that runs through Dostoevsky’s entire opus, with his unique capacity for the comic, the dramatic, the fiercely sarcastic. This is what I want to share with the audience. What was your criteria for selecting the excerpts you will present? Reading the entire book takes some four or five hours. It takes that much more time to read into the heart of it… I chose to focus only on the second part, which is less theoretical in a way. Of this, I only read about half. There are, therefore, a lot of excerpts… which, however, allow us to dive into Dostoevsky – the further we dive, the more elated we become, I think… Do you believe that the hero of the play is tragic, in the sense of ancient Greek dramas? What is tragic about the man in the basement is the immense solitude in which he finds himself and what that solitude reveals in him: shame, resentment, the hated part of his thoughts, all those things that he could never admit, even to himself… It is a very important story on lying, on the way in which we lie to ourselves. It is a question that troubles me a lot. I am always struck and horrified by this kind of lying, by the reality with which we compromise ourselves, the way we suffer and at the same time feel good. The hero is on the one hand a dreamer, a poetic figure, and on the other pathetic and deplorable. How do these two opposites coexist in one single character? Each one of us undoubtably contains more contradictions than we think. These contradictions are visible in the man in the basement because he peels off what we normally hold on to. He is atrociously alone, tortured by a sense of guilt that eats away at him. He allows himself to be overwhelmed by all sorts of things – vulgarity, humiliation, cowardice – which are more or less real, more or less a part of what he says, more or less the fruit of his own imagination. There is always the lie. His suffering is at once real, feigned, acted and sincere. Did you exorcise you own demons through this role? I stir up a lot of demons and then kill them. Because it is incredibly liberating to say so many horrific things in one hour and a quarter. Especially as between myself and the man underground – particularly when he evokes his childhood and the feelings of inferiority and guilt which I feel as well, when he considers that life can be nothing other than a humiliation – I recognize something very familiar, something that is a part of me. Solitude and guilt shrouded my own childhood. They never left me. They taught me my passion for my work… So, with time, I learned to like being alone and to dream alone. This is why I know the man in the basement as if he were my own brother. After such a rich career and such a large number of collaborations with other artists, why did you decide to turn to a monologue? Speaking in public comes from my method of working with actors, I think. For a while now, from the time of the plays of Bernard-Marie Koltes in particular, I have focused very much on the delivery of phrases. I try to get the actors not to give away the real essence before the sentence or even the paragraph ends. It is about having a continuity of thought that goes until the moment where the idea is not just simply expressed, but clear, understood. Nothing should be pieced together before the thought is complete. Since I do not consider myself an actor, it is this use of the spoken word, of practicing a text, over time, that brought me to reading. I never knew how to do it before. I discovered it just five years ago. Theatrical production over the past few years seems to be in a rather poor state. What is your opinion on this subject? The 1980s and the early 1990s were particularly rich in new artists: artists like Koltes, who, through their language, shook the very foundations of theatrical creation. The present seems rather pale in comparison. Add to this the absence of great figures. When myself, and others, first began in this profession, we benefited from the presence of people such as Giorgio Strehler or Luchino Visconti. These directors pulled the rest of us upward, they opened up new horizons from which we all benefited. At the same time they were also very interested in passing on their experience. This is what is lacking nowadays, I think. Ilissia Theater, 4 Papadiamantopoulou, tel 210.721.0045.