Dying Mitterrand Mulls Legacy, Toys With Pyramid: Paris Stage

Philippe Girard as Francois Mitterrand in "Adagio." The play by Olivier Py runs at the Odeon Theater through April 10. Photographer: Alain Fonteray/Theatre de l'Odeon via Bloomberg

It happened to Charles de Gaulle, George W. Bush and Tony Blair: They all morphed into stage characters. Now, it’s Francois Mitterrand’s turn.

In “Adagio -- Mitterrand, His Secret and His Death,” a production at the Odeon Theater in Paris, the late French president reminisces about his career, wonders about his place in history and confesses that, though agnostic, he believes in some form of eternal life.

Mitterrand died in 1996 of prostate cancer -- a condition he hid for many years, feeding false media health reports.

In previous plays, Olivier Py, author and director of “Adagio,” preached the gospel of the “theater of excess,” falling somewhere between (the very Catholic) Paul Claudel and (the very gay) Jean Genet. His play “La Servante,” performed in 1995 at the Avignon festival, lasted 24 hours.

“Adagio” is over in 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s based on Mitterrand’s speeches, writings and other biographical sources. Mitterrand (Philippe Girard) is the only fully developed character; the others are little more than walk-on parts. Six actors play some 30 roles.

Dr. Claude Gubler, the president’s physician who published a much-reviled book about his patient, also appears as Jack Lang and Robert Badinter, respectively ministers of culture and justice under Mitterrand. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl resurfaces as Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, and the author Elie Wiesel.

On opening night, several former ministers were present. What they thought about their alter egos onstage is a mystery.

Miniature Pyramid

Py’s Mitterrand is an old-fashioned socialist whose heart goes out to workers, the poor and the homeless. He hates the brutality of a capitalism that only cares about shareholders.

Playing with a miniature of the Louvre pyramid, one of his grand architectural projects, he’s modest about his legacy: “Do we remember who was president when Proust wrote his novel?”

Yet he’s proud of having abolished the death penalty. Compared with his successors, he muses, he might not have done too badly: “After me, there will only be bookkeepers.”

He also speaks about his habit of presenting globes to his hosts on state visits: For Arab recipients, Israel was removed and replaced with “Palestine.”

It’s one of the few anecdotes in the play. Most of all it’s a serious, almost didactic attempt to present Mitterrand as a great statesman. Chamber music in the background, played by a string quartet, emphasizes its lofty purpose.

Gorbachev’s Hat

What’s missing are the shadier aspects of Mitterrand’s career. His erstwhile opposition to the reunification of Germany is pinned on Mikhail Gorbachev who, wearing a fur hat, implores him: “Help me to avert it!”

Wiesel questions Mitterrand about his work for the Vichy government and his friendship with Rene Bousquet, Petain’s chief of police who organized the roundup of Jews in 1942. Mitterrand brushes him off with vague answers.

With his bald head, toothy smile and choppy way of talking, Girard comes reasonably close to the original -- closer anyway than Colin Firth to the stammering King George.

The set (Pierre-Andre Weitz) mirrors the play’s documentary approach. Naked stairs lead to a revolving backdrop, successively revealing Mitterrand’s library, a room at the Val-de-Grace Hospital, the Berlin Wall and the military cemetery at Verdun.

If you like political theater as high drama, you’ll probably find Py’s play too dry. If you don’t mind a two-hour lesson in recent French history, this might be for you.

Rating: **.

“Adagio” runs at the Theatre de l’Odeon through April 10. Information: http://www.theatre-odeon.eu or +33-1-4485-4040.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****           Outstanding
***            Good
**             Average
*              Poor
(No star)      Worthless
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