That France’s only real rock star appears for the first time in a play is remarkable enough. That he has chosen a forgotten drama by Tennessee Williams for his acting debut is even more perplexing.
Johnny Hallyday, born Jean-Philippe Smet, is a cult figure. He has sold more than 100 million records and done more than 100 tours. His four marriages, his (real or alleged) love affairs, his legal and medical troubles are the stuff of headlines.
A botched operation on his spine after which he almost died was experienced as a national tragedy. He had to be put into an artificial coma for a second operation. The first surgeon faces a lawsuit.
Hallyday’s convalescence interrupted his frantic schedule, and he suddenly found time for an old project.
More than 20 years ago, director Bernard Murat, a friend, tried to talk him into playing Chicken in Williams’s “Kingdom of Earth.” One of Hallyday’s hits in the 1980s, “Quelque Chose de Tennessee,” had been a tribute to the playwright.
The plan came to nothing -- until now.
The choice of “Kingdom of Earth” is a wager. The 1968 play has never before been performed in France. In New York, where it was staged under the title “The Seven Descents of Myrtle,” it flopped and closed after a month.
The play belongs to a particularly chaotic period in the author’s life when drugs, drink and dementia had ruined much of his talent. Jokingly, he himself referred to it as his “Stoned Age.” Much of what he wrote in those years borders on self-parody.
As so often in Williams’s work, the action is set in the Deep South, a Mississippi farmhouse on the eve of a devastating flood. The three characters have much in common with those in earlier works.
Lot, the owner of the house, a sexually ambivalent, tubercular young man, has come home to die. The day before, he married Myrtle, a girl with a colorful past and five illegitimate children she put up for adoption.
He married her to prevent Chicken, his hated half-brother, from inheriting the house. In the end, though, Myrtle makes peace with Chicken, who saves her when the flood comes, while Lot, a soul mate of Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in “Psycho,” dies dressed in his late mother’s clothes.
The key to the eponymous “Kingdom of Earth” is sex: “If on the bed you seen a woman waiting,” Chicken says, “and she looked up at you and said to you, ‘Daddy, I want it,’ why, then I say you got a square deal out of life. That’s how I see it now, in this kingdom of earth.”
Chicken is, according to the stage directions, “a young man of 30 or 35.” Hallyday is 68. With his bronze complexion, he looks more like an Indian chief than the son of a white father and a dark-skinned mother.
His acting is stiff, yet he barks his lines without a memory lapse and without an earpiece, a feat proudly peddled by the theater. A guitar makes a brief appearance, though there’s no singing.
Hallyday’s rigidity is more than offset by Audrey Dana’s unbridled hamming. Myrtle’s reaction after the first gulp of Chicken’s home-made brandy has to be seen to be believed: She rolls her eyes, she breathes heavily, she pounds the kitchen table (on which she will later have oral sex with Chicken) and stamps her feet.
Julien Cottereau’s whiny Lot perfectly fits into the melodramatic, high-camp production.
The audience at the fourth performance, which I saw, was delirious and gave everybody a big hand of applause.
“Le Paradis sur Terre” runs at the Theatre Edouard VII. Information: http://www.theatreedouard7.com or +33-1-4742-5992.
(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