It was supposed to start with a bang. It turned out to be a whimper.
In “Le Retour,” Luc Bondy’s production of Harold Pinter’s dark comedy “The Homecoming” at the Theatre de l’Odeon in Paris, his debut as the theater’s new supremo falls well short of expectations.
The appointment of the Swiss-German director to the top job at France’s second most prestigious stage (after the Comedie-Francaise) was not without controversy.
Supporters of his predecessor Olivier Py noisily insisted on extending his term. They calmed down only after the French government gave him the plum job of directing the Avignon Festival, the world’s biggest theater jamboree after Edinburgh.
Recently, controversy flared up again when Bondy’s salary was leaked to the press: 200,000 euros ($260,000), many felt, was at odds with the government’s austerity program.
Bondy’s talent is beyond question. Perfectly bilingual, he is equally at home in Berlin, Vienna, Zurich or Paris where he trained at Jacques Lecoq’s legendary theater school. Bondy is best known for his light touch in comedies by Marivaux, Botho Strauss and Yasmina Reza.
His opera productions are more of a mixed bag. At the Metropolitan Opera, his grim “Tosca” provoked furious booing; his “Rigoletto,” scheduled for January, was uninvited in favor of another version.
“Pinter is always a cockney,” Peter Hall, who has directed a dozen of his plays, writes in his memoirs “Making an Exhibition of Myself.” For the U.K. Nobel laureate, “words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort or destroy each other.”
In France, there is no equivalent to the dialect of London’s East End where Pinter grew up. As a result, an important part of his outwardly trivial, yet carefully orchestrated dialogue gets lost in translation.
At the Theatre de l’Odeon, another dimension of Pinter’s universe goes out the window -- the underlying menace. Bondy tells the story of Teddy, a professor of philosophy at a U.S. university who brings his wife Ruth to meet his family in his North London birthplace, as if it were a bedroom farce.
When Ruth accepts the proposal from the all-male household to stay and set up business as a whore, we’re no longer shocked the way audiences were when the play was first staged in 1965. Still, there’s more to Pinter’s play than the salacious banter at the Odeon.
Bondy has brought together a prominent cast including some movie stars.
Bruno Ganz who plays Max, Teddy’s tyrannical father, is probably best known for his Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film “Downfall.” As the current bearer of the Iffland Ring, he is the primus inter pares among German stage actors.
In Paris, he is hampered not only by his German accent; he comes across as a harmless, though sexually still excitable, curmudgeon.
The rest of the cast isn’t any more convincing.
Emmanuelle Seigner, the real-life Mrs. Roman Polanski, is a bland Ruth. Jerome Kircher’s Teddy isn’t donnish enough. Louis Garrel doesn’t have the physique to play Joey, the muscle man who dreams of becoming a professional boxer.
The best of the bunch is Micha Lescot’s Lenny, the shifty, fidgety pimp who convinces Ruth that her rightful place is in their domestic jungle, not back home in academia.
The applause on opening night, which was attended by German director Peter Stein, French actor Michel Piccoli and other grandees of European theater, was lukewarm.
“Le Retour” runs through Dec. 23. Next year, the production will travel to Zurich, Milan and Vienna. Information: http://www.theatre-odeon.eu or +33-1-4485-4040.
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(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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