A NEW TRANSLATION BY SIMON CALLOW
DIRECTED BY JEZ BOND
UNTIL 21 MARCH PARK THEATRE, FINSBURY PARK N4 3JP
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
‘Inconsequentiality’ is not a word creators normally apply to their artistic output, but this is how Simon Callow, translator of La Cage aux Folles describes the play. Originally written by actor Jean Poiret in 1973, as a vehicle he could star in, La Cage went on to inspire three French films, a musical, and the 1996 Hollywood remake The Birdcage. So what gives this well known tale of a St Tropez drag club owner Georges, whose son Laurent becomes engaged to a right wing politician’s daughter, such long lasting legs?
In Jez Bond’s production the answer is joie de vivre. From the moment the lights go down the stage fizzes with energy as Georges tries to placate/dominate his drag performer partner Albin/ Zaza, plus run his nightclub, which is permanently on the verge of financial collapse/ riot. The need for so many slash signs in the barest bones description of the opening scenes, gives an idea of the switchback pace of the production. And plaudits must go to choreographer, and Park co-founder Melli Marie, for ensuring everybody hits their marks as they jetty and arabesque around the stage, with costume changes happening almost mid-air. Housekeeper Jacob, skilfully played by Syrus Lowe, takes full advantage of the role’s potential to shape shift, send up racist screen stereotypes, possessing the stage with the force of a juggernaut.
Stereotypes are La Cage’s blessing and curse. Posing as a real life woman, as opposed to a stage caricature, liberates Albin from being by turns indulged then marginalised by Georges, and lets him spring from the sidelines to taking control of events. Paul Hunter’s nuanced performance is a masterclass in depth and timing. But even in a 2020 translation of a 1973 drama, portrayals of race and gender remain tricky. When George refers to Jacob as a ‘Belgian’, we know it’s masking a more offensive term. And Michael Matus’ Georges is full of easy male entitlement, dabbling in heterosexuality out of curiosity, and enjoying the joys of fatherhood, without any of the constraints of everyday family life. Georges is La Cage’s centre of gravity, the dominant male prism through which all story rays pass.
The play does attempt to question what it means to be a man through Mark Cameron’s Marseilles, a straight acting, super butch butcher, with a hideous bronchial sniff and manspreading habit, who, d’accord, turns out to be gay and obsessed with Brueghel. But once Marseilles has been outed through his love of the Old Dutch master, all overt examinations of masculinity end, and we return to the default settings of wry, but never challenged, entitlement.
Designer Tim Shortall’s fabulous set voices what the dialogue leaves out. Normality and straightness is conveyed by an interval makeover of Georges and Albin’s apartment, where bright colours are replaced by drab neutrals, nude male statues by crucifixes, and a papal portrait takes centre place. Shortall’s set also allows the door to the basement nightclub to be a comic turn in its own right, with music and raucous shouting blaring through every time it is opened.
Women do not arrive in La Cage’s world until the final stretch, when Laurent’s fiancee Muriel and her parents come to stay. His mother Simone is even later to the party. As her role is already being occupied by Albin, and this is farce, she pretends to be the cleaner. ‘Do you have any particularly dirty corners?’ Sarah Lam’s character asks, symbolising the place of women’s experience of femininity in the play. Louise Bangay’s Madame Predieu steals these scenes, with her uncanny resemblance to Katie Hopkins, and unbreakable self assurance, no matter how much the rug is pulled from under her. A measure of the passage of time between now and 1973 is the domestic life of gay men and drag queens feel quotidian familiar, but the world of right wing populists is dramatic terra incognito.
The Park’s production of La Cage is frothy, silly and fun, if we are prepared to take it on its own terms, and agree that sometimes a boa is just a boa. Playwright and commentator Bonnie Greer said the Chicago drag scene taught her ‘It’s all drag’, and we all need to exploit the freedom to stage an advantageous performance. La Cage certainly tests this idea to its limits, but in doing so leaves so much unsaid particularly about the lives of women. This mixture of knowing teasing and provocative silences, is the reason for the play’s longevity. But is it too much for 21st century theatre goers, especially women, to request: A little less provocation, a little more action please.
REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR
La Cage aux Folles set in a St Tropez nightclub, written by Jean Poiret c1970 and now premiered in English by Simon Callow, places drag culture centre stage. Today, this may seem uneventful but when the play was first performed at the Theatre du Palais-Royal in 1973 it must have been ground-breaking. It was certainly a tremendous success. La Cage aux Folles inspired four films, including the 1978 Franco-Italian comedy directed by Édouard Molinaro and The Birdcage 1996 starring Robin Williams. It also became a Tony Award-winning musical.
Although drag acts have been largely palatable to mainstream audiences, the sexually provocative leads in La Cage aux Folles, haemorrhaging double-entendres, must have been an eye-opener. La Cage aux Folles turns gender behaviour and dress codes upside down. It also spins sexuality around quite a bit too.
In La Cage aux Folles, nightclub owner George (Michael Matus) and his drag artiste partner Albin (Paul Hunter), prepare to host their son’s prospective in-laws. These in-laws happen to be Christian conservatives. In preparation, the door leading to the club is locked. Drag queen posters are replaced by a large crucifix. George swaps his silk-lined smoking jacket for a suit befitting an upstanding father. Albin exchanges a glitter frock for twin set and pearls to play “mother”. When the son’s real mother turns up, she is forced to play the maid, given her role has been taken. The plot accelerates in absurdity when, behind the scenes, the nightclub revellers stage a revolt and the police arrive. To escape the ensuing scandal, the in-laws are forced to dress up to conceal their identities. All ends in a Charleston.
There’s plenty to read into the play. Turning assumptions upside-down about how men and women behave and dress is still on-going. Women can wear unisex clothes, but men still can’t freely dress in feminine fashion. Straight culture doesn’t get off lightly either as George and Albin impersonate the roles of father and mother. The bullying righteousness of the in-laws is a chilling moment in the play, reminding of Clause 28 and current demonstrations against inclusivity.
La Cage aux Folles sends up masculinity as well as femininity (and indeed sexuality). The concepts can be ridiculous after all. Thing is, femininity is the biggest laugh. La Cage aux Folles translates as “The Cage of Madwomen”, after all.
Despite the tremendous efforts of the distinguished and impressive cast there’s really only one joke to La Cage aux Folles: men performing as women in exaggeration. They dress in louche clothes, shriek sexual innuendos and crash around melodramatically all hand-in-hand with forced high voices, wigs and thick make-up. Whether it’s ridiculing women or mocking sexuality, whether it’s sexual abandon or just playfulness, the joke can be trying and, after fifty years, dated.