This triple bill of plays about break-ups is part of an active movement to try to bring more new French writing to the UK; as my knowledge of French drama has, up to now been, confined to the likes of Racine, Molière, Anouilh and Sartre, it is fascinating to get a look at one of France’s contemporary writing talents.
Played in French with English surtitles, each work in Les Trois Ruptures (Three Splits) focuses on the crumbling of a relationship, encompassing black humour and, at times, flashes of real pain. Each piece begins in media res, and there are no named characters or settings; we are flies on the wall to the comic disintegration of each partnership, and the black box venue and curtained set reflects this neatly. There is more than a hint of the absurd here, whether it comes from the situation – a man force-feeding his partner, who is leaving him, canned dog food – or the language, such as the joyous laughs that come from the repeated, baffled and initially contextless repetition of “pompier!” (a word that simply isn’t as funny in English: “fireman” just doesn’t have the same ring to it). Playwright Remi de Vos spoke of his admiration for – and his incredible meeting with – Samuel Beckett, and this influence is evident in his work.
Each couple, despite some complexities, is defined by an overarching emotion: in the first case, malice; in the third and final piece, poignant desperation; meanwhile the second is harder to define and is possibly the most interesting because of this. While the woman goes on a journey of confusion, acceptance, support and ultimately fear, her husband experiences lust, nonchalance, annoyance, fury and desperation. Their dynamic is the most fractious as it veers from one to the other, but their connection is for me somehow the most powerful in its unpredictability.
The cast of two – French actress Edith Vernes and Royal Court literary manager Christopher Campbell – are a delight to watch, inhabiting each character fully and making exposition or biographical detail unnecessary. They are utterly believable and totally absurd all at once. While the first piece shows off superb comic timing, they display intelligence and pathos in their tackling of the third piece, in which a couple who evidently love each other greatly face separation as a last resort to cope with their tearaway toddler.
The stichomythic dialogue works nicely to keep up the pace and to make sure that each work does not focus on one character more than the other: the balance of power in each sways back and forth, back and forth… yet the attraction for the audience is really the space between the two people, and the friction of the disintegrating relationship that threatens to explode any moment into passion or heartbreak (or, in the second play, literal flames).
De Vos, his cast and director Marianne Badrichani use space and pauses effectively, to create both humour and poignancy, but the evening still trips along and never becomes stagnant. This is not just a chance to give your rusty A-level French a try-out (there’s always the English surtitles), but also an opportunity to see something a bit different – original and entertaining Gallic dark comedy in the heart of London.
Trois Ruptures was presented by the Institut Français as part of the ‘En Scène!’ series of performances.