The Madwoman Of Chaillot | Melbourne Theatre CompanyThe Madwoman of Chaillot may not have the same impact in Australia at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it did at its first airing in Paris in 1945, but the absurdity, hilarity and joie de vivre in Simon Phillips’s MTC production are just as engaging and the issues surprising fresh. The oh-so-French characters are both archetypal and eccentric. The deaf-mute clown, the ragpicker, the lovers, the evil prospectors and businessmen, the policeman, the baron and the countess are thrown together, not unlike in a commedia dell’arte, at the terrasse of the Café Francis to act out the drama of foiling the baddies’ plan to drill for oil under the streets of Paris.
Giraudoux wrote this play in 1943 and it was first staged in post-war Paris, after the author’s death. It was acclaimed as his masterpiece and relished for its lavish theatricality and comedy, as well as its relevance to the audience’s experience during the wartime occupation of Paris. It had both the guts and the glitz that Paris was hungry for.

The stage set by Stephen Curtis is a delight in itself. The Café Francis is an edifice reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, bathed in a rosy light (lighting designed by Toby Sewell), which softens even further as the romantic interest, the waitress Irma (beautifully played by Melinda Butel), emerges from its depths. The café interior is in turn illuminated dimly, so that we are aware of the barman washing glasses, a whole world in miniature.

There is a painterly use of tableaux that slowly come to life; spot-lit characters that seem suspended in the fantasy second set in Countess Aurelia’s basement apartment; well-furnished strata for the villains to descend to their doom; and fanciful costumes designed to elaborate on each actor’s characterisation.

As the businessmen plot their dastardly deed at the café table, we realise that all its not as it seems. The plot is serious, but the treatment is not, and even the actors are in disguise. Sue Ingleton, Julie Forsysth and Kerry Walker are doubling roles, first as these male villains and in Act II as the aristocratic and mad female friends of the star of the show, Countess Aurelia (Magda Szubanski). These grandes dames of the theatre perform an amazing thespian feat, with Ingleton’s and Forsyth’s Madame Constance and Mademoiselle Gabrielle unforgettable for their physical comedy.

Szubanski chooses to underplay her part of the Madwoman. She is controlled, quietly authoritative and speaks with clipped English precision. She acts as a foil for her fellow comedians and plays up her role as the wise woman in a world gone mad. It is an assured performance with many funny moments, but could have been funnier with a soupçon more flamboyance. Whether the choice to understate the role was partly due to the constraints of her accent or those of her voluminous costume, I am not sure, but I hope that Szubanski will let loose more of her comic talent as the season progresses.

Timing was an issue in a play this long that extended to nearly three hours on the first night. There are lengthy periods of dialogue and many characters to accommodate. Mitchell Butel, as the ragpicker and the broker, was the master of timing, bringing a huge variety of pace and tone to his speeches, the first of which (in praise of the stockmarket) brought a very early round of applause.

The production is studded with fine performances and other mentions must go to the delicate acting of the lover Pierre, (Stephen Phillips), as well as the sergeant/sewerman (Alex Menglet) and the deaf mute/street juggler (Sam Hryckow).

The play ends with one of Szubanski’s finer moments, a touch of the fey shining through her sanity. More of those would have made this production even more satisfying.

Melbourne Theatre Company
by Jean Giraudoux, adapted by Maurice Valency

Venue: the Arts Centre Playhouse
Previews: from 10 November
Dates: 14 November - 15 December 2007
Times: Mondays & Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesdays 1pm & 8pm, Thursdays & Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm & 8.30pm (times may vary during previews)
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 or visit

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