Vaut le détour

A journey around Paris's theatrical fringe.

Ah, Paris! The city where the size of your dog is inversely proportionate to the size of your purse. Le Marais, (or "swamp") where I dipped in my sample jar to check out the state of fringe theatre, is very much a district of the small dog. And yet, its medieval streets have a strong tradition of outsider status -- and were hence overlooked by the zealous boulevard builders -- first as a Jewish ghetto, and now as a thriving gay community. And maybe this edginess explains the dozen or so of small, well-supported theatres operating in a relatively confined area.

First, some of the theatre in Paris that, with only 36 hours at my disposal, I sadly didn't get round to see: Face au Paradis, starring Eric Cantona, who continues his mutation from footballer to actor. The irresistibly titled Amour et Chipolatas. And also a dark and harrowing play called Extinctionafter the novel by Thomas Bernhard, which was recommended to me by a psychiatrist in a café. Perhaps he recommends this play a lot, hoping for custom from traumatized theatre-goers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my sample jar contained results that were good, bad and indifferent. And so, in reverse order, we'll start with the indifferent. Le Point Virgule is a well-regarded venue for one man shows, and Tuesday evening's offering was Breton performer Arnaud Cosson. The theatre claims to seat 120, but I can only imagine that this is achieved by patrons sitting in one another's laps. So, an intimate space, then, rather like cosying up in someone's front room.

The audience certainly seemed to feel at home: an informal mix of children, smart Parisiens and a smattering of stout mesdames from the provinces, clearly felt they could comment freely on the proceedings. Cosson's style of carrying on conversations with imaginary interlocutors, whether as a boulangère or a school drugs awareness speaker, was occasionally scuppered by their willingness to jump into his pauses. Often it was just a sort of comfortable commentary on Cosson's reflections: "Oh la!" or "voilà!" -- a very different style of heckle from the beery harassment of a London comedy club.

Cosson himself is likeable enough, and lopes round the stage amusingly enough. He does passable impersonations of French types, but I was at times not absolutely sure of the tastefulness of his material. Maybe I was missing a layer of irony. One of his numbers was a mock love-song: "Si tu étais une ville/Tu serais Chernobyl". Some things just aren't funny in any language.

On to the Espace Marais, where I witnessed the murder of a man who's been dead for 300 years: Molière died all over again, at the hands of his countrymen, in this staging of Le Médecin Malgré Lui. A limp and embarrassing affair, the show was full of the sort of strap-on physicality that passes for genuine élan in some quarters. In particular, the direction apparently demanded gratuitous scrambling up ladders to an elevated gallery, unencumbered by any promptings from plot. No wonder poor Sganarelle was spuming with sweat by the end of the performance. Every so often a stab of 'Pearl and Dean' style music was broadcast, presumably to enliven the proceedings. It didn't. I kept myself awake puzzling over who the spooky, frilly heroine reminded me of. I got it by the end of the play: Bride of Chucky. And at 38 euros, c'est le rip-off!

Finally, what a pleasure to alight at the Café de la Gare, where Sébastien Azzopardi directs his own play, co-written with Sacha Danino, Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours. Inspired by the Jules Verne novel, the show is described as a "road movie" in the brochure, which captures the mischievousness of this cartoonish, pacey, seamless performance. A delightfully silly script is spiked with contemporary references, and some pitiless parodies, particularly of les anglais. I should have been offended, but I was laughing too hard. Even our own dear queen makes an appearance, her arm on permanent swivel-mode.

Such is their sure-footed timing and rhythm that the performers move like well-tempered parts to a single mechanism. Not a second is wasted: the ingeniously simple set contains a small stage-within-a-stage, which means the actors can swoosh the curtains across, like Superman in a phone booth, and change the furniture, or a costume, whilst another scene is being played out in front. Even those with very limited French would surely enjoy the expressivity and contagious high spirits of this show. Worth a detour.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State