Saturday, July 13, 2024

8 Femmes

8 Femmes
Writer: Robert Thomas
Director: Anna Jahjah
Chippen Street Theatre
May 1-11, 2024

Sydney’s Le Petit Theatre have opened their first post-pandemic production with the crime-comedy 8 Femmes. The play is best known through François Ozon’s 2002 now dated film version and savvy director, Anna Jahjah, has wisely chosen to create her own chic version of Robert Thomas’s original 1958 play.

The plot is pure Christie. An upper-class family, gathered for the holiday season, is isolated by heavy snow in their country house after discovering that the family patriarch has been murdered. (How is it, we could ask, that these people are never prepared for what must be common enough weather in winter?) As we expect, the body is discovered by a maid carrying breakfast to the said patriarch, Marcel, and after the anticipated scream, naturally the door to the room can’t be unlocked. The household members, all women, gather in consternation and after due time begin either accusing each other or defending themselves against accusation. Hidden secrets, long-held resentments, lies and deceptions are revealed as they try to discover which one of them is a murderer.

The mood established at the opening is a little different and almost dreamlike as the eight actresses traverse the stage passing a knife between them, found – it appears – or hidden beneath a cushion on a pale velvet lounge. The dreaminess is echoed in the stylish stage set which makes clever use of the wide and shallow performance area. The centre stage is pink, with matching lamp light, coffee set and even pink lethal weapons, and it is around or on the velvet lounge that most of the action occurs. To one side a blue, stand-alone doorway, and to the other, a yellow setting of coat stand and desk, which while serving the action of the play, at the same time seems to emphasise a zany illogicality that is subtext to the plot.

Each of the eight characters that inhabit this artificial world are to an extent stereotypes – cleverly reflected in their costuming – of the “cosy” detective genre. Marcel’s self-restrained wife, Gaby (Françoise Michel), her two daughters, one rebellious (Lucie Brumont), the other demure (Elisa Tran Din-Dinh) and their fluttery wheelchair-bound granny (Olivia Auday), Gaby’s hypochondriacal sister (Audrey Heppell), Marcel’s vampish sister, Pierrette (Céline Hue), the worried housekeeper (Emmanuelle Lacassagne) and the sly maid (Héléne Semere), all have a motive for wanting Marcel dead. And herein lies the lively wit at play in Jahjah’s strong denouement.

Several choreographed group movements bring a liveliness and charm into the frenetic and often funny exposure of the women’s not-so-secret lives. While the choreography contributes to sustaining the happy unreality of the cosy detective genre, it also underlines directorial intentions. Fundamentally, their gender aligns them.

The production is underpinned by an effective creative crew comprising Barbara Chmiel, Xavier Barthelemy (sound and lighting), and Olivia Auday, Emmanuelle Lacassagne, Gerry Sont, Céline Hue who assisted with costumes and set. To make the play accessible to non-French speakers the surtitles (Michael Grainger, Olivier Lejus) are placed above the stage giving the gist rather than a word-by-word translation, making it easier to watch what is happening.

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