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Michael Coveney: Three cheers for Chereau, and the future of criticism

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Patrice Chereau
© Dan Wooller

The death on Monday (aged 68, from lung cancer) of the great director Patrice Chereau - he made no distinction in importance between directing films, plays or opera - marks a tremendous rift in the tradition of European theatre of the last century and a sad diminution in our artistic stock generally. Chereau was a genius, a star, a flamboyant and elegant artist, the son of two painters, who was a bit funny about the English theatre but who loved English actors.

La Reine Margot, starring Isabelle Adjani, is one of the most consummately beautiful historical films ever made, while his screen version of Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy, known anecdotally as Last Tango in London, showed sex "live" for the first time ever in an English language movie (if you don't look too closely at Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now) in the brutally frank and explicit encounters between Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox.

We only saw his theatre work here twice, two years ago at the Young Vic, and in 1974 when his stunningly beautiful and sensual production of Marivaux's La dispute visited the National; this fact is as amazing as it is scandalous, and so indicative of our immunity to the theatre world at large and our cultural self-obsession in particular.

When asked why he had never directed a play in London before, Chereau simply replied that he'd never been invited. So his staging of Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind (in a translation by Simon Stephens) at the Young Vic was a great coup for David Lan and his team. Tom Brooke simply "was" the wind, stranded on a boat with Jack Laskey and melding into the horizon.

Chereau's production, designed by his regular collaborator, Richard Peduzzi, and lit by Dominique Bruguiere, with a magically elemental sound score by Eric Neveux, was unusual, extraordinary, weird, and beautiful, the theatre bathed in a cold grey light, the ground level arena transformed into a beach, with an expanse of water in the middle. The critics, perhaps predictably, perhaps understandably, were flummoxed, but there was no disguising the fact that Chereau created theatre as a sort of painting that lived and breathed and faded and died, like its actors.

In such a manner he more or less created the work and reputation of the playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes, forming a relationship that has been likened to that between the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud whom Christopher Hampton immortalised in his fine play Total Eclipse. But Chereau's artistic evolution came from deep within the social context, and conscience, of Brecht's Berliner Ensemble as Gallicised by Jean Vilar and then Roger Planchon at the Theatre National Populaire, the TNP.

He believed passionately in creating big classical spectacles for working class audiences in the Paris suburbs of Gennevilliers and later Sartrouville. I first saw his work when he ran the Theatre de la Cite at Villeurbanne, and it was from there that La dispute came to the National, then run by Peter Hall with an international commissioning input from Michael Kustow.

Two years later, in 1976, he created his famous Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, conducted by Pierre Boulez, setting it in a modern industrial landscape; the production was indifferently received at first but soon recognised as the first outstanding modern version, and you can still see those qualities - and the incredible lighting - in the uncommonly good DVD of the performance.

There was a period in the 1980s when he joined forces, in spirit at least, with Giorgio Strehler of the Piccolo Theatre in Milan to form the Theatre of Europe at the Odeon in Paris. This was a rewarding and especially enjoyable period in my own life as a critic when I not only hopped regularly to Paris to see productions and participate in editorial meetings for the monthly magazine that charted the project (I once had to write a feature that answered Strehler's question: "Why have we in Europe not heard of any English dramatists since Pinter?"; not a question you could ask today, perhaps) but also understood for the first time the profound connections between different theatre cultures, and their fissures.

Matt Trueman asks in this week's The Stage how will critics survive. They have to stop surviving, and start serving, he suggests, as though building a sort of support system of criticism around the theatre will improve the new generation's job prospects. There's something in this, perhaps, and I see clearly that the opportunity I had to experience the theatre of Chereau, Strehler and the other great European artists of the 1970s and 1980s was thanks to the patronage of a newspaper, the Financial Times, that was itself becoming European in outlook and which invested heavily in writing about politics and economics, as well as the arts, on their home territories.

But there's one thing Trueman overlooks in these arguments: the quality of the writing. For as long as there are newspapers, or other media outlets, there will always be critics, as long as they're good and people want to read them. And of course it's a niche market anyway. While I was holding forth on the Theatre of Europe in the pink pages, the editor revealed a statistic that only 23 per cent of the readership ever looked at the arts pages.

But this wasn't used as evidence against us. What percentage of a readership reads the sports pages (often the best written part of the paper) or the political leaders or the gardening column, or the book reviews? It depends on the paper, of course, but you'd never think criticism was under threat by looking at the food and television columns in the broadsheets, where most of the best critics write these days. And have you looked lately at what Andrew Billen is writing about theatre in the New Statesman, or Paul Bailey in The Oldie?

It may not be what Matt Trueman wants to read, but it's certainly good criticism, and there's no real indication that those columns, or those jobs, even in a diminishing market, are about to evaporate. So, three cheers for good criticism, and three cheers, too, for Chereau. Good criticism, like good theatre, only happens and thrives in reaction to, and in the context of, the past. And if you don't believe that, you know nothing.


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