wed 19/09/2018

Interview: Opera and Theatre Director Luc Bondy | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Opera and Theatre Director Luc Bondy

Interview: Opera and Theatre Director Luc Bondy

The divisive director returns to the Young Vic for a Viennese tragi-farce

'For me character doesn't exist': the director Luc BondyHeribert Corn

Last September Luc Bondy watched his name speed around the world, if not for the most desirable reasons. His Tosca opened the season at the Met, a more grounded, less opulent replacement for one of the opera house’s many much loved productions by Franco Zeffirelli. As Bondy walked onstage to take his directorial bow, a chorus of boos crescendoed from the audience. They do that all the time in Milan, now and then in Paris, both cities where Bondy's work is known and accepted. But New York?

Last September Luc Bondy watched his name speed around the world, if not for the most desirable reasons. His Tosca opened the season at the Met, a more grounded, less opulent replacement for one of the opera house’s many much loved productions by Franco Zeffirelli. As Bondy walked onstage to take his directorial bow, a chorus of boos crescendoed from the audience. They do that all the time in Milan, now and then in Paris, both cities where Bondy's work is known and accepted. But New York?

"It was as if somebody missed a rifle,” he says in his heavily idiosyncratic English. By “missed” he means “lacked”. “It was so aggressive, the reaction. It was like if I had made a big religious profanation with a story that is quite trivial that has violent moments. They treated Tosca more like the Ring of Wagner. It was as if Puccini had been born in New York and been the untouchable product of American culture.”

Was he upset at this public drubbing by the forces of Upper East Side conservatism? “I was more surprised. I didn’t expect this reaction. I was a little bit angry it made more of a scandal.” On the plus side, it won’t have done ticket sales any harm in Munich or Milan or indeed in New York when Tosca returns there.

In the mean time, Bondy has come back to the Young Vic. In London he can at least be assured of a more civilised reception, even if the last time he presented his work in the theatre he divided opinion. Some critics were thrilled and moved by Cruel and Tender, his and the playwright Martin Crimp’s daring updating of Sophocles's Trachiniae, in which Herakles’s wife awaits his return from his labours. Others have been heard to mutter that it was positively their worst night in the theatre, bar none. Although his work is not for all tastes, the undaunted Young Vic is having him back. And this time he is on familiar ground.

SWEET_NOTHINGS_0153Pictured: Tom Hughes (Fritz) and Kate Burdette (Christine) in Sweet Nothings (photo Ruth Walz)

Sweet Nothings is a new version by David Harrower of Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei, a romantic tragi-farce musing on love, death, flirtation and duelling. The work of the Viennese playwright, who was praised by Freud for his intuitive insights, has appealed variously to David Hare (The Blue Room, adapted from La Ronde) and to Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut/Traumnovelle), but he is best known to British theatregoers through the prism of Tom Stoppard, who imbued his own flavours into Undiscovered Country (from Das weite Land) and Dalliance.

Dalliance was Stoppard’s take on Liebelei. Harrower, an intense Scot whose plays are full of dark contemplation, is a very different sort of playwright, says Bondy approvingly. “He’s the complete contrary of me. He likes to be alone. He has a language which is very very direct. Not old-fashioned, and very understandable and at the same time really good for the stage.”

Really good for Bondy too, whose self-confessed anxiety about his English has stopped him from working more frequently with English texts. Although he directed Edward Bond’s The Sea at the age of 22 at the National Theatre in Munich, and has gone on to stage Beckett and Shakespeare, including The Winter’s Tale three times, they have always been in translation. “Shakespeare I think I must wait long before I direct in English because of the language.” As he is now 61, it will presumably never happen. He admits that it impacts on his work in the rehearsal room. "They talk very fast on the stage and I don’t like too much when everything so too conversational and flat."

So who exactly is Luc Bondy? In this country he is best known for productions of Salome and Don Carlos, which both passed through the Royal Opera House in the 1990s, and he has been a regular at the Edinburgh International Festival. The rarity of his appearances adds to an air of directorial Euro-mystique, of being the kind of cultural eminence and theatrical auteur we aren't quite used to in this country. In person he turns out to be part nodding don, part jolly clown – the long beaky physiognomy set off by the merry orange of his shirt. He is nominally Swiss, but moved with his parents to Paris and trained at Jacques Lecoq’s celebrated mime school. Not that it was all mucking about with face paint.

“It wasn’t as everybody thinks a pantomime school. There were writers and actors and directors.” He mentions fellow alumni Simon McBurney and Yasmina Reza, whose work he has directed. “People learned very much there. Lecoq was not blocked on only one way but open on different ways. It was not academic and boring.”

It clearly worked for Bondy. He started working as an assistant director in Hamburg. By 22 he was enjoying that remarkable induction in Munich. “There were six big stars and I was not frightened of them. I was so new that I behaved as if I didn’t know the weight of the history of these people.” The career he went on to have has neatly straddled French and German, theatre and opera. In 1985 he was appointed to succeed Peter Stein at the Schaubühne in Berlin but had to leave the job after 18 months to recover from cancer.

In 2000 he secured another prestigious berth as artistic director of the Vienna Festival, which runs in May and June and, Salzburg being round the corner, steers clear of music to concentrate on music. Sweet Nothings will be performed there this year. He is also a regular at the festival in Aix-en-Provence, notably collaborating in 2003 on Handel’s Hercules with that fellow tester of audience sensibilities, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.

If pushed, would he choose opera or theatre as his preferred medium?  “Theatre, because I don’t want to direct all my life opera.” And within theatre, he is finding all over again that directing British actors brings pleasures denied to him elsewhere in his working life. “All over the world you must teach actors how to play together and not play by themselves. British actors are not sentimental. They have the possibility to be directe, as we say in French, and to have an idea of the concrete stage."

Bondy's young cast are having to get used to a new type of working based on a particular theory of his. "Some actors have the conventional idea that you are looking for a character before you think of the whole play. I never see character in this way. For me character doesn’t exist. For me it’s people together that makes the person. ”

If character is no more than the result of interaction with others, then how much of it comes out in an encounter with a booing audience of wealthy New Yorkers? Whatever people make Bondy's reimagining of Schnitzler, he can rest assured that the response of his British audience won't be so character-building.

 

There were six big stars and I was not frightened of them. I was so new that I behaved as if I didn’t know the weight of the history of these people

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