I have to admit, being more a fan of entertainment than art, an invitation to see Claudel, boasting a combination of narrative, dance, sculpture and music, didn’t excite.
But I was wrong. Very wrong. Claudel is a masterpiece of storytelling, triggering a tsunami of emotions – outrage, joy, grief, love, frustration, despair – the onslaught is relentless.
But of course, it’s a hell of a story to tell, a real-life drama you couldn’t make up. Camille Claudel, the young sculptor fighting for her place in the 19th Century chauvinistic art world of France, battling not only for recognition, but the personal demons which eventually spiral her into mental illness and an asylum for 30 years. Along the way she has an affair with acclaimed sculptor August Rodin, The Gates of Hell, The Thinker and The Kiss.
Camille Claudel’s story has been told and directed by Aussie playwright Wendy Beckett who premiered the play three years ago in Paris before finally bringing it to Sydney’s Opera House.
Imogen Sage is Claudel, the bolshy 19-year-old artist armed with her own unique ideas and oozing rebellious attitude. She shares a studio in Paris with Jessie (Melissa Kahraman) and Suzanne (Henrietta Amevor) three students taking art lessons from the posturising and patronising Rodin (Christopher Stollery).
It’s 1884 when art was considered a frivolous indulgence for women to appreciate, certainly not a metier, that was considered far too unladylike. Unused to being challenged by any artist, let alone a young female immune to his celebrity, Rodin is quickly captivated by the savvy intellect of young Claudel and employs her as his assistant.
The disapproval of Claudel’s mother, Louise, a stuffy, hardened, gentry woman, is suffocating and played expertly and quite terrifyingly by Tara Morice in a role a world away from the delightful Fran in Strictly Ballroom.
Then there are the dancers. Or should I say the sculptures. Three human forms, carved from marble and bronze seamlessly flow into different positions to recreate Claudel’s greatest works such as The Mature Age and Sakuntala. Choreographer Meryl Tankard also uses their flawless fluidity to ride the rollercoaster of her emotions, the termination of her pregnancy, raw, real and confronting, as are her final years when confined to a psychiatric hospital at age 49 where she remained until her death at 78.
Reading the timeline of Claudel’s life included in the program before the curtain rose; I was sceptical that 90 minutes would encapsulate such a complex journey. But Beckett succeeds. It’s story telling at its best and theatre at its most compelling. Go see it!
Claudel is at the Playhouse until May 9. Tickets range from $79 to $109.50 plus $8.50 booking fee.