A stirring of old flames

robert powell and sian phillips

A Summer in the South

Birmingham Rep

****

RICHARD Edmonds’ love affair with Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette started on a pedalo in the South of France.

Edmonds, attending the University of Aix-Marseilles one hot summer, was persuaded to read her works by his pedalo companion, a French lecturer, who was passionate about his country’s most famous, and sometimes infamous, literary daughter.

It is more than 40 years since I first met Richard, he a features writer, I a young reporter at The Birmingham Post & Mail and over the years he has dropped Colette into conversation many times.

Edmonds can be an exquisite writer on his passions and his reading, A Summer in the South, is at times a delight as he mixes real life with the writer’s novels.

In this he is aided by theatrical royalty, Robert Powell and Siân Phillips.

To make mere words interesting, even beautifully written, for two hours with just the aid of a drape, two chairs and a bistro table, is a test of the actors’ art and the pair passed with flying colours.

Powell, last seen in the Midlands as Hercule Poirot in Black Coffee last year, always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye reading male parts from father Jules-Joseph to characters in her books, such as the hedonistic hero of the eponymous novel Chéri.

Siân Phillips, who was Dorothy in People which reopened the Rep at the end of 2013, delighted in both the part of Colette and the wonderful female characters that populated her life and her books.

Colette was 81 when she died in Paris in 1954, with a legacy of 50 novels, many with large autobiographical elements, which is reflected in the drifting between novels and reality as Colette’s life unfolds.

We learn of the eccentric menagerie she grew up with, such as the large garden spider which lived on the ceiling of her mother’s bedroom.

A spider which, when her mother, who suffered from insomnia, awoke in the early hours and turned on the light to read, would descend on a silken thread to drink its fill from a cup of chocolate by her bed, then return to its ceiling web, climbing laboriously with its full stomach,

Or the cat who made its bed upon the canary’s cage, while the canary charged a form of rent by pulling out strands of its fur for nesting.

We learned of Colette’s lesbian affairs and some of her views on sexuality although perhaps the shock Colette generated in her native France was missing. She had an affair with her stepson from her third marriage  Bertrand de Jouvenel, for example and a hint of salacious gossip marked her life as regularly as birthdays.

She is perhaps best known for her 1945 novel Gigi, about an apprentice courtesan, which was sanitized by Hollywood as a musical and the world of the courtesan was central to the novel regarded as her masterpiece, the 1920 novel Chéri, later adapted and screened in 1973 by the BBC.

It was a novel which courted controversy on its publication, set as it was among the hedonistic world of the rich and courtesans, with the spoiled Chéri the most hedonistic of all.

I was not sure as to how a reading of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics Send in The Clowns from A little Night Music or Jacques Prévert’s 1945 lyrics to Les feuilles mortes, The Autumn Leaves, managed to make an appearance, they seemed like guests, well mannered and elegant, but still guests crashing someone else’s party.

At the end perhaps you did not leave knowing a great deal more about Colette than when you started but you had visited, if only in words beautifully delivered, La Belle Époque, entertained Parisian society and discovered the importance of the rare flowering of a pink cactus in old age.

It was a taste, it stirred an interest in one of France’s greatest writers and perhaps, for some in the audience, it will be their own pedalo moment.

Roger Clarke

15-02-15. 

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