Australian Arts

Martin Clunes

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

Just as the lockdown imprisons the people of Sydney those in Canberra have had the chance to see that exhilaration of an opera Carmen. Bizet’s opera about the Spanish siren who sings the smoky sensuous ‘Habanera’ is tragic in its resolution but full of the heat and desire of pent-up energy, to scorching and spectacular effect. It’s interesting that when Oscar Hammerstein chose to adapt it into Carmen Jones, substituting the boxing song ‘Stand Up and Fight’ for Escamillo’s Toreador song, the attempt was completely successful; as if there had always been a dramatic musical inside this engrossing French opera which made perfect sense with African-American or Hispanic singers.

It is, of course, France’s gift to Spain and there has never been a greater distillation of what we think of as the spirit of Spain. Some people think Callas pulls back in her recording of Carmen but it is certainly a role which repays the talents of a great actor-singer and it’s good that Matthew Barclay’s production with Angela Hogan as Carmen has made it to the city Burley Griffin dreamt up when we decided our national capital should be neither Sydney nor Melbourne so that we have a city of scribes and schemers, of public servants, of politicians and their hench people, many of them intent on culture and entertainment.

There’s an argument for having a National Theatre, nominally based in Canberra, with two different companies working out of the two bigger cities in a way that the capital gets to see everything.


It is good, however, in a world of small mercies, that the Australian Ballet’s production of Anna Karenina has opened in Adelaide. Tolstoy’s story of happy and unhappy families is more heartbreaking than Carmen but it is a power and a glory in any medium.

The reception of Florian Zeller’s The Truth with the Melbourne Theatre Company has been underwhelming to the point of discouragement despite the playwright’s prominence with Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar for The Father and Christopher Hampton doing the honours as translator. Hampton has always been haunted by the French and by Molière in particular. The French don’t have a Shakespeare though they have that great tragedian Racine who was a greater master of dramatic form than Shakespeare and they have Molière whose comedy crackles with wit and the intimation of something darker.

If your French is up to it you can listen to the manner in which that great French actor Gerard Philipe dynamised classical acting in France in the way Richard Burton did in Britain. Philipe also played Julien Sorel in the film of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black – which was translated with elegant spareness by Proust’s translator Scott Moncrieff of all people – and he can be seen as the officer in the Ophüls’ masterpiece La Ronde.

Martin Clunes did Molière’s Tartuffe for Britain’s National Theatre in 2002 and he also has a heel-clicking star turn as Richard Burbage, the bard’s leading man, in Shakespeare in Love. If you’re under house arrest in Sydney you could do worse than watch the Doc Martens star in Manhunt where he plays an assiduous policeman obsessed with the attempt to track down a psycho serial killer. Clunes gives a performance as the detective of almost painful accuracy with an impeccable lower middle class London accent and a sort of short-sighted intensity which nonetheless grows, as the whole show does, into a masterful recapitulation of what real life crime might be.

It makes you want to see Clunes in The Misanthrope or Tartuffe, indeed in anything. Then again, if you’re locked down, you might abandon yourself to the French romp Call My Agent which has  great French stars like Juliet Binoche playing themselves while their agents buzz like flies, sting like bees.

The French tradition is a mighty one. Gerard Phillipe died at the age of 36 in 1959 just after Anouilh had written the role of the archbishop for him in Becket, the role Burton played in the film. Anyone familiar with Alec McCowen in The Misanthrope knows how naturally Molière’s couplets can work even in Tony Harrison’s English.

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