The reluctant English valet

Theatrical meanderings

Molière with an English accent - sacrilege! How could it have happened?

It's a rather long story.

Every year, in summer, the theatre director Jose Manuel Cano-Lopez, puts his life and reputation at risk by putting on a show in the streets, courtyards and barns of the little township of (not so) Grand Pressigny.

This "Theatrical Journey" through a "Nocturnal Landscape" is far from the "sons et lumières" put on at the major chateaux of the region where hundreds of "extras" wave their arms around to a sound of a recording in a well worn show in front of stands packed with thousands of spectators.

There are certainly hundreds of actors, but it is an intimate, ephemeral, live show where the risk of a slip-up is always waiting just round the corner. There are no stage hands to move the scenery - the scenes are played non-stop in a loop and it's the audience that moves from setting to setting - and even if you were to stay for the full three nights you would not be able to see the whole show.

How did he manage to find the hundreds of actors needed for this mad undertaking? It's a concentrate of Grand Pressigny's own very temps - shopkeepers and craftsmen, workers and unemployed, professionals and farmers, schoolchildren, students and senior citizens, diluted with good quantity of summer visitors, theatre lovers come to help out . . . and an Englishman.

The nocturnal landscape gardener

Shakespeare, plus glasses

In the beginning

It all started when the summer visitor who was supposed to read some of Shakespeare's sonnets in English was unable to come to France for his holidays and I was asked to replace him. How could I refuse the invitation to pass the a few evening in the company of two seductive French ladies?

It sounded wonderful. All I had to do was read a couple of sonnets in English, and listen to some lovely renaissance tunes played on a recorder.

When it came to the show, it did not quite turn out like that.

When the curtains were opened, I sat down - on the recorder. Fortunately, the wardrobe mistress had had some doubts about how well my performance would be received and she had fitted me with an armoured cape and anti-mine breaches so I was uninjured. I cannot say the same for the recorder.

At the end of the evening, the heavens opened, but I was too taken with the emotion of the sonnets to hear the bells announcing the premature end of the show and I carried on declaiming ". . . and carve deep furrows in thy beauty’s field . . . " in the rain, all alone.

Hairdressing time for Mr. Bunches

We've a part just right for you

The next summer, I was asked to join in again.

I went to the meeting where the texts were distributed and the plans for the show outlined. At the end of the evening, Jose asked if anyone had any "existential problems". I did not understand (I had to look that one up in a dictionary later, and I still did not understand) but I did have a problem with the text.

It was a monologue for six persons (bizarre) but that was not the problem. I stuck my hand up and said "Please sir, my text is in French!" "Yes, yes, but it will all work out fine, you'll see"

If it was ever likely to work out fine, I'm the queen mother!

The first night, I did my best to do everything I was asked, I rocked an imaginary baby, I imitated goats and flies, and so on. But try as I might there were some who were not favourably impressed.

"It's disgusting. Poking fun at the English like that - that man with his ridiculous wig and fake English accent"

It was all my own hair (at least that that I still had) and, unfortunately, my own accent.

Fast forward two years

The theme for the Nocturnal Landscapes has been set: The Life and Works of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (more commonly known as Molière).

In Molière's play, the "Bourgeois Gentleman" has an English teacher. He can have an English accent without upsetting anyone. Jose would not give me any other part, would he?

So this time, when I was called for the first meeting. I felt to be completely safe.

Not so. The role had already been taken by a Frenchman "BUT, we've a great idea" I was told.

It is not necessarily long and complicated words like "antidisestablishmentarianism" that cause the problems when you try to learn a foreign language. There are also some little words that hide lethal intentions.

Just imagine that you are stretched face down on a Normandy beach. Not today but a fine spring, 1,500 years ago. All is quiet, after a long miserable winter, you are toasting nicely. Then it becomes apparent that not all is going to plan: a 15 stone 6 foot Viking is ripping you apart from behind.

That's the word "mais" (approximately "but" in English). It does not just send cold shivers down your spine, it can be like a battle axe in the back when you are least expecting it.

A dear little lady

We've a great idea

For those who have never taken part in the Nocturnal Landscapes, this is just a simple harmless phrase. For us however, . . .

Last year, I was asked to slap the kind lady was my partner for a dialogue. I just could not do it, so we swapped roles and she had to slap me.

Jose was a bit worried. Seven slaps in the scene, played five times an evening, for five days running (including the two dress rehearsals): 175 slaps in a few days. Would I be able to take it?

But, we've a great idea

Instead of slapping me, my partner would hit me round the chest and arms with a handbag. That way, any bruises would be invisible.

We have all had the misfortune to come across the peaked cap effect. The way the most timid man is transformed into a little Hitler the moment his peaked cap touches his bald pate.

But there is also the handbag syndrome. Remember Margaret Thatcher? The French President had the most elegant phrases, the German Chancellor had the most Teutonic arguments, but Margaret Thatcher had her handbag.

The idea in question was, therefore, not without risk: a handbag has the power to transform the gentlest lady into a raging fury.

Would you prefer to receive a few slaps in the face or to be beaten up by the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher wielding a handbag weighted with iron bars?

I think I have some justification for being suspicious about great ideas "we" have had.

Hey, there's an Englishman listening

Don Juan and his English manservant

The idea was to give Don Juan an English manservant (who was still called Sganarelle, mmm?) The scene starts with Charlotte in Dom Juan's arms. Sganarelle spots Maturine coming and sets the scene going.

"Ah! Ah!" (in French).

It is almost impossible for a native English speaker to pronounce this correctly especially as it is old French for "stick around for the fireworks".

The English version "Aha" was not really possible unless Sganarelle was intending to take Maturine behind the bushes in double quick time.

We tried the American version "Oh-Oh" as in "Oh-Oh, I think I should have cut the blue wire", but this did not seem right for an English manservant.

The best solution seemed to be a restrained throat clearing "hm-hm" to convey the sense "Could I take the liberty of bringing to the attention of Sir, the unfortunate circumstance that his other fiancé is coming this way, which might have the undesirable effect of causing a slightly unpleasant situation".

After several attempts, the best I could manage was a little cough that conveyed the rather simpler notion "I've just swallowed a fly".

Back to the American version.

For the next five minutes of hotter and hotter action, I had nothing more to say. Finally, when I opened my mouth, my accent hit the audience like a cold shower. They leaped in their seats and I heard cries of "It's an Englishman".

But nothing could stop me now and, covered in confusion, I changed the whole sense of the scene with a simple grammatical error that transformed the two charming young ladies into drag queens.

The critic's view "Molière as you have never heard before" was in perfect agreement with the public "The first time I've ever heard Sganarelle with an English accent", "The accent - love it", etc.


Click the pictures to show them full size

Author's footnote

I should like to thank the (other) three actors in this scene. Without their help and understanding, I doubt that I would have survived the ordeal (12 times a night the audience fell off their seats, 3 days running). I would particularly like to thank the coach Alain, a pro who never once showed the despair that he must have felt.

It's quince jam, or so they say

The revival of saffron growing in le Grand Pressigny

Design, text - the Alien

Photos Nocturnal gardener, Don Juan: Robert Lacheret
Photo Shakespeare: Jean-Pierre Lenfant
Photo Mr. Bunches: Jean-Louis Maître
Montage Slaps: Hugh Tebby

Page layout - T-T-Web

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The music is the Chopin Winter Wind Etude Op 25 No11 played by Robert Finley.