It is often said that you should never send a man to do a woman’s job, and when it comes to telling Camille Claudel’s story, this is very true. In recent years, the story of the rebellious sculptor has been told on stage through speech and dance with varying degrees of success. Indeed, when Wendy Beckett and Meryl Tankard’s Claudel was last created in 2019, it was one of the two productions of the Festival d’Avignon to have dared to attack the fate of the rebellious sculptor and muse of Auguste Rodin.
Claudel. Photography © Daniel Boud
To understand where Beckett and Tankard have succeeded, one must also recognize where others have failed. Since Camille’s death in 1943, much of her life has been left to guesswork. Has she really gone mad? In her relationship with Rodin, who carried the greatest creative influence? Did Rodin really take steps to sabotage his career? Beckett and Tankard make their own assumptions when answering these questions in Camille’s favor, but their greatest success is ultimately putting her center stage.
In 2011, choreographers Boris Eifman and Peter Quanz both created balletic treatments of the relationship between Claudel and Rodin. Eifman Rodin, although spectacular, was more concerned with the process of creation and bringing Rodin’s most epic works such as The gates of hell to life on stage. He never delivered more than a superficial representation of Camille as the tortured muse and of Rose Bueret as a willingly blind and loving wife. Likewise, Quanz often had recourse to a cliché depiction of Camille’s descent into madness in his Rodin / Claudel for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. Eifman and Quanz placed Rodin at the center of a threesome, in which Camille and Rose revolved around him.
Beckett and Tankard re-pivot the story, making Claudel the focal point as she finds herself torn between her mother and her mentor. Bueret is never represented on stage except as the older woman in Claudel’s allegorical sculpture Age of maturity. Her absence allows Claudel to come to the fore as the protagonist and relegates Rodin to the sidelines as part of a much larger set of challenges she faces. He is never allowed to steal the show and his main contribution to the narrative is to defeat Claudel’s ambitions.
The Australian premiere of Claudel stars Imogen Sage in the title role. She embodies all the fire and passion of Camille Claudel and there are times when she evokes Isabelle Adjani, who played the role on screen in 1988. Sage is a perfect match with Rodin by Christopher Stollery, who seems to be going crazy by his genius more than she is by any unrequited love she has for him. Wendy Beckett portrays Rodin as a man haunted by his greatest embarrassment – his failed commission for the state.
Claudel. Photography © Daniel Boud
The work in question, his sculpture from 1880 The call to arms, was rejected like Monument to the Defenders of the Nation. Beckett presents this as a thorn on Rodin’s side from the very beginning of the play. He is ridiculed for having glorified the war by Claudel’s comrades in Alfred Boucher’s class. Later, the sculpture comes back to haunt him as Claudel calls out to him about his lies. Tankard brilliantly recreates the work with the help of his dancers – the avenging angel, with his gaping mouth and outstretched arms, reflecting Claudel’s fury as the battle lines emerge between her and Rodin.
This precedes a scene in which Rodin reveals his hand in Claudel losing his own state commission for Age of maturity in 1899. Was it nothing more than an act of sour grapes? Beckett suggests otherwise. In his screenplay, Rodin admits that he intervened, as he was clearly recognizable as the man in Claudel’s sculpture, torn between the two women also represented. There are good reasons to suspect it. At the time, he was president of the admissions jury and of the sculpture section of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. A year later, Claudel’s work was once again refused by the Exposition Universelle, during which Rodin was very successful by setting up his own exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Alma.
This claim that Rodin sabotaged Claudel’s career is generally refuted by art authorities and the Rodin Museum. Its inclusion by Beckett is ambiguous. Is Rodin’s statement that he must sabotage Claudel’s chances of protecting his own reputation an acceptance by the playwright that this actually happened, or is it a manifestation of Claudel’s paranoia?
Beckett’s thesis clearly places Rodin in parallel with Claudel’s grotesquely pious mother, Madame Claudel, interpreted here with aplomb by Tara Morice. His categorical statement: “I don’t want effigies. I want respect! exposes the value that Rodin and herself place on their position in society, and the fear that they have reprisals that they might face as a result of Claudel’s work. Let us not forget that state secularism was only enacted in 1905 by the Third Republic in France. It is not unreasonable to think that Claudel believed that Rodin and his mother had betrayed her, so that they could continue to enjoy the pleasure of the State and of the Church.
Sometimes the play feels less like a human drama than an essay on the dichotomy between state-sanctioned art and creative expression deemed transgressive at the time. Beckett and Tankard create two very distinct worlds on stage – the rigid conservatism of the ecclesial state and the realm of naturalism. If the former is represented by Claudel’s mother and her brother Paul, played by Mitchell Bourke, then the latter is occupied by Claudel as torchbearer and his classmates in Boucher’s class. When Rodin agrees to supervise a course for Boucher, he finds himself caught between the two.
Claudel. Photography © Daniel Boud
Beckett’s experience in writing radio plays is evident in his use of language to delimit these two worlds. Madame Claudel and Paul adopt a stilted language, which sometimes borders on the exhibition. Beckett first wrote the piece in French, which has a clearly defined formal register. It seems that she is trying to find the equivalent in English. Coupled with the assignment displayed by Morice and Bourke, he succeeds.
This is in stark contrast to the almost modern vernacular of Claudel and his classmates, Jessie and Suzanne, wonderfully performed by Melissa Kahraman and Henrietta Amevor. They are much more in tune with their body and revel in their own sensuality; their dialogue naturalistic and reflecting the change in their works of art, as well as their social and political views. They fight against the rules that prevent them, for example, from working with live models. Only men are allowed to enjoy the naked form. Camille, Jessie and Suzanne are agents of change, considered dangerous by a society where Church and State are always one.
As Rodin, Stollery must change the way he talks about his character. At first, he adopts the same cut language as Claudel’s mother and brother. Then, as he spends more time with Claudel, his verbal expression also becomes more and more relaxed and natural.
Meryl Tankard brilliantly guides the company through their physical journey, whether it’s Stollery in his portrayal of Rodin’s desperate attempt to assert his failing masculinity, or the set of three dancers who bring Claudel and Rodin’s sculptures to life. Here, breathing life into the clay through dance is not only done for effect, or simply to reflect what is happening to the protagonists, as in earlier treatments of the subject by Quanz or Eifman. Tankard adds a subtext to Beckett’s script, whether through the recreation of Rodin Call to arms as mentioned previously, the leitmotif of Claudel’s own Age of maturity, The waltzes depicting Claudel’s young self in Rodin’s arms as her life flashes before her eyes, or even the confronted abortion she endures, in which she loses not only their unborn child, but apparently all of her work. Tankard’s success cannot be underestimated.
The production design by Halcyon Pratt is simple, yet effective. Beckett and Tankard need a hanging artist’s protective sheet, banding wheel, and sculptor stand to tell their layered rich story. Sylvie Skinazi’s beautiful period costumes serve their characters well, with their detailed cuts, lively skirts and corsets. Like Madame Claudel, Morice wears her black and austere finery like armor, while Claudel and his friends constantly try to escape the literal and metaphorical ties that unite them.
As for the alleged mental illness of Camille Claudel and 30 years of imprisonment by his family in a psychiatric hospital, Beckett and Tankard are content that it remains almost a footnote. It might as well be. Columbus Dance Theater 2014 Claudel also sought to tell the story through a combination of spoken words and dance. A retrospective story, it takes place entirely in the asylum with an elderly Claudel remembering his youth. Her dances were primarily entertainment for the ensemble, most of the narrative being found in Kathleen Kirk’s poetry. Recited by old Claudel, it reminded Sylvia Plath more than it dispelled any idea that Claudel was mad.
Beckett and Tankard are more successful in casting doubt on Claudel’s real qualification for psychiatric treatment. In their Claudel we find a young woman who thirsts for her brother’s love while having to repel his unwanted advances. Betrayed by her mentor and her lover, she is forced to have an abortion. Then, rejected by her own mother, she is prevented from attending the funeral of her beloved father. That Claudel was seen drinking is hardly surprising, nor is his subsequent nervous breakdown.
Beckett and Tankard’s treatment of Claudel’s life adopts his struggle as an analogy for the conflict between naturalism and conservatism, the real tragedy being the fact that Camille fell victim to those who support and profit from a religious regime, just like the secular state was established in France. . Claudel is a worthy tale of her story, which finally portrays her as a very real and normal woman.
Claudel plays at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until May 9