The Confessions Review – Alexander Zeldin

1 593
Critique The confessions

Presented at the Odéon as part of the Festival d’Automne in Paris, and at the National Theatre of Great Britain in London, The Confessions, Alexander Zeldin’s new work, draws on elements of his mother’s life to trace a woman’s path to emancipation. Like the Pierrot painted by Jean-Antoine Watteau, Alice stares at the spectator, driven by a melancholy quest: to get out of the frame that keeps her outside herself.

Alice’s life

The Confessions is a departure from previous shows directed by Alexander Zeldin. Love took place in a refuge for people in emergency situations in England. Without pessimism or complacency, the show drew an unvarnished map of a society that has forgotten its own. Faith, Hope and Charity evoked the final days of a British food bank that was running out of resources and closing. A Death in the Family took a hyper-realistic approach, describing the end of a woman’s life in a nursing home. On each occasion, sordidness rubbed shoulders with grace. From reality, sometimes the crudest, sprang the astonishing and fragile beauty of humanity.

Here, reality gives way to storytelling. In The Confessions, Alice, the director’s mother, played by two formidable actresses (Amelda Brown and Eryn Jean Norvill), recounts her life. Alexander Zeldin has built his show around the memories of his mother, whom he interviewed. Confessions in two parts, then, as the son, first, and then the audience, become the recipients of what is confided to them.

It all begins in Australia. Coming from a modest background, Alice was unable to continue her studies and married a soldier who worked in the navy. This gloomy life did not satisfy her. A divorce gave her the chance to leave. In Melbourne, she frequented the art world. The rape she suffered at the hands of one of the eminent members of the faculty made her leave her native country. From then on, in England, Alice took charge of her life and assumed responsibility for herself. She chooses her profession and the man who will be her companion and the father of her children.

Getting out of the box

The trajectory of this emancipation is organised into tableaux, in which the character of Alice is the playwright. Each episode in her life is punctuated either by the opening of the proscenium curtain or by a change of scenery. Right from the start, the director’s mother takes the form of Amelda Brown. An elderly woman walks along the aisle between the spectators on the courtyard side and steps onto the stage. She addresses those watching her, recounts a memory from her childhood, then slowly opens one of the panels of burgundy velvet. It’s a way of giving way to what’s about to happen. The tableaux of her reconstructed life. Alice opens the curtain on the theatre of her life.

Marg Horwell‘s set design deliberately accentuates the mise en abyme. On the stage, a platform has been placed in the distance. Framed by a rectangular structure, it serves as a trestle for several episodes, accentuating Alice’s confinement. Scene at school, at her parents’, at her husband’s, the scenes follow one another and reproduce the narrowness of her experience. Alice can’t get out of the framework imposed on her by an unimaginative society. Sometimes, even, a small black curtain, which opens and closes, doubles the heavy burgundy curtain in front of the stage. The theatricality of this life story is unwavering, and the stage is the place for it.

A bright and sad Pierrot

So stepping outside the box takes on its full meaning. It’s about escaping from a representation that places Alice in places where she doesn’t want to be and where she plays a role that doesn’t make her happy. She is the obedient daughter, the perfect housewife, the woman who is submissive to the desires of others and who must keep quiet. And yet, like the subject of Jean-Antoine Watteau‘s Pierrot, whom Alexander Zeldin‘s mother mentioned during their talks, she is frozen in her silence, yearning only to break out of the confines of her prison.

The work on the costumes (Marg Horwell) is remarkable. The meticulous attention to detail gives the colours a strong symbolic value. When Alice is still the bearer of life in her relationship, she wears a burgundy dress (similar to the one on the proscenium curtain). But after a few years, like Watteau‘s « Gilles », she is dressed in ceruse white. To the point of disappearing into the domestic world that is her daily life, the sideboard, the table, the walls, the fridge. Like the melancholy actor still wearing his theatrical costume, Alice has lost herself on the social stage. Vampirized by her interior, she is just another piece of furniture.

An unforgettable scene

Alexander Zeldin‘s wonderful idea was to have the character of Alice played by two actresses. Amelda Brown plays the older Alice and Eryn Jean Norvill the younger. There is a doubling of bodies and gazes. One observes the other. Alice revisits her past, which is reactivated in the present by another. But sometimes the memory lets Alice relive in the present what she had experienced.

In this respect, a scene of extraordinary accuracy is astonishing. During a visit to a famous painter, accompanied by one of the faculty members, Alice (Eryn Jean Norvill) is raped. The rape is committed out of sight of the spectator but in real time, during the performance. When the young woman opens the door from the distance and emerges bent and shattered, the audience has been able to experience the temporality of the attack.

However, it is Alice, played by Amelda Brown, who manages to impose her law on her rapist. Under the gaze of her young double, she forces him to undress, bathe with her and lie down beside her without him touching her. Both actors are naked. He, in the prime of life. She, with her ageing body. This is the art of Alexander Zeldin. It’s touching and breathtaking. The scene is strong and dignified, with no trace of voyeurism. What’s more, it reveals a reality. For Alice, the years have not erased anything. The rape and the struggle to regain control of her abused body are still lived in the present.

Alexander Zeldin’s The Confessions is interesting. One unforgettable scene sticks in the mind. We regret, however, that we are perhaps kept too far away from this life story, which promised to be personal and intimate.

M La Scene ‘s LM (elle aime / she likes) : LMMMMM

The Confessions

written and directed by Alexander Zeldin

National Theatre of Great Britain


From Sun. 29/10/23 to Sat. 04/11/23


Odéon 6e

29 septembre – 14 octobre
dans le cadre du Festival d’Automne 2023

avec Joe Bannister, Amelda Brown, Jerry Killick, Lilit Lesser, Brian Lipson, Eryn Jean Norvill, Pamela Rabe, Gabrielle Scawthorn, Yasser Zadeh

scénographie, costumes Marg Horwell

mouvement, chorégraphie Imogen Knight

lumière Paule Constable

musique Yannis Philippakis

son Josh Anio Grigg

directeur de casting Jacob Sparrow

casting australien Serena Hill

collaboratrice à la mise en scène Joanna Pidcock

soutien dramaturgique Faye Merralls, Sasha Milavic Davies

travail de la voix Cathleen McCarron

coaching linguistique Louise Jones, Jenny Kent

Would you like to read another M La Scène theatre review of a show at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, directed by Alexander Zeldin? You might also be interested in Love review or Faith, Hope and Charity review or A Death in the Family review

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