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Review: Claudel at the Sydney Opera House

Review By Lee Sarich

Claudel is a haunting and focused look at the complexities and intensity of creative genius, the tightrope separating it from insanity and the societal pressures that seek to expand, restrain and destroy it. This passionately sensitive and precise work is captured and illuminated by writer and director Wendy Beckett, magnified by the electrifying choreography of Meryl Tankard. Camille Claudel struggles against the dissatisfaction and oppression of her mother Madame Claudel who attempts to extinguish Claudels’ emerging fame and talent that is further expanding under the tutelage of Auguste Rodin. Brother Paul is caught between supporting his sister with the blessing and encouragement of their father and espousing their mothers wish that Claudel cease her association with Rodin and end the resultant shame bestowed upon the family.

As a student, assistant, then lover to Rodin, their ensuing affair shapes Claudels’ art, success and destiny.

Imogen Sage plays Camille Claudel, weaving effortlessly between frivolously light chatter among her fellow students Jessie ( Melissa Kahraman) and Suzanne (Henrietta Amevor), and the seriousness and weight of her relationships with her brother, mother and Rodin. Sage develops the relationship with Rodin from a curious and expectant student, eager to impress and learn, to the tortured outcast lover, banished from his arms, her family, the art world, and society at large. She moves through her development with deliberation and poise, allowing the passion she shares with Rodin to emerge and engulf both themselves and the audience, which makes the ultimate outcome ever more heartbreaking. She ably provides the emotional depth for which the characters and audience alike are catapulted through this tumultuous journey.

Christopher Stollery as Auguste Rodin commands attention as he strides onto stage and sweeps up his three students in a charismatic rush. From the arrogant confidence of an established and celebrated sculptor to a flawed man beset by conflicting obligations, passions, vanity and prideful vindictiveness, Stollery gives life to a study in human frailty and strength. A sorrowful tenderness emerges as Rodin realises the affair with Claudel is over and he must take action to protect his reputation, even if at the expense of her success as an artist and her actual sanity. Holding a subtle combination of remorseful regret and jilted vindictiveness is a delicate juggle and Stollery manages it well.

Mellissa Kahraman as Jessie and Henrietta Amevor as Suzanne, Claudels’ classmates, allow a genuine exuberant affection to develop between the three women, capturing the young collegiality of emerging artists. The foundations are laid for the support and concern that evolve from Jessie when she witnesses Claudel’s subsequent collapse. Amevor provides further depth to young and hopeful conviviality.

The sense of joy and enthusiasm created by the classmates serves to sharpen the contrast of matriarchal disapproval emitted from Madame Claudel, played by Tara Morice. Cold and cutting, Morice embodies the bitter disappointments of a mother and wife scorned. Ever scheming the rise of her son and constraint of her daughter, Morice holds the calculating space with disdainful accuracy. Amidst the sharpness though, a mournful dedication to the norms of the day permeates her performance perhaps suggesting that she too is a mere victim of the times.

Mitchell Bourke as Paul Claudel attempts to straddle several worlds, wanting to support and encourage his sister with messages of hope from their father but also appease and keep favour with his mother while delivering her messages of chagrin. Bourke presents the anguished struggle of a dutiful brother torn between his own survival and success and that of his sister. He further expounds the recurring theme of being an unwilling participant trapped by circumstance, an inner ambiguity not easily displayed.

Surprisingly to me, my highlight was the dancers and dancing. Not a fan of dancing, I usually consider it fanciful and self indulgent, reading about choreography and dancing in the program, I was not looking forward to it. I may have even rolled my eyes. I can happily report being transfixed and enthralled. Dorothea Csutkai as Rodins’ wife, Rose, Cloe Fournier as Camille and Kip Gamblin as Rodin, give devastating and exhilarating expression to internal forces of passion and life that scream to be heard, understood and acknowledged. Masterful lighting by Lighting designer Matt Cox and sound by Bob Scott together with the choreographic magic of Meryl Tankard, enhance the beautifully discordant inner writhing to display this anguished battle in surreal clarity. Haunting, teasing subtle sound existing seeming just below consciousness, finally emerges to accentuate the heartbreaking tragedy of Claudels’ demise. Costume designer Sylvie Skinazi gives authentic and creatively tasteful context for the characters to emerge from. Scenic designer Halcyon Pratt and projection & video designer Regis Lansac conspire to create a set elevating the performances to ecstatic heights and tortured lows.

Wendy Beckett has managed to present the tragic story of Camille Claudel within a framework of hopeful alacrity. The cast and creative team together serve to elevate the struggles of this talented and celebrated artist above and beyond the confines of her physical life …that she might enjoy perhaps a belated and warranted success and respect more her due.

Image Credit: Daniel Boud


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