Review By Thomas Gregory
In 2019, Jayne Tuttle released a memoir of her first years in Paris as a young student at a prestigious theatre school around twenty years ago. The tale spans from her first short visit to the city, through the death of her mother, a whirlwind romance with a well-to-do actor, and an accident that nearly cost her life.
“Paris or Die” was widely praised and, within a year, Tuttle joined respected theatre-maker John Bolton to create an adaptation for the stage. The show, which has had several short runs around the country, has finally made it to Melbourne as part of La Mama’s winter season.
Jayne stars as herself in this one-woman show and makes a casual nod at the strangeness that it is to play a version of yourself, adapted from another version of yourself. The script is almost entirely cut from the pages of the original book, enhanced by the very physical theatre techniques Tuttle developed during those years in Paris.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Tuttle’s book, and I can safely say the theatrical version is a resounding success. That is to say, it makes what I would consider being, every correct choice in what to include or discard from the original text, and any minor issues in the play only stem from larger issues in the book.
Sitting, standing, or cartwheeling across the stage, Jayne Tuttle is an engaging performer. An early moment in the show has the audience in stitches as Jayne drags her imaginary pack up multiple flights of stairs, opens the windows to her dingey little hotel room, and announces with great excitement that “I could die here!” When Tuttle slips into impressions of her best friend, Kiki, or her boyfriend’s mother, Severine, she conjures up characters both interesting in the abstract and loved in the concrete.
The directorial decisions by Tuttle and Bolton are equally exciting. With a single chair and some of the best lighting designs I’ve experienced at La Mama, the show moves us through settings that are alive with details that exist only in our minds. So many shows of this format feel like you are simply watching a person tell a story. “Paris or Die” makes you feel like you’ve taken a journey instead.
The prose in Tuttle’s memoir is something special, and I will likely buy every future work she writes without any knowledge of its contents. It’s an honest style of writing, with little embellishment or snobbery, and filled with confidence. It does have a sense of informal conversationalism that at times you may expect would suit a stage production.
Sometimes, however, directly quoting the original text may not have been the best decision. I saw this not because of any one bad moment, but because of how much better I thought the play was whenever it remembered itself as an audio-visual medium rather than a written one.
The biggest issue I have with the memoir, and therefore both play and book, is one many may not find problematic. It stems from the romantic notions of the character, which may or may not be the notions of the writer over a decade in the future. They produce a sense of unawareness that, when actively presenting a tale “from the past” can be a little grating on an audience member.
Romanticism is a wonderful thing, and having that young, slightly-delusional view of Paris is something many of us can relate to. Blame “Amelie”, “Moulin Rouge”, or “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, but for many young Australians, Paris is a magical land that has nothing to do with the capital city of a country, not unlike our own.
Likewise, many of us can remember that one early relationship, filled with music and booze, and wildly-incredible sex, that we assumed was a greater love than anything we could ever experience later in life. This despite having few details at hand as to why this person, in particular, was the one we loved. This despite an outside perspective immediately recognizing that partner’s sexist and abusive ways.
There’s nothing wrong with having a romantic view of your existence when young. However, I struggle to appreciate a storyteller who neglects to acknowledge this naivety or reflect on the possible reality present in that same moment.
I wonder if perhaps Tuttle was too carefully and creatively subtle for me, that I could not separate author and character as easily as I can with more obtuse memoirists. I’m not sure I could have the courage to break the most vulnerable moments of my past open for people to dissect, let alone the skill to do it with such poetry. I do think that, if I ever leave my raw and vulnerable innards out to display, I would want to write the little display card beside them as well. That little card that says, “I was young and stupid at the time.”
The final, if not climactic, event in “Paris or Die” is when Jayne breaks her neck and receives serious facial trauma after nearly being decapitated by a descending elevator. A terrible storyteller would emphasise the tragedy of such an accident befalling someone who had just graduated from the most grueling physical theatre school in the world. Tuttle is far from terrible. Nor does Jayne pretend that this one moment changed her entire world, providing an epiphany that made her re-evaluate every moment of her life before then. The story isn’t distilled into a Disney-morality-tale, it isn’t about Karma, and it didn’t “have to happen”.
So yes, it is wonderful that “Paris or Die” doesn’t treat the accident as romantically as it did, well, the romance.
Tuttle doesn’t appear to want to explore the event at all. There is no reflection on the fact that she was within seconds of winning a Darwin Award, no particular praise for the incredible medical treatment she received, or even recognition of the privilege it is to have a medically-trained sister move overseas temporarily to aid recovery.
There is more meaning and reflection offered in an early scene about buying a baguette than there is offered in a literal near-death experience. There could be no better example of how “Paris or Die” treats the story - it’s something that happened, nothing else.
“Paris or Die” is a competent piece of theatre, and a faithful adaptation of a memoir worth reading. What it lacks in depth of exploration or reflection is made up for in beauty and style.