The Orchestra is a revival of an often neglected farce by French writer Jean Anouilh in a quick-witted translation by Jeremy Sams. It opens with violinist Patricia’s (Luna Dai) monologue on the hardship of her life, not least her cruel sounding relationship with her mother, whom she has to parent. This monologue is countered by her desk partner who extols the virtues of loving her children, as they interval between serenading casino punters. In other breaks during this performance of third rate music from a female-led orchestra in a post-war French entertainment venue, others groan over their disappointed lives made bright only by memories of historic “small successes”. They rebel by demanding to play Saint-Saëns or Beethoven. These composers aren’t what the people want though – it’s all nationalistic music now, the like of which should “Get a Frenchman in his gut” according to the group’s leader and double bassist, Amanda Osborne’s Mme. Hortense.
All the women clutch at their instruments with either a certain sense of viciousness and violence or robotic like passivity, made all the more so because they blatantly mime. In musical interludes, other players moan about their aggressive male partners who, nevertheless, redeem themselves and garner their partner’s forgiveness through their accomplishments in the bedroom. Others fantasise about killing themselves as if they have just stepped out of a badly written imitation Emile Zola novel. Just as it starts to feel like a too familiar tale about women victimising themselves into inaction written by a male playwright, there is a debate about who did more to thwart the Nazis in the war effort in an illustration of a nation at war with itself. If it weren’t for this, and for Anouilh’s sharp and witty observations about class and female powerlessness and how these two are interlinked, this play could sink into theatrical irrelevancy as a classy but of its time farce.
Instead though, the plot could easily be set in a modern cinema chain, where a culture of fear ensures that profit is put firmly before people, workers lapse into political passivity and antipathy towards their lives and where sexism and racism can be rife. Such a play would be like Annie Baker’s The Flick, on steroids. As it is, The Orchestra shows only too well the personal price we pay being forced to act false selves by the “system” by the fate which awaits the complaining cellist. Stefania Licari’s portrayal of her makes me think of a mix between Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach and Charlotte Bronte’s madwoman in the attic. Better not to say anything and rage inwardly seems to be the Orwellian observation. At least in Orwell’s universes, people knew they were being trapped and they had the will to try and do something; here, most don’t. And the fact that the play is a farce makes it all the more horrific.
Horrific too are M. Leon’s sexual fantasies, the only male musician onstage. It is a reminder that some repressions are best kept that way, though it increases the risk of personal tyranny. Played by Pedro Casarin, M.Leon is a terrifying character: he is weak, lacking in integrity and, given half a chance, shows all his ugliness. But the “system” of bullying and authority here forced on him by Mme. Hortense ensures that his fireworks can never properly lit, thank goodness.
Everyone has a story of misery to tell and everyone duly tells it, having their few minutes in the spotlight. The trouble is, the identification with their stories becomes their hindrance and makes them blind and deaf to the sufferings of others. It makes for an insular, politically inept and divided group who can’t agree on much except that the show must go on. This is in itself feels very familiar. Difference, says the system and as the play’s end illustrates, is not marketable. It won’t make money – it didn’t then and it won’t now.
Kristine Landon-Smith’s production is polished and sharp, if the play is flawed and slightly stereotypical. Nonetheless, the writing is full of brevity and precision; Anouilh was a copywriter before he became a playwright. However, it suffers from poor diction and neglects to really capitalise on the performance within a performance conceit. I’m still dreaming of that update to a cinema setting.
The Orchestra is at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham until 17th February. Info here.