As creative briefs go, Diaghilev’s to Cocteau is up there with the best: “etonne-moi,” he declared, daring Cocteau to conceive a ballet that would astonish as much as it would delight, that would tear up the balletic rulebooks and start afresh. Cocteau was a man for a challenge; the resultant Parade of 1917, scored by Erik Satie with designs by Pablo Picasso, was extraordinary not just for its meeting of artistic minds but its aesthetic boundary-pushing – Picasso’s cardboard costumes, Satie’s mingling of classical and jazz motifs (with additional parts for typewriter and milk bottle added by Cocteau), the poster designed by Cocteau himself. Seven years before Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, Appolinaire remarked that Parade represented “une sorte de surrÃ©alisme.”
It’s a creative feat symptomatic of one of the greatest cultural polymaths of the twentieth century. Cocteau was a master of the aesthetic, a man whose vision – to borrow his own phrase about Boris Vian – was elevated above the rest of timid humanity, limited as we are to confronting the plural with the singular. His starting point was often poetry (Cocteau referred to his novels as ‘poÃ©sie de roman’, to his ballets, plays and libretti as ‘poÃ©sie de thÃ©Ã¢tre’), but form and content are symbiotic in his work: Parade is noted for its spectacular, wholistic vision as much as its plot; his 1930 film Le Sang d’un PoÃ¨te is a masterclass in the aesthetics of cinematography as much as a tale about a statue.
Therein lies the conundrum for anyone transmuting Cocteau from one form to another: the medium is the message; trying to synopsise his work would be like describing Guernica by listing the objects in it. Les Enfants Terribles, his 1929 novel, is a rare example of a Cocteau piece that successfully works in two separate media, the second being Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 film adaptation itself commissioned and co-written by Cocteau. In both, a typically perverse plot is driven as much by an avant-garde sensibility as it is by incident: siblings Paul and Elisabeth care for their dying mother; they tease and torment each other, their relationship growing ever more violent and incestuous. Paul, a budding poet, is injured at school by a snowball with a stone inside; Elisabeth cares for brother and mother until the latter dies, at which point the siblings shelter themselves from the outside world in their family home, littered with objects and images from their past. Neither wants happiness for the other; Agatha, who loves Paul and whom Paul loves, is tricked by Elisabeth into marrying Gerard, who loves Elisabeth, thus breaking Paul’s heart. Agatha and Gerard grow up; they come to accept their lot, albeit reluctantly, and by the time they return one day to visit their old friends for dinner, complete with evening dress and adult attitudes, the siblings’ clinging on to their playful, youthful world has become pitiful. It’s a story of fragility, of growing up and above all of self-expression and identity, wrapped up in Cocteau’s heady, exuberant imagery.
Helen Shutt’s adaptation – the first for the stage in English (and presumably in her translation, though this is oddly uncredited) – is fragmentary; much of the detail of the novel is cast aside as a dozen or so short scenes trace the basic milestones in Paul and Elisabeth’s relationship. It’s a punishingly literal approach to a narrative that relies on aesthetic as much as incident for its momentum. Director Joel Cottrell strains to infuse Shutt’s fractured telling with Cocteauesque artistry, but decent performances and a detailed design are in vain; Shutt’s adaptation allows neither the scope for characterisation to develop sufficiently across the fragment nor, despite Cottrell’s best efforts, the space for an aesthetic sensibility to grow. The final scene, the shattering double-suicide conclusion of Cocteau’s novel, here comes from nowhere, the previous 90 minutes having failed to establish either a narrative or aesthetic context in which the ending seems anything other than farcical.
The production isn’t helped by a motley soundtrack, from Steve Reich to Strauss via Bach and The National, culminating in a toe-curling underscoring of the final scene with Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam; what a Belgian singing about the loneliness of sailors on shore leave at a Dutch sea port is doing here, beyond as a token piece of emotive Francophony, is beyond me. A year after the premiere of Parade, Cocteau published his essay on the creative spirit Le Coq et L’Arlequin, of which Cottrell and his team should perhaps take heed: “Being tactful in audacity,” he wrote, “is knowing how far one can go too far.”