It’s often been said that one should never send a man to do a woman’s job, and when it comes to telling the story of Camille Claudel, that is very true. In recent years, the story of the rebellious sculptor has been told on stage through spoken word and dance to various degrees of success. Indeed, when Wendy Beckett and Meryl Tankard’s Claudel was last performed in 2019, it was one of two productions at the Festival d’Avignon that dared tackle the fate of the rebellious sculptor and muse to Auguste Rodin.

Claudel. Photograph © Daniel Boud

To understand where Beckett and Tankard have succeeded, one must also acknowledge where others have failed. Since Camille’s death in 1943, much of her life has been left to conjecture. Did she really go insane? In her relationship with Rodin, who carried the greater creative influence? Did Rodin really take steps to sabotage her career? Beckett and Tankard make their own assumptions in answering those questions in Camille’s favour, but their greatest success is finally placing her centrestage.

In 2011, choreographers Boris Eifman and Peter Quanz both created balletic treatments of the relationship between Claudel and Rodin. Eifman’s Rodin, though spectacular, was more concerned with the creative process and bringing Rodin’s most epic works such as The Gates of Hell to life on stage. It never delivered more than a superficial representation of Camille as the tortured muse and Rose Bueret as a wilfully blind and doting wife. Similarly, Quanz often resorted to clichéd representation of Camille’s descent into insanity in his Rodin/Claudel for Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Both Eifman and Quanz placed Rodin at the centre of a ménage à trois, in which Camille and Rose revolved around him.

Beckett and Tankard re-pivot the story, making Claudel the focal point as she finds herself torn between her mother and her mentor. Bueret is only ever represented on stage as the older woman in Claudel’s allegorical sculpture The Age of Maturity. Her absence allows Claudel to come to the forefront as a protagonist and relegates Rodin to the sidelines as one part of a much larger set of challenges she faces. He is never permitted to steal the show and his main contribution to the narrative is as a foil to Claudel’s ambitions.

The Australian premiere of Claudel stars Imogen Sage in the title role. She embodies all the fire and passion of Camille Claudel and there are moments when she brings to mind Isabelle Adjani, who performed the role onscreen in 1988. Sage is a perfect match to Christopher Stollery’s Rodin, who seems to be driven mad by her genius more than she is by any unrequited love she has for him. Wendy Beckett portrays Rodin as a man haunted by his greatest embarrassment – his failed commission for the State.

Claudel. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The work in question, his 1880 sculpture The Call to Arms, was rejected as the Monument to the Defenders of the Nation. Beckett presents this as a thorn in Rodin’s side from the very beginning of the play. He is ridiculed for glorifying war by Claudel’s fellow students in Alfred Boucher’s class. Later the sculpture comes back to haunt him as Claudel calls him out on his lies. Tankard brilliantly recreates the work through the aid of her dancers – the vengeful angel, with its gaping mouth and outstretched arms, reflecting Claudel’s fury as battle lines are drawn between her and Rodin.

This precedes a scene in which Rodin reveals his hand in Claudel losing her own state commission for The Age of Maturity in 1899. Was this nothing more than an act of sour grapes? Beckett suggests otherwise. In her script, Rodin admits that he interfered, because he was clearly recognisable as the man in Claudel’s sculpture, torn between the two women also depicted. There is good reason to suspect him. At the time he was president of the admission jury and sculpture section at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. One year later, Claudel’s work was refused again by the Universal Exposition, during which Rodin enjoyed great success by mounting his own exhibition in the Pavillon de l’Alma.

This claim that Rodin sabotaged Claudel’s career is generally refuted by art authorities and the Rodin Museum. Its inclusion by Beckett is ambiguous. Is Rodin’s statement, that he must scupper Claudel’s chances to protect his own reputation, an acceptance by the playwright that this did indeed occur, or is it a manifestation of Claudel’s paranoia?

Beckett’s thesis clearly places Rodin in parallel with Claudel’s grotesquely devout mother Madame Claudel, performed here with aplomb by Tara Morice. Her emphatic statement, “I don’t want effigies. I want respect!” exposes the value that both she and Rodin place on their position in society, and the fear they hold for any reprisals they may face as a result of Claudel’s work. Let us not forget that State secularism was only enacted in 1905 by the Third Republic in France. It is not unreasonable to think Claudel believed that Rodin and her mother had betrayed her, so that they could continue to enjoy the pleasure of the state and church.

At times, the play feels less like a human drama and more an essay on the dichotomy between state-sanctioned art and creative expression that was deemed transgressive at the time. Beckett and Tankard create two very distinct worlds on stage – the rigid conservatism of the church state and the realm of naturalism. If the former is represented by Claudel’s mother and her brother Paul, performed by Mitchell Bourke, then the latter is occupied by Claudel as torch bearer and her fellow students in Boucher’s class. When Rodin agrees to supervise a course for Boucher, he becomes caught between the two.

Claudel. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Beckett’s experience writing radio plays shines through in her use of language to delineate these two worlds. Madame Claudel and Paul adopt a stilted language, which at times borders on exposition. Beckett first wrote the play in French, which has a clearly defined formal register. It would seem that she is striving to find the equivalent in English. Coupled with the affectation displayed by Morice and Bourke, it succeeds.

This is in sharp contrast to the almost modern-day vernacular of Claudel and her schoolmates, Jessie and Suzanne, wonderfully performed by Melissa Kahraman and Henrietta Amevor. They are far more in tune with their bodies and delight in their own sensuality; their dialogue naturalistic and reflecting the shift in their artwork, as well as their social and political views. They struggle against the rules that prevent them, for example, from working with live models. Only men are permitted to appreciate the naked form. Camille, Jessie and Suzanne are agents of change, deemed dangerous by a society in which church and state are still one.

As Rodin, Stollery is required to evolve his character’s way of speaking. At first, he adopts the same clipped tongue that Claudel’s mother and brother do. Then, as he spends more time with Claudel, his verbal expression also becomes increasingly relaxed and natural.

Meryl Tankard guides the company through their physical journey brilliantly, whether it be Stollery in his depiction of Rodin’s desperate attempt at asserting his failing masculinity, or the ensemble of three dancers who bring the sculptures of Claudel and Rodin to life. Here, infusing life into clay through the medium of dance is not just done for effect, or to simply reflect what is happening to the protagonists, as in Quanz or Eifman’s earlier treatments of the subject. Tankard adds subtext to Beckett’s script, whether it be through the recreation of Rodin’s Call to Arms as mentioned earlier, the leitmotif of Claudel’s own Age of Maturity, The Waltz representing Claudel’s younger self in Rodin’s arms as her life flashes before her eyes, or even the confronting abortion she endures, during which she not only loses their unborn child, but seemingly her entire oeuvre. Tankard’s achievement cannot be understated.

The production design by Halcyon Pratt is simple, but effective. A hanging artist’s drop sheet, a banding wheel and sculptor’s stand are all Beckett and Tankard need to tell their richly layered narrative. Sylvie Skinazi’s beautiful period costumes serve their characters well, with their detailed tailoring, bustle skirts and corsets. As Madame Claudel, Morice wears her black, austere finery like a suit of armour, while Claudel and her friends are constantly trying to escape the literal and metaphorical ties that bind them.

As for Camille Claudel’s alleged mental illness and 30-year imprisonment by her family in a psychiatric hospital, Beckett and Tankard are content for this to remain almost a footnote. This is perhaps just as well. Columbus Dance Theatre’s 2014 Claudel also sought to tell the story through a combination of spoken word and dance. A retrospective narrative, it was entirely set in the asylum with an aged Claudel looking back on her youth. Its dances were mostly divertissements for the ensemble, with most of the narrative to be found in Kathleen Kirk’s poetry. Recited by the elderly Claudel, it recalled Sylvia Plath more than it dispelled any notions that Claudel was insane.

Beckett and Tankard are more successful in casting doubt on whether Claudel really qualified for psychiatric treatment. In their Claudel we find a young woman craving her brother’s love while having to repel his unwanted advances. Betrayed by her mentor and lover, she is forced to have an abortion. Then, rejected by her own mother, she is prevented from attending her beloved father’s funeral. That Claudel is seen to take to drink is hardly surprising, nor is her subsequent nervous breakdown.

Beckett and Tankard’s treatment of Claudel’s life adopts her struggle as an analogy for the conflict between naturalism and conservatism, the real tragedy being the fact that Camille fell victim to those supporting and profiting from a religious regime, just as the secular state was established in France. Claudel is a worthy retelling of her story, which at last portrays her as a very real and normal woman.

Claudel plays in the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until 9 May


Supported by the City of Sydney

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