It centres on a dysfunctional
middle-class Parisian family, in which the 22-year-old son Michael has fallen in love
with pretty but hard-up bookbinder Madeleine.
However, his over-possessive mother Yvonne is aghast and his inept inventor
father George is also dismayed when he discovers she is the same girl with whom
he’s been having an affair, while Yvonne’s spinster sister Leo (in love with George)
decides to manipulate the situation.
In Les Parents Terribles Cocteau may have moved away from his dramas
reinterpreting classical myths in a modern setting, but at its heart is a strong Oedipal
relationship. As an ageing enfant terrible himself, Cocteau portrays a degenerate older
generation exploiting and corrupting the younger to devastating emotional effect.
This slightly bohemian version of a bourgeois family, which they themselves call
the ‘gypsy camp’, is revealed to be a shallow pretence, a self-centred sham capable of
Rolls embraces the abrupt shifts in tone full on, as the play swerves from
melodramatic pathos to camp humour, capturing the hothouse atmosphere of the
piece in which the protagonists do not breathe natural air. The claustrophobic, self-
reflective qualities are also evoked in Andrew D. Edwards’s baroque, ceiling and wall
mirrored design, as narcissism runs riot.
In the original Paris production Michael was played by Cocteau’s muse (and
lover) Jean Marais, while at the National a young Jude Law shone. Here, in only
his second professional performance, Tom Byam Shaw does well to suggest the
feline grace and pampered naivety of a young man only just awakening to the harsh
realities of the adult world. And Elaine Cassidy makes an appealing Madeleine caught
painfully in a dilemma.
But it is the older cast members who steal the show. Frances Barber relishes the
part of the self-dramatizing, attention-seeking Yvonne, one moment wailing piteously
and the next hissing curses, as she struggles to let go of her son and accept that her
youth is long gone. Anthony Calf’s floppy-haired, weak-willed George is a pathetic
rather than vicious creature, forced by his wife’s neglect to seek affection elsewhere.
And Sylvestra Le Touzel’s emotionally repressed, order-loving Leo brings some
much-needed clear-eyed insight and dry humour to the histrionic proceedings.
The commendable Donmar Trafalgar showcase for young directors makes a
welcome return for the second of three seasons next year.