Sacha Guitry, the ‘Gallic Noel Coward’, returns to London at last
A star in France in the 1920s, the actor, director and writer Sacha Guitry never achieved widespread fame in the UK. The co-deviser of a play about his life and work tells Nick Smurthwaite how she is planning to introduce him to a British audience
One of France’s most prolific writers for stage and screen, Sacha Guitry, who died 60 years ago, is remembered in a new play that opened in London this week.
Sacha Guitry, Ma Fille Et Moi (Sacha Guitry, My Daughter and I), co-devised by Edith Vernes and Marianne Badrichani, will be performed in French with English surtitles.
Guitry was pre-eminent as an actor, writer and director on stage and screen in the 1920s and 1930s, churning out a succession of plays, from boulevard comedies to historical dramas, and more than 80 screenplays in which he often played the lead.
For his versatility and wit, Guitry earned the nickname ‘the Gallic Noel Coward’.
With his actor wife Yvonne Printemps and his veteran performer father Lucien, Guitry came to the Aldwych Theatre for a four-week season in 1920. They were often invited back to the West End, including once in 1926 when Guitry and Printemps transferred a pastiche musical about Mozart from Paris, with Printemps as the young composer and Guitry as his mentor, Baron von Grimm.
John Gielgud, who saw it, described how Printemps was “ravishingly touching in her powdered wig, black knee breeches and buckled shoes, while Sacha hovered over her with avuncular authority, not attempting to sing himself but contributing a kind of flowing, rhythmic accompaniment with his speeches, delivered in a deep, caressing voice”.
Despite his enduring popularity in France, Guitry never enjoyed lasting success on this side of the Channel. So why do Badrichani and Vernes think this is the right time to bring the man and his work to the attention of a London audience?
“Guitry was a fascinating man,” says Badrichani, who is the director as well as the co-deviser. “He was a playwright, actor, director and theatre manager. He was married five times, each time to an actress. He played a huge variety of roles in his long career. When Edith said she was interested in doing a play about him, we set about finding a way of introducing him to a British audience.”
After reading his plays, they came up with a blend of fact and fiction. An established actor, played by Vernes, reflects on her love-hate relationship with Guitry, both personal and professional, in an extended conversation with her daughter, herself an aspiring actor.
“Guitry was a man of his time and he used his own life as inspiration for his work,” says Badrichani. “We have mixed up his life story with his work, and done some gender-swapping with some of his characters. The structure is intricate but, I hope, clear. Engagement with the audience is always my main focus.”
French-born Badrichani has lived in London for 20 years, having trained as an actor at Central School of Speech and Drama and later with Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre Studio.
“Coming to London was the opportunity of a lifetime for me,” she says. “I abandoned my acting career in favour of directing quite early on because I felt my accent would get in the way. British theatre is so dynamic it has been difficult to carve out a place for myself, so most of my work as a director has been translations of French plays by my friend Chris Campbell from [London’s] Royal Court.”
She has since branched out into site-specific work with her own company, including a daring promenade production of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard among the picturesque Victorian tombstones and family vaults of Brompton Cemetery in 2009.
Though Badrichani has often transferred work to France, most of her productions start off in London, as she prefers the UK’s modus operandi to that of her native country. “In France, the subsidised sector tends to do the more risky, experimental stuff and the commercial theatre does the popular stuff, with star actors. In the UK the boundaries between subsidised and commercial theatre are more blurred, there is more crossover.
“There is very little exchange of work between the UK and France. I belong to something called the Cross Channel Theatre Group, based at the Institut Francais in South Kensington, made up of French artists and directors. The aim is to try to find French plays that might work for English audiences. Using surtitles allows us to be in touch with both French and English audiences. It suits me perfectly, because I prefer to do shows that appeal to both.”
Will the Guitry show have a life beyond its three-week run at the Drayton Arms Theatre?
“Yes, I hope so. I think we should be able to take it to France, maybe to the Avignon Festival this summer, where I have worked before, and hopefully also to Paris at some stage.”
Badrichani’s future plans include an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard set in Nigeria, and a screenplay about Brexit.
“I need to think big,” she says. “I’d like to do another site-specific show. I know there is an old disused police station near here, which would be a good location. I’d also like to work outside London and take a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But just now I am pouring all my energy into Sacha Guitry.”
Sacha Guitry, Ma Fille Et Moi is running at the Drayton Arms Theatre, London, from January 16 to February 3
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