French playwright Samuel Gallet’s new work is inspired by issues raised by France’s 2005 urban riots.
In 2005, when a wave of riots broke out on the periphery of several big cities in France, burgeoning young playwright Samuel Gallet took note. Marginalized young people from the housing projects—many from families that had immigrated from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe—were rising up against police control, disenfranchisement and deprivation.
Gallet’s 2010 play “Communique No. 10,” inspired by those events, is receiving its American premiere at Cutting Ball Theater, translated and directed by the company’s artistic director, Rob Melrose. Gallet, heretofore unknown in America, developed the play with the help of several fellowships and a residency at CEAD, the francophone playwrights’ organization in Montreal. “Communique” has received only one previous production, in France, where it was published.
Lyrical and complex, with interweaving and layered scenes, “Communique” is set in an area of an unnamed city that is under siege. Rebellious young people are attempting to take over, broadcasting frequent communiqués: “Patrols, leave your posts, we have you surrounded, we have stolen the night from you by attaching red wires to thirty-five circuit breakers. The city will stay ours. Everything belongs to us. End of communiqué number 7.” The rebels are represented by an elusive character (“l’Enfant,” or “The Child”) who Gallet says is meant to be a poetic symbol of a kind of youthful fervor and energy, anarchic and joyful.
In one part of the city a young man, Hassan, is seeking to avenge the recent death of his brother by hunting down the security guard who killed him during a car-jacking incident. Hassan’s grieving mother is locked away, unseen, in a back room, watched over by Hassan’s new acquaintance,
Marlene, a roving photographer. By chance she took the last-ever photo of Hassan’s brother just before he was killed. In a seedy abandoned hotel, the security guard, Damien, who happens to be an old childhood friend of Hassan, is trying to evade him. Hiding out, he joins forces with a homeless pair, the alcoholic Anne and her devoted buddy, Yag. There, too, an old man dozes, waking occasionally to ask plaintively, “Am I dead?…I’m dead: yes or no?”
Gallet’s fictional city is an abstract place, as he explains in a trans-Atlantic email conversation, “a no-man’s land, a wasteland where everything is rotten but where everything could also be rebuilt.” He is familiar with the landscape, having grown up in the banlieue parisienne.
“The French banlieue,” he explains, “could perhaps symbolically stand for the current world we live in, where the vast majority of the population in our old Western democracies is stuck in places without any future perspective.”
To translate, and theatricalize, Gallet’s singular and ferocious vision was challenging for Melrose, whose 15-year-old company specializes in new, experimental plays and reimagined works by the European avant-garde; the company’s staging of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 “Ubu Roi” was recently a big hit. “Things are at an oblique angle in the play,” Melrose explains, on the phone from Minneapolis, where he is directing a play at the Guthrie Theatre.
“That’s part of what makes it mysterious and interesting. In a way it’s more like a play by Pinter or even Beckett, where there’s a lot of space, it isn’t all spelled out. Those are the kinds of plays I like—that’s what makes it exciting.” For his part, Gallet counts Beckett, as well as such playwrights as Ibsen, Strindberg and contemporary French playwright Fabrice Melquiot, and Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, among those who have influenced him.
Melrose was initially introduced to Gallet’s play through the French consulate in San Francisco; the cultural attaché wanted to arrange a new-plays Franco-American exchange. San Francisco’s Playwrights Foundation joined in, with a Parisian group, Maison Antoine Vitez, on the other side; Gallet’s play was one of several presented here at the 2012 Des Voix Festival of staged readings of new French plays. Melrose translated and
directed the staged reading of “Communiqué No. 10,” initially connecting with Gallet on Skype, where they discussed the script. When Gal-let arrived for the festival, Melrose read the play to him in English, and Gallet read it back to him in French, and from there they were able to discuss the nuances of translation.
If “Communique No. 10” presents a bleak panorama of violence and chaos on the outskirts of the big city—where, in Europe, the have-nots live—neither is it exactly futuristic or apocalyptic in a science fiction kind of way. “If we’re imagining it taking place in America,” says Melrose, “it’s got to be a few years from now. What if Occupy Wall Street really became a threat and every young person joined it, and all of a sudden they were burning the streets?” Still, the play is slightly abstracted, and Melrose likes that aspect of it. “It makes me think about where our theater is located, in the middle of the Tenderloin,” he says. “It’s not hard to imagine the kind of urban blight [the characters are] experiencing being somewhere in the Tenderloin.” He translated Gallet’s word for the environs of the play—les friches—as “wasteland,” which conjures T.S. Eliot’s poem; in French, Gallet told him, les friches is short
for les friches industriels.
The central character, Hassan, first-generation French, has an Arab name, but religion is never mentioned. (“One can come from North Africa without being Muslim,” Gallet points out, noting that the 2005 riots had nothing to do with religious issues; they were political and social uprisings among working-class youths.) Melrose purposely cast an actor of Middle Eastern descent in the role (Damien Seperi), and it pleased Gallet to have an actor “who carries [within] himself physically the narrative of migration,” he says. In addition, Melrose invited San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, dedicated to Middle Eastern cultures and themes, to coproduce, helping with casting, dramaturgy and audience development.
“French has a smoothness to it and an elegance and beauty and purity that’s hard to get in English,” muses Melrose. The characters speak colloquially—their dialogue is informal and sometimes ungrammatical, with words and syllables dropped—but not in slang, or argot, which can be so difficult to understand that even native speakers are perplexed. He worked to capture a certain French simplicity and sparseness in English: “If I find Damien what will I do?” says Hassan. “If I find Damien what will I do? Damien, what will I do? Who should I ask to pay for this? Who should I smack in the face? Show me a clear enemy. A man who I can take and seize and touch and fight. An address, a location, a life. Something tangible.” Gallet liked Melrose’s translation, saying that in the San Francisco staged reading, the rhythm of his text was retained. In fact, he finds English to be a very poetic language. “I love Allen Ginsberg and Jack Hirschman!” he says.
“Samuel is a very visceral writer,” points out Melrose. “You feel things and you hear things”—random knocks on the door, water running outside a hotel room. Water in particular is a leitmotif throughout the play. Gallet says his predilection for watery images—“Water is at the same time a symbol for death and for rebirth”—is probably due to the influence of an Austrian poet he likes, Georg Trakl.
In the end of the play, the vengeance-seeking Hassan must make an existential choice. For Gallet, that choice is in no way clear-cut. Theater, he says explores issues, names problems, shows other viewpoints and other representations of reality. Ever true to the alluring ambiguities in his plays, he asserts, “Theater is not meant to conclude.”
Apr. 25 → May 25
Cutting Ball Theater
277 Taylor, 415/525-1205