The Traveller Without Luggage
written by Jean Anouilh
directed by Nicholas de Jongh
First, I should point out that this play was part of a special production, where theatre critics directed the plays, and directors got to critique their works. Following is a piece written about the experiment, with comments from Valentine, as he was one of the actors involved. The Traveller Without Luggage ran from April 8 - 27, 1997 at the Battersea Arts Center in London. A television show was made about the experience. I just recently stumbled across this page dated April 1997.
Reuters - Variety Online Entertainment Report
By Jill Serjeant
LONDON (Reuter) - Actor Valentine Pelka said it was like being shipwrecked on a desert island. And for once, the theater critics agreed.
In an unusual experiment designed to cool the age-old animosity between actors and critics, four British theater reviewers have crossed the footlights to direct a play and subjected their efforts to the mercy of their erstwhile victims.
``It has been a fairly monumental struggle. I doubt very much whether the four involved will want to do it again,'' said Ben Chamberlain, spokesman for the ``Critics up for Review'' season.
The idea of pitting the so-called ``luvvies'' of the theater world against the men with the poison pens was dreamed up by theater producer Lawrence Elman after a heated argument with Evening Standard critic Nicholas De Jongh.
Director Michael Bogdanov later weighed in with a ferocious newspaper attack on critics as ``vicious, vituperative, vitriolic and toadying.''
So it was a brave quartet of reviewers that turned up at London's fringe Battersea Arts Center four weeks ago to start rehearsals of their own chosen plays with a cast of professional actors and designers.
De Jongh, directing a Jean Anouilh play, said it was one of the most awful ordeals of his life.
``It felt at times like a long stroll on a narrow tightrope with fear of being laughed at whenever I tumbled,'' he said. ``Every critic should go through the fire of the experience.''
The cast concurred. ``We are a tribe on a desert island. He has got shipwrecked,'' said Valentine Pelka bluntly.
``It has been very interesting finding out how little critics know about getting a play on. On the whole, it has been a terrifying experience,'' agreed actress Faith Brook.
KEEP YOUR NIGHT JOBS, CRITICS TOLD
The eminent cast of directors who swapped roles to review the results advised the critics not to give up their night jobs.
Stephen Daldry, director of London's experimental Royal Court theater, conceded that De Jongh had ``acquitted himself with credit.''
But in a sarcastic prelude relished by many an actor savaged by a bad review, Daldry confessed he was a terrible critic who had done everything wrong.
``I turned up on time and forgot to complain about my seat. I sat in the middle of a row and forgot to scribble furiously . . . I did not rush out of the auditorium at the curtain call pretending I had an urgent deadline to meet,'' he wrote.
Guardian newspaper critic Michael Billington had a similar baptism of fire.
``Michael Billington started his rehearsal in an absolute shambles of a room . . . and he thought 'My God this is impossible. We can't possibly rehearse in here.' But that's where artists who are developing have to work,'' said BAC director Tom Morris.
Playwright Mark Ravenhill described Billington's staging of a short Strindberg play as ``pedestrian'' and said the director struggled to keep up when his Harold Pinter production entered murky waters.
Former National Theater chief Sir Peter Hall initially entered into the project with gusto.
But he soon had misgivings after other critics dismissed the venture as amateurish and struggling actors attacked it for diverting much-needed funds away from real theater.
``I thought it would be fun -- a sort of world turned upside down experiment that might raise awareness and get space for the theater,'' Hall wrote in his review of Times critic Jeremy Kingston's production of a little-known Michael Tremblay piece.
But Hall regretfully did not like the play itself and gave Kingston only five out of 10.
``I would advise Mr Kingston not to give up his night job. And I'm sure he will give the same advice to me. It honestly wasn't worth all the effort,'' he wrote.
De Jongh said the experience had changed his outlook and made him more willing ``to tap the milk of human kindness a little more frequently.''
But the theater world was mostly unmoved.
Bogdanov welcomed the fact that critics had been given a glimpse behind the curtains but said he had not changed his low opinion of them.
``My feeling about English theater critics is exactly the same. They don't, a lot of them, have very much knowledge of what goes into the making a production,'' he said.
The Royal Court's Daldry resisted the temptation to wreak revenge but questioned whether the project was not merely ``an exercise in parasitic media claptrap.''
``Perhaps we should condemn this event as an obscenity given the difficulty genuine emerging directors have in getting their work resourced and seen,'' Daldry wrote.
Reuters/Variety Reut02:29 04-16-97
"I have no biography and I am glad of it." Jean Anouilh
Written in 1936, The Traveller Without Luggage is the most haunting of Anouilh's highly theatrical, bitter-sweet plays.
It is the extraordinary story of a man without a memory. Desperate to confirm the identity and past he has constructed for himself he is forced to confront the horrifying possibility of a self he neither recognises nor likes.
This disquieting existential drama in its presentation of upper middle France and fraught failed, family relations has profound resonance even today.
Nicholas de Jongh served long term sentence at The Guardian. Heavy labour as, successively, Reporter, Arts Correspondent and Deputy Theatre Critic. Paroled joyfully to become Evening Standard Drama Critic in 1991. In 1991 wrote Not In Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage (Routledge) and a one act play on AIDS and theatrical censorship for The Royal Court's Maydays season in 1990.
Last night (April 27) I saw The Traveller Without Luggage, the Anouilh play which stars Valentine Pelka. And all I can say is - WOW!!!!
The play itself wasn't brilliant; it is part of a small group of plays being performed as part of the Critics Choice season at the BAC. The critics get to direct, just to see what would happen. Well, the results were mixed, direction-wise, but the performances were excellent.
The theatre is very small, and we sat in the third row, about two yards from the front of the performance space. NO one sat in front of me, so I had a wonderful view :-)
Right, I'm guessing here that nobody wants to hear the minutiae of the plot, but this is a brief synopsis . . .
VP plays a man (who is referred to as Gaston, though that is a name given to him) who has lost all his memory. He has no idea who he is, what sort of man he is, or anything beyond the fact that he was found in 1918, just at the end of the war, in a railway siding, completely amnesiac. He had come off a train loaded with returning prisoners of war, but nothing else is known.
Since then he has spent 15 years in a mental institution, the first 13 years of this he was more or less ignored, left to own devices to plant cabbages and avoid the orderlies. Then a new, hot-shot psychiatrist takes over, determined to find 'Gaston's' memories. In our terms, the man was tortured: shocks, blisterings, (he can hardly sit down without wincing), and constant interrogations to find out who he is (some money is involved here, but you don't want to know . . .). He has been abused and bullied, but he is somehow still kind, gentle, and far more sane than the people around him.
Ok, so the play begins with him brought into a family for them to see if he is the son they thought lost in the war. They are vile, and the stories they have to tell of their son/brother/lover are of a brute, a man who kills animals with his bare hands, is unloved, has a cold, calculating bitch of a mother, and who has been sleeping with his brother's wife. Phew . . . ! Poor Gaston hates this image of himself and can't reconcile it with how he now perceives himself. Yet all the family and servants are convinced that he is their Jacques.
VP portrays the man's anguish brilliantly. The fear he feels that this monster might actually be HIM, is heartfelt.
The first act closes with his brother's wife coming to the room he is sitting in alone. It was Jacques bedroom. She tells him they were lovers, and that she has proof that he is Jacques - he has a scar on his shoulder . She leaves, and very slowly, almost unwillingly, he strips off his jacket, pulls off his tie, then removes his waistcoat (vest, to you lot over there), taking his time over each pearl button. Then he slips his braces (suspenders) off his shoulders, and begins unfastening his shirt (as you can imagine I was slightly breathless at this point!!!).
The stage is set up so that you imagine every time any cast member looks at the audience from centre-stage, they are looking in a mirror. So there he is, standing just there, stripping...
Anyway, he takes his shirt off, unwilling as hell but needing to know about this tiny scar.
He turns sideways, trying to see his own back . . . and then, very, very slowly falls to pieces. VP was amazing, without any over-the-top histrionics he simply portrayed absolute despair. He is shaking with the intensity of emotion, crying silently. Holding himself, he falls to the floor, wrapped tight in misery, tears falling down his face, weeping properly now. Then a servant walks past and he sort of comes to. He stands up and crawls into bed, pulling the covers over himself. The house-lights dim.
End Act I
He stays on stage all through the interval.
The second half was far less interesting, theatrically and VP wise. He got to take his shirt off again as part of the ending, but I hated the way the end was contrived - he does a deal with another family and though, because of the scar, he knows he is Jacques, he pretends to be someone else. Leaves.
I had a great evening, despite the flaws in the play (mainly there because it was a creaky 1959 translation . . .). VP was delightful. Despite my main interest being in PW, I would happily go and see him on stage again.
The Traveller Without Luggage is a play about identity, class and family. A wartime injury erases a young man's entire memory. He becomes known as Gaston and spends the next 15 anonymous years in an asylum, cheerfully planting lettuces and bedding the occasional maid. He seems pretty happy about this and who can blame him? He has what we all dream of - no interfering relatives.
His peace is shattered when a progressive doctor decides to find out who he really is. The fact that Gaston also has a hefty disability allowance means he suddenly has six families claiming them as his. Worst of all, it appears likely that sensitive, down-to-earth Gaston was once arrogant, aristocratic Jacques, who tortured animals, embezzled from the elderly, crippled his best friend and slept with his brother's wife. Understandably, he denies that he was this monster, despite the offer of rekindling the affair with his gorgeous sister-in-law.
De Jongh has assembled a fine cast, and the impressive set, designed by Robin Don, is suitably dark and claustrophobic. De Jongh's inexperience is evident in the sometimes overdirected lighting and the music and occasionally turgid action, but even so this is an enthralling play with some great moments of comedy (esp from the servants Phillip Bird, Sally George and Will Keen) and a subtle yet brilliant demonstration of Gaston's internal struggle by Valentine Pelka.
Above all, despite his passion for Anouilh's play, De Jongh is aware that his directional debut is merely a rather sporting experiment and is not taking himself too seriously....