Les Damnés

Reviewer's rating

This first collaboration between director Ivo van Hove and the Comédie-Française is also the company’s first visit to this country in many years. The director himself is of course very well known to us for his startling reworking of classic plays and adaptations of works we know as screenplays, of which this is the latest, taking its point of departure from Visconti’s notorious film of 1969. 

On the face of it, this play tells a simple dynastic story based on the Krupp steel and munitions firm in the Nazi era. Different factions in the family vie for control of the company and try to play the new regime to their own advantage, without realising that they, in fact, are being controlled by the fascists, in the form of a relative, Aschenbach, highly placed in the SS. But there are larger symbolic themes in play here. As Aschenbach says, ‘the complicity of the people is the great miracle of the Third Reich.’  Why was there so much moral compromise and indeed eager participation, and so little direct resistance until late in World War Two, when the game was clearly lost? The differing responses of the family become emblematic of these dilemmas, and the success of any theatrical representation then rests on making sure the evening works as both as a family drama and a broader treatment of the delusions, attractions and deceptions experienced by the political and social elite during the Nazi era.

There are a lot of horrors to witness along the way and the key question is whether these are gratuitous detours into excess just for the sake of it or a careful examination of the aesthetics of cruelty that has to be a consideration in any film or play set in the Nazi era. As the director says in the programme, horrors are better seen in art than experienced in real life, but all the same, it still has to be good art to pass muster and justify itself.

In large measure, Van Hove and his thirty superbly talented actors and creative team succeed in keeping to this delicate balance as each episode leads to the death of another family member and the family firm gets ineluctably sucked into further compromises and collaborations. Van Hove and his partner and regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld put together some extraordinary tableaus and sequences that gather together not just extremes of technical acting but bravura effects of lighting, costume, music and video projection. These generate images of exceptional resonant, lingering power which created a stunned admiring silence among the press night audience. There is a fifteen-minute sequence devoted to the crushing of the SA by the SS in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ which is one of the most compelling, if disturbing, things I have seen in any theatre, in which theatrical skills acquire an overwhelming cinematic wrap-around scope that makes you think differently about the possibilities of the medium. Wagner famously said that opera should aspire to be a ‘total work of art’, involving all the forms of creative expression and commentary. This production achieves it time and again.

It is invidious to single out individual performances in an ensemble work where the standard is uniformly brilliant, but at least three actors demand a particular mention. Eric Génovèse, as the ingratiating and plausible SS officer, Aschenbach, has the kind of steel-in-the velvet-glove charm of a Klaus-Maria Brandauer; Elsa Lepoivre, as the scheming baroness determined to promote her son and later her lover as heads of the company, manages to combine elements of Lady Macbeth and Gertrude in a many-sided performance; and Christophe Montenez, playing her son, who tries Hamlet-like to stand aside from the family and national politics, is perhaps most remarkable of all in the journey he travels into the heart of darkness, his flawed nature stripped down to the bare essentials.


It’s not perfect: the video projection of the acting as it happens sometimes produces a confusing duality of focus, and the action is so busy with stimuli that at points it is hard to know how and where to concentrate (you really want to play the scene again to absorb its full meaning). Sometimes there is just too much-sustained shouting and anger so that the senses are dulled and desensitised to what is actually happening.

I needed a large drink afterwards, but Van Hove once again produces some extraordinary visual images and theatrical effects that add value to the text rather than distracting from it. I don’t see how you avoid addressing and exploring the aestheticisation of cruelty in a play set in the Nazi era, and this does it in compellingly topical ways. Much of the time what you see is totally uncomfortable viewing, but the whole is necessary and justified in the end, with only a very few reservations.