Written and directed by Wendy Beckett, Claudel depicts the formative artistic years of the gifted sculptor Camille Claudel, a woman whose creative ambitions were stymied by her disapproving family, an art establishment that actively worked against the creation and promotion of women’s art, and, in various ways, by her lover, Auguste Rodin.
Rodin was destined to be feted as the greatest sculptor of the era. Claudel’s life an artist ended in mental illness and obscurity. Confined to an institution for the last 30 years of her life, she died in 1943. Her body consigned to a common grave.
Beckett (who also directs) introduces us to a youthful, feisty Camille alongside two classmates in a Parisian studio. They await Rodin, an artist at the height of his fame and a philanderer of note.
He’s dismissive of their work at first and entirely condescending. But Camille (played here by the very engaging Imogen Sage) will not be cowed and Rodin (Christopher Stollery) can’t help but be impressed by her skill and passion. They strike up a working relationship, then a romantic one.
It is an explosively creative partnership. Over 10 years, they inspire each other to new heights. But with that comes jealousy. Camille becomes incensed by Rodin’s refusal to break with his wife. Rodin becomes wary of a burgeoning talent that might eclipse his own.
Moreover, Claudel’s choices leave her isolated and vulnerable. Her mother all but disowns her.
Beckett’s writing balances character drama and the dispensing of background information quite well but the language feels stilted overall. There is onstage talk of the life force within stone, but Claudel feels curiously inert. It’s a well made play, well performed and handsomely produced on the Playhouse stage. But it lacks the dramatic suppleness of a living work of art.
Choreographer Meryl Tankard and dancers Dorothea Csutkai, Cloé Fournier and Kip Gamblin create a series of tableaux vivant during the 90-minute production. Some recreate sculptures. Others give physical shape to contrasting artistic energies or incidents in the central relationship – the most powerful being a representation of the abortion procedure Claudel underwent in London.
Matt Cox’s lighting of the chalky bodies (working to a design by François Leneveu, who lit the show’s premiere season in Paris in 2018) is very effective. The digital projections (designed by Régis Lansac) are underwhelming however. Large projectors suspended overhead deliver more in the way of distracting noise than captivating images.
Sage’s lively portrayal of the title character and Stollery’s gruff Rodin are enjoyable to watch. Tara Morice (Claudel’s devoutly Catholic mother) and Mitchell Bourke (her diplomat brother Paul) contribute some good moments, as do Henrietta Amevor and Melissa Kahraman as Claudel’s art student friends.