Dark comedy of the family

Issue 

Les Parents Terribles
By Jean Cocteau

Sydney Theatre Company
Drama Theatre, Opera House until September 2
Reviewed by Helen Jarvis

It is a strange coincidence that at the very time that the perfidy of the French government is on everyone's lips, we have in Sydney plays by two of France's leading dissident intellectuals — Jean Genet's Splendid's at Belvoir Street and Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles by the Sydney Theatre Company.

Unlike Genet's black humour among desperadoes facing death, Cocteau concentrates on the small world of the family, and opens with a pacey and hilarious first act. A mother besotted with her son and an absent-minded inventor father are worrying about their son's first night spent away from home — a chaotic and untidy apartment. This is looked upon, at first somewhat distantly, by an elegant, worldly and above all orderly aunt.

By interval, I was enjoying the riposte and absurdity of it all, but feeling that it was too frothy, bordering on Restoration comedy. Surely, Cocteau must have something with which to challenge us, I thought. What dark developments will unfold?

Indeed, the second and third acts take us deep into the world of the mind, where loyalty and betrayal fade into each other. Is any love pure? Who do we believe and who do we trust?

Although the circumstances of the play are scarcely shocking today, as they may have been when the play was first performed in 1938, the questions asked of the human condition, and particularly human relationships, remain valid and confronting.

Some familiar STC actors perform with their usual professionalism — Kate Fitzpatrick, Sandy Gore and William Zappa as the older generation, and the son and his lover, played by Daniel Lapaine (known notably from Muriel's Wedding) and Veronica Neave.

Michael Scott-Mitchell's set combines strongly with Vanessa Leyonhjelm's stunning costumes, particularly in the black and white second act.

It's a 1994 translation by Jeremy Sams for the (British) Royal National Theatre and, under Simon Phillips' direction, the action never misses a beat, making for a thoroughly enjoyable and yet disconcerting production.

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