‘The Emigrants’ Review: A Troubled Show Finally Debuts

‘The Emigrants’ Review: A Troubled Show Finally Debuts

The spotlight is rarely on them. Yet as the technical crew moved furniture between scenes of Krystian Lupa’s new play “The Emigrants,” which finally had its world premiere in Paris on Saturday, they were watched as carefully as headline performers.

Without these inconspicuous figures, the show can’t go on — and for much of the past year, a dispute with technicians has kept “The Emigrants” from the stage. Initially scheduled to debut last June at the Comédie de Genève, a prestigious Swiss playhouse, that production was canceled less than a week before opening night.

At the time, the Comédie de Genève cited differences in “work philosophy” and “values” between its team and Lupa, 80, a longtime luminary of European theater. An article in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps said that the theater’s crew had been “mentally and physically exhausted” by Lupa’s attitude in rehearsal. In a reply published in the French newspaper Libération, Lupa apologized for two violent outbursts during rehearsals, but maintained that technicians “should at least attempt to adapt” to a director’s creative process.

Members of the Comédie de Genève technical crew responded with a long letter, describing “multiple instances of disrespect, scoldings, taunting, scenes of drunkenness and humiliations, as well as chaotic organization.”

The domino effect was swift, and the prestigious Avignon Festival, which was supposed to present the work this past summer, pulled out, too. The Odéon — Théâtre de l’Europe, a Paris theater where Lupa has been a frequent guest over the years, ultimately stepped in to make up for the lost rehearsal time this winter, allowing for a belated premiere using its own technical crew. (No performances of “The Emigrants” are currently planned beyond the Paris dates.)

Judging by the tepid reaction to the interminable opening night, the delay would have been a good opportunity to rethink “The Emigrants.” When a central character mournfully declared, more than four hours into the show, “I think I’ve wasted a lot of time,” a woman behind me replied loudly, “So have we.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “The Emigrants” feels like the work of a director who sees no need to change his ways. Lupa’s style has always been slow-going and contemplative, and in this French-language adaptation of a 1992 book of the same name by the German author W.G. Sebald, Lupa indulges in meandering conversations and an overload of unevenly produced video, projected on a semitransparent screen in front of the stage.

In the book, Sebald looks back on four men in his life who experienced exile. Lupa opted to focus on two of them in a diptych of sorts, with an interval midway through the four-and-a-half-hour running time.

The first part is by far the strongest and would have made a fine show on its own. In it, Sebald, played solemnly by Pierre Banderet, looks back on an elementary-school teacher, Paul Bereyter, who made a special impact on him in the early 1950s. Decades later, Sebald learns of the teacher’s suicide, and goes on a quest to piece together his life.

Bereyter’s is a story of historical and personal trauma, which Lupa deftly conveys through tense, ominous confrontations between the central characters. Torn between his vocation and the rising shadow of the Third Reich, he left his Jewish girlfriend to continue teaching in Germany — only to be barred from the profession for being a quarter Jewish himself.

A quiet, reticent figure in the hands of the actor Manuel Vallade, Bereyter is wracked with unspoken guilt. “I didn’t know,” he says near the end of the first part. “That is unforgivable.”

After the intermission, “The Emigrants” goes painfully awry. The other exiled character that Lupa selected, Ambros Adelwarth, never comes alive the way Bereyter does. We must wait an hour into the second half before he even appears; before that, the narrator is stuck with an elderly aunt who provides drips of information about Adelwarth, a distant relative. (Aside from Bereyter’s girlfriend, the main purpose of the female characters in “The Emigrants” is to unearth and comment on old photo albums for Sebald.)

It is unclear why Adelwarth left Germany for the United States, where he lives as the closeted gay partner of a mentally ill young man, and ultimately ends up in a psychiatric hospital himself. In the final stretch of “The Emigrants,” the narrator wanders around the desolate remains of the clinic with a disturbed doctor who regrets giving Adelwarth electroshock therapy.

Many of the recorded and projected scenes in this section feature special effects — the sudden appearance on camera of psychiatric patients’ ghosts, for instance — that detract from the grave, mostly static proceedings onstage. During a filmed monologue, I found myself returning again to the crew members tiptoeing behind the screen to lay out props for the next scene. Their movements had a choreographed precision; they may be rarely celebrated, but the stage is theirs, too.

Given the experience of their counterparts in Geneva, was it worth showing “The Emigrants” in full? It’s hard to begrudge the nine-strong cast, who expressed their anguish at the cancellation last June, the opportunity to present their work at last. And the Odéon’s technicians looked cheerful when they were pointedly brought front and center during the curtain calls on opening night.

Still, completing “The Emigrants” required a significant investment from the Odéon, a publicly funded flagship of French theater, which is navigating choppy waters of its own. Its director, Stéphane Braunschweig, recently announced that he wouldn’t be seeking a third term in the role. In interviews, he said he didn’t want to carry on because cuts by the French government to the theater’s operating grant meant that he “no longer had the means” to realize his vision.

Lupa came of age in an era of unfettered power for top theater directors. Times have changed, and it’s never too late to edit oneself — for the sake of the audience, too.

Les Émigrants

Through Feb. 4 at the Odéon — Théâtre de l’Europe, in Paris; theatre-odeon.eu.

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