Claudel – a genius with feet of clay

"Claudel" production image. Photo: Christine Coquilleau/supplied.

Claudel is an upcoming production that celebrates the life of little known artist, Camille Claudel. The Sentinel spoke with actor Imogen Sage about playing the title role and portraying a tortured, underestimated genius.  

It used to be said that behind every great man was a great woman, and for much of history, that was true. Women have been obscured by, in the shadow of, or subordinate to their male counterparts for centuries. Case in point is French sculptor, Camille Claudel, who, if she is remembered at all, is remembered as a protégé and sometime mistress of revered sculptor, Auguste Rodin.  

“Sadly, I did not know anything about Claudel, actually. I think I may have seen her work in Paris without really knowing who she was,” confesses Imogen Sage, who will playing the forgotten French artist in the upcoming stage production, Claudel, at the Sydney Opera House.

“Obviously, I knew about Rodin – everybody knows about Rodin – but I didn’t really know much about Camille Claudel at all.”

Imogen Sage will play Camille Claudel in the upcoming production, Claudel at Sydney Opera House. Photo: Christine Coquilleau/supplied.

Sage did some research on Claudel and was, in equal parts, astounded by the sculptor’s work and angered by her relegation to obscurity. Camille Claudel was born in northern France in 1864. Her artistic potential was evident by the time she was 17 and she and her family moved to Paris in 1881 so that Claudel could study under sculptor and friend of Rodin, Alfred Boucher. 

From there, it was a short leap into the arms of the older, highly-esteemed Rodin with whom Claudel had a turbulent affair. After a relatively brief career during which she did, in fact, receive recognition for her sculptures, Claudel experienced a mental breakdown, prompting her family to have her committed to an asylum where she lived out her remaining 30 years. 

Sage admits Claudel is a complex and challenging personality to portray. She began by trying to understand the artist.  

Claudel dancers. Photo: Christine Coquilleau/supplied.

“To prepare for the role I did go to some sculpture classes and I met with quite a well known Australian sculptor and kind of observed him actually doing some work with clay,” explains Sage. “I just wanted to understand what it was like to be in the studio and to kind of understand the very … the physical experience of being in the studio and working with those materials, with plaster and clay and with wire.”

Sage also immersed herself in music, listening to tortured singers like Nina Simone and musicians who were contemporaries of Claudel, like Debussy. 

“I like to listen to music of the period because I start to understand, I think, on a more abstract level what was being created in that time in history – and she actually knew Debussy.”

Depicting Claudel’s mental illness without descending into cliché or melodrama requires a particularly nuanced approach. Sage has ignored the ‘madwoman’ label assigned to Claudel by many, and has instead focused on the circumstances that led to the artist’s breakdown. 

The characters of Rodin and Claudel in Claudel. Photo: Christine Coquilleau/supplied.

“Looking at all the elements of the society around her and the gossip that she was probably experiencing because of her tumultuous relationship with Rodin.  Looking at the fact that she was a woman creating art in that time – and professionally. And that she was very ambitious, very unconventional in her lifestyle; and looking at the Catholicism of that time; and if you just add all of those things together, it makes a lot of sense that anyone in those circumstances would have a breakdown.” 

The show itself uses various mediums to help express some of the more ephemeral elements of the story. The sculptures are represented by dancers, choreographed by Meryl Tankard to depict the different stages of a work in progress. 

“Because so much of the play is situated in Rodin and Claudel’s studio, and it’s got that very elemental studio feel about it, I think the dancers will bring a kind of colour and life to those sculptures, and to the process which in real life would be quite laborious, quite time-consuming,” says Sage. 

Claudel will see Sage making her Sydney Opera House debut, and she’s looking forward it. 

“It’s just such a pleasure to be in a rehearsal room again. I’ve just really missed theatre – I think everyone’s missed theatre this last year. It feels very organic to be back in the room, it feels very normal. But also, I also feel very grateful for the opportunity.”

Claudel runs from Friday, April 23 to Sunday, 9 May 9 at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney. Tickets ($79.90 to $109.90 plus booking fee) and further info available at www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/theatre/2021/claudel.html.