Claudel: a destiny set in stone

Imogen Sage as Camille Claudel in "Claudel". Image: Daniel Boud/supplied.

Review: Claudel, the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Thursday, April 29, 2021. Reviewed by arts and entertainment editor, Rita Bratovich.

★★★1/2

Camille Claudel’s story has been depicted in at least two feature films and told in various documentaries but this stage version, though necessarily condensed, provides a 3D, in-situ perspective of the tortured, unrewarded prodigy. 

Her name does not have the same cachet as that of her contemporary and mentor, Auguste Rodin, yet many scholars believe Claudel was – or had the potential to be – every bit as remarkable. Rodin was her teacher, then lover and then ultimately, betrayer. 

It would be simplistic to blame the relationship with Rodin or the contempt Claudel received from her own mother for the mental instability that eventually crushed her. Thankfully, Wendy Beckett does not follow that premise in her play. Instead, she presents Claudel as a complex, exceptionally gifted individual whose gender, as much as her disposition, contributed to her fate. 

Imogen Sage as Claudel and Christopher Stollery as Rodin in Claudel. Image: Daniel Boud/supplied.

In the title role is Imogen Sage, who spoke with the Sentinel several weeks ago during rehearsals. She talked about the challenge of playing such an enigmatic figure and how to present her without deferring to clichés. It’s fair to say, Sage met that challenge successfully. Sage’s Claudel is strong-willed, confident, imaginative and intelligent but, alas, also sensitive and reactive; an ingenue whose creative maturity far exceeds her emotional maturity. 

Suzanne (Henrietta Amevor), Claudel (Imogen Sage) and Jessie (Melissa Kahraman). Image: Daniel Boud/supplied.

Opposite her is Christopher Stollery as Rodin who, it could be argued, benefits from both Claudel’s weaknesses and strengths. Rodin is a much more straightforward personality and Stollery plays him, somewhat graciously, as a foil to Sage’s Claudel.  

Claudel’s besties and fellow sculpture students, Jessie (Melissa Kahraman) and Suzanne (Henrietta Amevor) also act as contrasts to Claudel. Where Claudel is serious, arrogant and impertinent, Jessie and Suzanne are vivacious, giggly and fawning, although, it should be said, also talented and focused on their art. 

Claudel’s brother, Paul (Mitchell Bourke) is devoted to her and supportive of her work – until he isn’t. Like his unseen father, Paul is eventually broken down by Madame Claudel (Tara Morice) becoming submissive and hence, turning his back on his sister. Bourke’s Paul is gangly and awkward, earnest but uncommitted to his principles. 

Imogen Sage as Claudel and Mitchell Bourke as Paul. Image: Daniel Boud/supplied.

Morice has overwhelming presence and controlled intensity as the formidable Madame Claudel. Rather than play her as a straight-up villain, Morice shows nuance, indicating elements of jealousy, resentment, class and gender oppression; a life under-achieved, which may inform her unreasonable disdain for her own daughter. 

Three dancers represent figures from one of Claudel’s most famous sculptures, The Mature Age: Dorothea Csutkai as Rodins’ wife, Rose; Cloe Fournier as Camille; and Kip Gamblin as Rodin. They hold various poses and dance throughout the play, choreographed by Meryl Tankard. It adds movement to what might otherwise be quite a static set, but also, the dancers act as muses and conduits for Claudel’s imagination. 

Kip Gamblin, Cloe Furnier, and Dorothea Csutkai as ‘statues’. Image: Daniel Boud/supplied.

The set, for the most part, depicts a studio, and is very sparse.  A large cloth screen, mottled with brownish splotches, acts as the backdrop. There are a few unfinished statues, wooden tables, stools and other odd pieces, all adhering to a sepia or earth-tone colour palette. 

It gives a claustrophobic feel which helps reflect the cloistered world and mind of Claudel. 

One notable prop is a bust which Claudel grabs, stretches and bends as an indication of her declining mental state. The sculpture is the work of paper artist, Li Hongbo. (Look him up, his work is fascinating.) 

Tara Morice as Madame Claudel and Imogen Sage as Claudel. Image: Daniel Boud/supplied.

The one disappointing part of the play is the way Claudel’s period in an asylum is shown. It feels rushed and a little perfunctory. Claudel is sat in a chair while time passing is indicated by dates projected on the back wall in increments of decades. Claudel spent 30 years in an institution. It effectively ended her artistic career and robbed her of a significant part of her life. That fact could have been made more poignant. It’s a small point, however, certainly not enough to mar what is overall an excellent production.  

Claudel is on at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney until Sunday, 9 May 9. Tickets ($79.90–$109.90 plus booking fee) and further information at www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/theatre/2021/claudel.html.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment of the Sydney Sentinel.