Break of Noon – Finborough Theatre, London

Writer: Paul Claudel

Director:  David Furlong

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers often create plays they hope will never been seen; sometimes due to the restrictions of a less permissive era, sometimes the work is too autobiographical and occasionally because it’s just not good enough. Paul Claudel’s play Break of Noonis one such creation which the playwright set aside for more than forty years on religious grounds, and with only a smattering of subsequent productions, a new English translation marks its London premiere at the Finborough Theatre.

Set in the Far East at the beginning of the twentieth-century, Yséand her husband De Ciz have been travelling to China by boat where Ysé has caught the eye of fellow travellers the bombastic Amairic and Chinese national Mesa. Desperate to find a spiritual connection lacking in her 10-year marriage and convinced her life as a mother has been wasted, Ysé embarks on relationships with both men. But with political upheaval approaching, the couples find that love and destruction are closely related.

Claudel himself refused permission for Break of Noon to be performed, and in many ways it’s well he did, because it’s a rather dreary and repetitive melodrama with circular arguments about love and impending doom. Much of its charm may have been lost in the rather complex translation by Jonathan Griffin and the late Susannah York, that certainly in Act One gets considerably bogged-down in philosophical musings and rushes so quickly between topics that it becomes difficult to keep track of what is happening.

While Acts Two and Three are a little better, the characters just have the same conversation over and over, declaring their love and then discussing Ysé’s insistence that she is a harbinger of doom. It’s incredibly difficult to care about any of them and it’s not at all clear that the Company have really decided who each of the men should be. Instead, every other line is an attempt to say something deeply profound with more epigrams than Oscar Wilde with none of the linguistic flair, as in Act Three when Mesa proclaims, “The sun has gone out… the sun of our love”. It’s all rather turgid.

As Ysé, Elizabeth Boag has the most to work with suggesting the fickleness of a woman desperate to be adored. While there are plenty of contradictions for Boag to draw upon, there is no chemistry with any of her partners which lends a flatness to the entire piece. Matt Lim’s rather uninspired Mesa barely registers the changing emotion or potentially even the danger of his situation with Ysé, and his quiet academic demeanour couldn’t be further from the description of him as a “great rough man”.

Of all the characters Connor Williams Amairic has least sense of who he is supposed to be, sometimes implying he’s a cut-price Indiana Jones, and others a boorish irritant who speaks in overly dramatic short sentences. As De Ciz, David Durham’s small role has the beginnings of something interesting, with the scene at the beginning of Act Two as he bickers with his wife the most credible in the production.

Break of Noon is in very much the same territory as Somerset Maughan, there are plenty of situational similarities to his best work including The Letterand The Painted Veil, which equally placed a smothered woman at the heart of the story, forced to seek satisfaction beyond the marriage and the consequences of doing so. But there the similarities end, and this production creates little of that atmosphere or the exoticism of both the place and the interracial relationship at its heart. With an advertised run time of 1 hour and 40 minutes but closer to 140 minutes, this rather passionless revival doesn’t make much of a case for rescuing Claudel’s all but forgotten play.

Runs until 5 June 2018 | Image: Hannan Images

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