Les Parents Terribles.

Melodrama and farce in a family hot-house

Cocteau's still-shocking Les Parents Terribles at the National.


More than half a century ago, Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles (1938) scandalised Paris. What's remarkable is that this steamy hot-house of a play still seems shocking today.

Cocteau wrote the piece in eight opium-sozzled days and it has an atmosphere all of its own. Imagine a cross between the black farce of Joe Orton and the preposterous dramas of Andrea Newman and you will get some, though only some, idea of what's on offer in Sean Mathias's thrilling production at the National's Lyttelton Theatre.

The central Act with spiral staircase!

In La Machine infernale, which he wrote four years earlier, Cocteau tackled the Oedipus story in a manner that was sophisticated, camp and almost entirely passionless. In Les Parents Terribles he returns to the theme of incest, but this time the diseased love is infecting a bourgeois family in 1930s Paris and provides the basis for a bruising melodrama. Yet, in Jeremy Sam's sparky new translation, even when emotion rises to its most torrid climaxes, you often catch yourself laughing, for the brilliantly constructed plot has much in common with a Feydeau farce.

In a magnificent and courageous performance, Sheila Gish plays the raddled mother Yvonne in this gripping study of love turned rancid. She's diabetic, and spends most of her time in bed in a half-lit room, superbly evoked in Stephen Brimson Lewis's set as a mixture of architectural grandeur and domestic squalor. You can almost smell the dirty laundry and that distinctive Parisian whiff of drains.

Yvonne loves her 22-year-old son with an unhealthy passion, and their kisses and cuddles make the flesh creep. But the almost equally besotted Michael (Jude Law) has decided he must break free from the suffocating family nest after falling in love with Madeleine, a girl his own age. Unknown to Michael, however, his new girlfriend is already his father's mistress. And to further complicate matters, Yvonne's sister Leo (Frances de la Tour) has long nursed an unrequited love for George.

Cocteau exploits these tangled relationships with exhilarating inventiveness. As in all good farce, several of the characters are forced to resort to increasingly desperate lies and evasions, and there are many blazing dramatic confrontations. But Cocteau has also latched on to a real and neglected truth of human nature - that passion is often ridiculous. For those caught up in its trammels, obsessive love is all-consuming emotion and pain. For those watching from the sidelines it is terrific entertainment.

The excellent cast precisely capture the play's violently shifting moods. At one moment you are moved, the next appalled, only to find yourself snorting with laughter at the ludicrousness of the situation and the self-centredness of the characters.

Les Parents Terribles is also the sexiest show in town. The central act (another superb design by Brimson Lewis featuring a huge spiral staircase) packs a real erotic charge, as first Michael, emerging naked from his bath, and then his dad (Alan Howard) find themselves stirred by the beautiful Madeleine (Lynsey Baxter). But when Howard becomes both aroused and angry there is a terrifying crackle of sexual violence in the air.

In the final act, Sheila Gish disintegrates spectacularly before our eyes. This is no-holds-barred acting, and Gish's ravaged voice, exposed white flesh and air of haggard misery reveal an actress prepared to shed all inhibitions in the pursuit of an unforgettable performance. More daringly still, Gish doesn't solicit our sympathy: she remains an appalling comic monster to the very bitter end.

The other performances are first-rate too, with Alan Howard offering a specially potent combination of bewildered comedy and real cruelty as the father. After three hours, you reel out of this notably perverse drama feeling both exhilarated and faintly ashamed at having enjoyed the voyeuristic spectacle so much.

Charles Spencer.

Daily Telegraph, 9.5.94.

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