Her fingers curl around the cotton of her skirts as she kicks her heels and stamps her feet. She laughs: a hot, hard sound. She moulds the air with her hands furiously, kneading, shaping, sculpting. Fever-quick and restless, she roams around the room.
Having previously played Frida Kahlo, the French-Brazilian performer Gaël Le Cornec turns her attention to Camille Claudel, who despite being a talented sculptor in her own right, will forever be tied in most minds to Rodin, for whom she was a muse, a model and eventually a lover, and to the fact that Claudel’s emotional energy, her volatility, her inner unchecked burning, led to her being confined to the lunatic asylum at Montfavet by her family, where she was to remain until her death. Even though her physicians eventually came to believe she was fit for release, she was left there to fester for thirty years, only very rarely receiving visitors.
Le Cornec attempts to convey something of the spirit of Claudel rather than just offering up a by-numbers biography. So she stamps and swishes her skirts and roars with laughter, leading the audience in song, conveying the lust and danger of her relationship with her former mentor coupled with her own potent artistic vision, her hunger for recognition on her own terms. This initial flaring, solar and searing, is slowly eroded as her drinking intensifies, her behaviour becomes more erratic and the whispers start, the ugly conspiratorial talk that will eventually see her labelled a hysteric and locked away by her mother and her steely diplomat brother, Paul Claudel. Le Cornec’s actions become more frantic and exaggerated as she deteriorates, sinking into the absinthe bottle and the arms of a succession of inappropriate men, eventually forced to self-administer an abortion, the blood-red bloomers she wears under her skirts taking on an appalling new significance.
While on the one hand the appeal of these exercises in resurrection is obvious – releasing these eclipsed women from their attics, their garrets, and the bone-cold loneliness of the asylum, and making them live and laugh – they’ve also become something of a Fringe genre with their own particular codes, too few of which are subverted here. There’s a danger of simply dropping these women into new but just as restrictive boxes, something this production does not entirely avoid.
Le Cornec’s performance, however, is just knowing enough to transcend some of the clichés inherent in the material: it’s rich and warm and incredibly connected with its audience; she is unafraid to hold your gaze, to laugh at herself. There are times where it’s just possible to scent the Belle Epoch in this drabbest of Pleasance Portakabins, at other times the incessant swishing of skirts makes Le Cornec resemble a child let loose in her mother’s dress-up box.
While the soft-hearted part of me warmed to Le Cornec’s epilogue, her imaging of Claudel finding eternal release in a whirl of parasols and sunshine and tender caresses, this all felt a little too wishful and naïve; I found the rainbow cascade of Claudel’s unread letters, her decades of one-sided correspondence, that provided the more wrenching image, that stirred the blood and left a tang of anger and sadness in the air at the sheer fucking waste of talent and years.