In 2001, after the city elections that removed the right-wing Front National from power in Toulon, the new mayor began working with the mayors of eleven nearby towns to form a cooperative regional entity called Toulon Provence Méditerranée (TPM), which is now responsible for culture, sports, tourism and other development projects in Toulon and vicinity.
In 2008 the TPM decided to establish a new theatre in the center of Toulon. The Théâtre Liberté is intended to develop and present a theatrical program “centered on the Mediterranean”, not just on French national culture.
The new theatre was inaugurated on September 17 and 18, 2011 — with fireworks, which can still be seen on YouTube. The theatre is on the ground floor of the newly renovated Grand Hôtel on the north side of the Place de la Liberté. The modern theatre complex includes the Albert Camus hall with 703 comfortable red plush seats, the Fanny Ardant hall with 130 seats and for film showings the Daniel Toscan du Plantier hall with 146 seats.
Two of these halls were named after people with Mediterranean backgrounds. Albert Camus (1913-1960), the author of L’Etranger and many other books, grew up in Algeria. The actress Fanny Ardant, born in 1949, grew up in Monaco.
Only the film producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier (1941-2003) did not grow up near the Mediterranean. (In addition to his many other projects, he was an opera fan who produced five opera films: Don Giovanni, La Bohème, Boris Godunov, Madame Butterfly and Tosca.)
The Théâtre Liberté does its own productions but also hosts productions by numerous visiting theatre troupes.
In its first season, 2011-2012, the Théâtre Liberté presented 49 productions that were seen by more than 36,650 spectators. That season the theatre had 2,753 subscribers and sold 86 % of the tickets on offer.
In the autumn of 2012 the Théâtre Liberté presented an exhibition and a series of plays and lectures on the topic of “1962/2012: The War of Algeria, fifty years later”.
One of the plays on this topic was by a visiting theatre troupe called La Compagnie des Camerluches. (The word camerluches meant comrades in nineteenth century argot.)
The play was called Dis-leur que la verité est belle (Tell them that the Truth is beautiful). It was written and directed by Jacques Hadjaje, who also was one of the seven actors.
When I went in to buy my ticket no one else was waiting, so the charming young lady at the ticket counter had time to chat and tell me a bit about the play. (We also found out that we had both seen Carmen on the same evening at the Toulon opera house.)
She told me the play was about a Jewish family in Algeria that had to move to France at the end of the war in 1962, because the Jews of Algeria by decree were all French citizens. The action of the play takes place partly in Algiers and partly in Créteil, a suburb of Paris, between 1955 and today, with a lot of shifting back and forth between times and places. The play has eleven characters played by only seven actors, for instance the same actress plays Albert’s daughter and his older sister — so I was forewarned about that, but I still didn’t realize until about halfway through the play that when she was wearing a red jacket she was the daughter and without it she was the sister.
When it was time for the play to begin, the 703 red plush seats of the Salle Albert Camus were nearly all taken. The back half of the auditorium was occupied by several hundred young people and the front half by adults of various ages, including some folks of my generation who most likely had experienced the War of Algeria at first hand, either as soldiers or as refugees.
The play begins with a monologue by Albert, the protagonist (played by the author Jacques Hadjaje), standing at his mother’s grave. First he repeatedly tells her to be quiet, since now it is his turn to speak. This seems unnecessary, since she is dead, but evidently she was quite dominant while she was still alive. There is a video of this monologue on vimeo.com.
What surprised me about both halves of the audience was the extreme amount of coughing that was going on — the kind of coughing that people do when they feel uncomfortable or don’t understand what is happening. (We used to get that kind of coughing in opera houses sometimes, before they started using surtitles.) Apparently the War of Algeria is still a very touchy topic in the South of France, even fifty years later.
It could also be that I was not the only one who got confused sometimes about when and where a particular scene was playing. When I had finally figured out who Albert’s daughter was, I still didn’t realize that father and daughter hardly knew each other, since she had grown up mainly in America with her mother. It turned out that in most of the present-day scenes, Albert and Cécile were just starting to get acquainted with each other in Créteil while clearing out the apartment of his mother, her grandmother, who had just died.
Cécile has trouble understanding why her father and most of his relatives are still so traumatized about being exiled from Algeria, even after half a century. Her father is an artist or cartoonist, and at one point she tells him he should learn to draw shoes, because all the people in his drawings have their feet in the sand, even in the kitchen. “You’ve never left Algeria, Albert.”
He wants her to call him papa, but she declines because they hardly know each other and because none of her friends call their fathers papa.
The title of the play comes from a story that an Algerian girl told Albert when he was a child. In this story a prince (“He resembles you a little bit, Albert”) falls in love with a beautiful peasant girl. Before they get married, she wants him to prove his love for her by finding the Truth (ça se faisait beaucoup a l’époque, that was done a lot in those days).
So he spends many years searching for the Truth. Sometimes people tell him they used to know her (the Truth is feminine in French, la vérité) and suggest looking in this or that direction. When he finally finds her his hair is already turning white, and the Truth turns out to be an ugly, filthy and smelly old woman living in a cave. But she knows everything about him, so she is definitely the Truth. Before he leaves the cave to return to his fiancée, the Truth has one request: “Tell her that the Truth is beautiful.”
In the story it’s “Tell her . . .” but in the title of the play it’s “Tell them . . .” Either way, the Truth is not above asking someone to tell a lie.
Albert, as a child, asks if the story is true.
“Did you like the story, Albert?”
“Then what more do you want?”
The lady in the red jacket is Anne O’Dolan, a bilingual actress who performs in New York and in Paris and “has participated in all the adventures of the Compagnie des Camerluches.” Between gigs she earns her living by dubbing foreign films into French. She wore this red jacket while playing Albert’s bilingual daughter and was dressed differently while playing his older sister, who was eleven years old in the first Algiers scene (when she expressed her disgust at having a new baby brother) and later became a Zionist and moved to Israel.
The next day in Marseille I went to the big fnac store in the Centre Bourse shopping mall and asked if they had a copy of the play. They didn’t, but offered to order it for me. Since I was returning to Germany on Monday, I said I would order it online when I got home.
When the book finally came, it turned out they had sent me an earlier version of the text, not the final version that I saw in Toulon. Some of the scenes I remembered were missing from the text, but it was still good enough to clear up most of my confusion. I wish I could see the play again, now that I have read it.
I later learned that the Compagnie des Camerluches had been touring with this play all over France, including a long run in Paris at the Lucernaire. This was the first time I had ever heard of the Lucernaire, which has since become one of my favorite places in Paris.
Address of Théâtre Liberté: Grand Hôtel, Place de la Liberté, 83 000 Toulon
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.
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