Indefinably ageless, Adjani is the absolute embodiment of what Myrtle Gordon, the middle-aged alcoholic Broadway star she plays in Opening Night, is fighting for her right to be. A woman. Of a certain age. Whose age (which is never revealed) is irrelevant. “I dislike very much questions about age … My age is not a topic that I want to linger on,” says Adjani. “Sure, Myrtle is one of those actresses that worry that she might become categorised, limited in her artistic options. Is she still right nowadays? I’m not in this business to hope times are changing on that level, but to make them change as a feminist actress.”
Opening Night might be the perfect gnarly vehicle. “We fell in love with the idea of trying to adapt something from Cassavetes’ Opening Night for the stage, almost at the same time,” says Adjani, who befriended Cyril Teste after being impressed by his production of Falk Richter’s Nobody. “Cyril doesn’t just direct theatre,” she says. “He’s a real movie lover, a cinephile. He’s got the eye, the knowledge, the memories. So, of course, he’s always been a great admirer of Cassavetes’ work in general and of this one movie in particular.”
One can see why. It is a theatre-director’s dream, a play within a play within a movie exploring the nuts and bolts of stage direction In the movie, real life couple, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, play former lovers, stage actors Myrtle and Maurice, playing Virginia and Marty in the inner play, The Second Woman – a reference to “the person a woman becomes after the pretty young one fades.” They are days away from opening, and Myrtle is grappling with the lead role in which her character is coming face-to-face with the “gradual lessening of [her] power as a woman, which, if she plays the part too well, would, she feels, destroy her career.
“I’m looking for a way to play this part where age doesn’t make a difference,” says Myrtle. But everything is pushing her nose into the foul-smelling reality of ageing – from the 17-year-old female fan and aspiring actress, Nancy, representing her younger self, who is run over and killed in the first few minutes, and whose ghost she does battle with for the first half of the play, to the constant reminders from everyone around her that she is an older woman – in fact, worse, “not even a woman anymore” but “a high-priced professional”.
But although this is not a role that could be played by a young woman, it would be a mistake to narrow the focus to ageing alone. Myrtle’s struggle, as a professional who is willing “to do just about anything to make [her] character more authentic,” shines the light on multiple themes, and Opening Night is at least as much a meditation on art, love, loneliness, fame and power. “I think with Isabelle it was interesting to shine the light on the shadow of this woman and the subject of how difficult it is to find the character when the character is about you,” says Teste.
There are moments in life where you have to confront yourself, when you have to look at yourself eye-to-eye. You, that is, your soul.
Adjani clearly welcomes the challenge. “There are moments in life when you have to confront yourself, when you have to look at yourself eye to eye. You, that is, your soul,” says Adjani. “Of course, you can survive on denial, but what if deep down you don’t want to? Because there’s only one way of living your life,and that’s to live it and live up to it, as high as you can, whatever the cost, even if it hurts. These are questions artists ask themselves every day. But these questions are of course the essence of what we call being human; living a human life.”
Part of the appeal of Opening Night is the way in which the endless mise en abyme (story within a story) of the play within the play and actors playing actors playing actors, throws these questions out into the audience. Teste’s use of what he calls his “filmic technique” – where a cameraman sharing the stage with the actors is projecting in real time what is happening on to a screen behind the action – is especially effective here. So it becomes a semi-filmed play (with a handheld camera featuring multiple close-ups) based on a film (with a handheld camera featuring multiple close-ups – incidentally shot by Al Ruban, who gave Teste and Adjani the original script) about a play about the staging of a play.
It’s like a funhouse mirror with the fiction tumbling out of the play and spilling into reality and vice versa. At several points, the audience is projected on to the screen, making us part of the mise en abyme. In New York, people were holding up their hands to see themselves. It was, at moments, quite dizzying – especially when the on-screen projection showed 17-year-old Nancy, played by Adjani’s niece, Zoe, in another clever blurring of fiction and reality, sitting in the audience, when she wasn’t actually there at all. “It’s very difficult to say this moment is real and this moment is not real,” says Teste. And when the audience laughs at Myrtle’s line: “I seem to have lost the reality of reality,” it’s because they have too.
Is this all part of the fun? “I certainly hope so,” says Adjani. “From the very outset, Cyril told us he wasn’t interested in conforming strictly to the text of the script – he wanted to capture its sprit. Cassavetes himself kept changing things while shooting, throwing in extra material, provoking incidents, inspiring improvisation.”
“The job of an artist is to transform,” says Teste, who likens his adaptation of Opening Night to Francis Bacon’s versions of Velasquez’s pope paintings, or to jazz – he played jazz guitar in Paris, where his job was to “hold the rhythm for the other artists to solo over”.
“Cyril has taken pains to blur those fine lines between the carefully prepared and the freewheeling moments, the stage and the audience, what’s shown and what’s hidden. So that while it lasts, the present becomes more intense, multi-layered and shared with you. Because in the end, it’s all about an actress struggling to meet with her audience,” says Adjani.
But this style of work is demanding of theatre-goers and open to misinterpretation. Teste is visibly irritated by one of the New York reviews that said the play was a missed opportunity to discuss the #MeToo movement. “For me, I think she didn’t understand,” says Teste.
“Yes, the misunderstanding (to put it mildly) is blatant,” says Adjani. “Actually, we have given lots of thought to that aspect of the work. The Cassavetes movie was made 40 years ago. Yes, the director portrayed in the play still needs to be taught a lesson in Feminism 101. Yes, women and actresses are still confronted with such attitudes. And yes, the messages that art can and should deliver don’t always have to be conveyed in a frontal preconceived way. As a feminist, working on this play has been a non-caricatural commitment on my part to honour #MeToo.”
Adjani, who has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time – Francois Truffaut (who declared her a genius at 19 when he directed her in The Story of Adele H), Andrzej Zulawski, former husband Bruno Nuytten (in the Cesar-winning Camille Claudel, which they co-produced), Roman Polanski, James Ivory, Werner Herzog and more – remains very active in the film world which, as she observed, disapprovingly, to Variety magazine in 2018, is still very dominated by men.
Redressing the balance somewhat, she has just shot a movie, Soeurs [Sisters], with filmmaker Yamina Benguigui, who has described the project “a woman’s film only with women”. It will be the first film that the Franco-Algerian Adjani will have shot in her father’s country. “It’s a story of three sisters looking for their Algerian identity, though they’re so French in their style of life,” says Adjani. She’s also working with French filmmaker and writer Virginie Despentes and actor/director Safy Nebbou on a period film about the painter Suzanne Valadon and her son, Maurice Utrillo, which is due out in 2020. And she’d like to direct. “Actually, I have to,” she says. “I am late. I love so much films directed by actors and actresses, even when they’re faulty. They are just so interesting.”
Whether or not she and Teste will collaborate more “time will tell,” she says. “We are both so busy!” In the meantime, travelling in this production of Opening Night is “a wonderful adventure”. Having witnessed the prolonged standing ovations she got in New York, I ask her how it is to perform for a live audience.
“Imagine silence,” she says. “Just the absence of any noise. That’s easy. Imagine you’re all alone in the middle of some desert, say in the loneliest corner of the outback. No human presence at all for miles around. Picture that silence. Good. Now take that exact same silence, and place it in a full house. Where hundreds of people are faithfully holding their breaths, perfectly still, all at the same time, because they’re all watching the same thing. They have become an audience. And this audience has a soul, and this soul has a voice, and it’s speaking to you. You can hear it in that silence. It’s crystal clear. Suspended, transparent – it’s such magic. And what’s more, you can still hear it, that silence, in the ovations. The shouts still carry it, they remember it. I don’t know what to say. It’s like a shot of pure gratitude.”
Opening Night will be at the Sydney Festival from January 21-26.
Scents and Sensibility
Believing that smell has a strong effect on memory and emotions, Teste engaged cult French perfumer, Francis Kurkdjian – who is listed in the credits as “olfactory illustrator” – to scent the play. Adjani, who already had a 10-year history with Kurkdjian, chose a personal favourite, Maison Francais Kurkdjian Petit Matin, and tweaked it, and the scent is intermittently wafted into the audience to evoke her dead fan, Nancy, to ghostly effect. “It haunts the play,” says Kurkdjian, whose other olfactory installations include scenting the fountains at Versailles and releasing thousands of perfumed bubbles onto Fifth Avenue. But only the first few rows will get the full-on effect. Should I tell people to sit up front? “Oh my God, please do,” says Adjani. “It’s divine!”