BFI Southbank last night opened the season of television plays from the remarkable discovery of recordings at the Library of Congress of which no copies existed this side of the Atlantic. The first presentation was Jean Anouilh’s Colombe, produced by Naomi Capon in 1960 with Dorothy Tutin, Sean Connery and Francoise Rosay. This was revealed as an engaging if problematic drama that became more intriguing as it unfolded.
Late nineteenth century Paris. Julien (Connery), a musician, and Colombe (Tutin), a former flower-girl, have been married for two years, but now he has to go away on military service. The couple return to where they first met, backstage at a theatre, to appeal for help from Julien’s mother Madame Alexandra (Rosay), a grande tragedienne from whom he is more or less estranged. Madame’s limited assistance leads to Colombe’s employment in a minor role.
While Julien is away, Colombe laughs off the clumsy attempts at seduction from the author and the theatre manager, at the same time as discovering how much she enjoys the excitements of the stage. Julien’s brother Paul (Richard Pasco) makes more of an impression, as Julien discovers when he returns three months on to find his wife transformed from shy gamine to sparkling actress. The sincerity of his love is punctured by her cynical delight in her new life and new lover.
So far, so straightforward, with much backstage business and a strong strain of sexual politics that plays a little uneasily fifty years on. Mother and surrogate daughter are caricatures of flighty, calculating, naturally deceitful women, while Julien is the soulful, suffering male artist who’s not above slapping his wife when unhappy. But the play turns darker and more surprising, as Julien desperately tries to make sense of what has happened to his relationship — including forcing Paul to kiss him to demonstrate his superior appeal. This very brief and startling action occurs at the end of Act III, setting up a final scene that shifts into flashback.
As Julien sits at a piano, coming to terms with his loss of Colombe to the theatre, he recalls the innocence and excitement of their first meeting. This is played out as the mirror image of the action so far (with references back to previous exchanges), so that whereas Colombe has now been seduced by Madame Alexandra, by Paul and by a new life of superficial excitement, here (in the ‘past’) she rejects all of these to remain faithful to Julien and a dinner engagement they have made only moments before. The drama ends on a bittersweet note with Julien, alone, walking out of the stage door for the last time.
Producer Naomi Capon wrote in ‘Radio Times’ at the time:
I first saw Colombe in the original production in Paris in 1951 and I was tremendously excited by what I saw. It was extremely funny, human, tender, bitter, and sad all at once. Anouilh takes his characters and turns and twists them to the light of his penetrating, sometimes savage, but always profoundly understanding mind. They are intensely real and alive, although the background for their drama is a rather artificial one…
The demands of publicity here lead to a rather too generous assessment of the play, whereas the anonymous critic of ‘The Times’ on 18 January 1960 is rather more measured (and accurate) in their praise for an excellent cast
all fitted into an integrated pattern with unobtrusive skill by the producer, Miss Naomi Capon, though ultimately one wondered if the play was worth all the talent lavished on it.
Most of the action is played out in a set (designed by Fanny Taylor) that stretches from the wings looking out onto the boards through the backstage to a waiting area outside Madame Alexandra’s dressing-room and then, beyond a door, to her inner sanctum. One scene also takes place in Colombe’s own dressing-room. The costume changes around the flashback mean that some at least of the scenes were pre-recorded.
After the screening there was a lively discussion with Mike Mashon from the Library of Congress and television critic Chris Dunkley. When this was opened up to the floor there was a striking moment when Dorothy Tutin’s daughter, Amanda Waring, spoke of how moving and important to her it was to see her late mother as a beautiful and vibrant young woman. Which was a vivid reminder that for all their considerable critical and academic interest, recordings such as this can have very personal associations too.