La Tragédie du roi Christophe — fiery anti-colonial theatre in France

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A review by Laura Chapelle for Financial Times.

Aimé Césaire is among France’s finest poets, and The Tragedy of King Christophe is testament to his literary imagination. This play about a little-known episode in Haiti’s history offers a flamboyant blend of verse and prose, Caribbean sayings and lyrical élan; it celebrates and challenges the French language, as the Martinique-born author did throughout his life. Sample the FT’s top stories for a week You select the topic, we deliver the news. Select topic Enter email addressInvalid email Sign up By signing up you confirm that you have read and agree to the terms and conditions, cookie policy and privacy policy.

Why, then, is it so rarely performed, like Césaire’s other plays? Might it be that they require large casts of black actors, who are still few and far between on the French stage? Only Christian Schiaretti, director of Lyon’s Théâtre National Populaire, has taken an interest in them in recent years. After A Season in the Congo in 2013, his production of King Christophe, currently installed at Les Gémeaux in Sceaux, brings Césaire’s fiery anti-colonial stance to life.

There is something Shakespearean about the true story of Henri-Christophe, a former slave who took part in Haiti’s uprising against French rule in the late 18th century. In 1811, the self-styled King Christophe established a kingdom in the north of the country. He soon turned into a tyrant, yet his flagship policy of forced labour was originally instituted in the name of restoring black pride and developing the country. Césaire captures the contradictions of this early example of anti-colonial consciousness with potent empathy. “Our names were stolen from us,” Christophe exclaims at one point, referring to the French-sounding names given to the local population.

To command respect at home and abroad, however, he creates a court and noble titles after European models, and invites a master of ceremonies to teach the former slaves proper protocol. The strong cast includes actors from Schiaretti’s own company as well as from the Burkinabé theatre collective Béneeré. Marc Zinga gives an emphatic performance as Christophe, all the way to his partial paralysis after a stroke. In his companion Hugonin, the King finds a fool not unlike Lear’s, played with tragicomic verve by Emmanuel Rotoubam Mbaide.

Schiaretti’s unfussy production, on a bare stage that gradually becomes covered in earth, comes with live music (by Fabrice Devienne) that cleverly reflects the short-lived kingdom’s confusion: French revolutionary tunes and classical instruments mix with Caribbean songs and drums. The history play has recently enjoyed a revival in France; it may be time to add Césaire’s full body of work to the mix, to acknowledge both a great playwright and France’s colonial past.

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