Sunday, June 05, 2005
Just off the Champs Elysee, between the Avenues Matignon and Gabriel is a little park. It is not the prettiest park and attracts an odd host of characters on a saturday afternoon. There are, firstly, the dull-eyed tourists trooping along the Champs Elysee, kicking up dust. Then, under the plane trees, a coin and stamp market is taking place and a few old men with piles of phone cards wrapped in rubber bands or with heaps of rusty coins in tins have taken up position on benches, prepared to do some business. There are also drop outs and drug users hanging around. As we step off Avenue Matignon into the park, I see a young man with a shaved head sticking a needle into his arm while a friend holds his can of beer for him. And then, finally, there are children and their parents, following the sound of a bell ringing somewhere in the park.
The bell ringer is a tall, thin man, wearing shabby, off-black shirt and jeans and a battered bowler hat. His hair is striking: grey, well-combed, straight, and descending to his collar in a thick mass. His face is weathered, good humoured, cheeky. He is taking the money at the front of house of the Marionettes des Champs-Elysee, billed in Pariscope as being "à Paris depuis 1818, ce théâtre joué de vive voix offre un spectacle issu de la commedia del arte dans la pure tradition des guignols", a write-up which made it sound like rather a professional operation.
We paid, told the man we were English, and said we hoped the children would understand a word or two. Oh yes, he said. You just need to know 'non', 'oui', 'à la droite', 'à la gauche'. He smiled and we passed by a patched velvet curtain hanging between two poles into a small gravel clearing surrounded by bushes. On one side was a large painted box with a velvet curtain which was the theatre, and on the other side, under cover, a little auditorium with benches that could have sat about forty people at most. The two front rows of benches were already full with French children of around four or five chanting Guig-nol! Guig-nol!
We sat down, and as it was just past four, the man in the bowler hat reappeared and pointed to a straw basket propped on the back of a horse. Help youself to an apple he said. Then he disappeared around the back of the box. For a few moments there was silence, and then a large 'quack' issued from inside. The children giggled. Silence. Then another 'quack'. The children giggled louder this time, full of expectation. There was some shuffling, a painful coughing, and then the characters started popping up on stage. All of them had bright red cheeks and somewhat battered heads where they kep running into things with a large crash. There was Mrs Guignol in town, Mr Guignol and cheeky Baby Guignol being brave in the forest, a Gendarme who arrests Baby Guignol and is beaten to death by Mr Guignol with a large stick and a mouse who runs on and off stage at lightning speed while Baby Guignol tries to catch it in a box. All of the characters arms constantly wave up and down and they slap them on the stage with a smart 'clack' when they want to make a point or attract attention. It is a brilliant and fast moving act.
We all loved it and were sad that the show lasted only twenty minutes. At the end the puppetmaster reappeared and took a bow. The children all ran over and grabbed an apple. They were wet from the rain and my daughter rubbed hers on my trousers to dry it. The puppetmaster told her it was already clean then, turning to us, he said: "hygienism and fascism, they go together." He put two fingers said by side to show that they were bedfellows. "1933, hygienism and fascism!" he said again. I asked him how long he had been running the theatre for. "Thirty years", he said, "since 1968", and he gave me a meaningful look. I understood that he meant the student riots of 1968. "Before that", he said, "I was a history teacher. Now I see it is more important to be close to the children like this."