Marcel Carne’s great 1945 film “Les Enfants du Paradis” is a hymn to actors, to the luxuriant power of art, and to France itself, whose spirit — the film was made during the German Occupation — remains as unvanquished as that of the simultaneously pervasive and elusive Garance, the courtesan who best embodies it. Simon Callow’s stage adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company is about a revolve, and a creaky one at that. Ten minutes in, and your heart sinks. Four hours later, you revolve out of the theater, dizzy and happy to get some air.
Robin Don’s calamitous turntable design is perhaps the most obvious failing of an enterprise that seems noble and foolish in equal measure. Callow is by no means the first to see in Jacques Prevert’s script the possibility of a stage epic, and what better troupe to attempt such a task than the RSC, which proved undaunted by heftier sources; Dickens and Hugo? In our time of abased emotion, why not restore to the theater the heightened sentiment that “Les Enfants” celebrates, folded into a narrative often compared to “Gone With the Wind”?
I raise these points partly to rationalize a mess on a scale not frequently encountered. Opening three months after the RSC’s four-hour-plus revival of John Osborne’s “A Patriot for Me” (a much better production), “Les Enfants” almost seems an act of calculated suicide, determined to alienate those theatergoers who find the Barbican hard enough to get in and out of even when the show is short — which, at the RSC, is hardly ever. Had this been another “Nicholas Nickleby,” cavils over length would have been subsumed in the general euphoria. It isn’t, so tempers flare and cries of the waste of taxpayers’ money are raised.
Actually, one thing “Les Enfants” does not readily betray is a sense of conspicuous consumption, since the evening looks more undernourished the longer it goes on. Don’s three-tiered set is not only creaky but pretty much bare — some may be reminded of the jungle gym design for the original “Merrily We Roll Along”– and, annoyingly, it reveals nothing new as it shunts back and forth; what is shown is difficult to see, given lighting from Simon Corder that mistakes murkiness for shadowy elegance. An occasional scene — Garance (Helen McCrory) at her dressing table, the Count (James Faulkner) by her shoulder — looks alluring in direct relation to the number of people on stage: Give this team a crowd, and any visual sense disappears along with Garance.
McCrory’s throatily confident Garance, bewitchingly attired by Christopher Woods, is the undoubted performance of an evening in which all others not only fail to approximate some cinema legends — who, after all, could equal Arletty? — but aren’t remotely convincing on their own terms. Rupert Graves has done some mime in the past, but his Baptiste is so physically awkward that the transcendent love between him and Garance seems merely adolescent. He’s a pleasant actor out of his league as a dreamy visionary.
Joseph Fiennes (Ralph’s younger brother) rather overdoes the louche authority as the criminal Lacenaire, who has turned to felony because he couldn’t make it as a writer, though he does get the better lines of Callow’s sometimes stiff translation. (Actors, he decides, “aren’t people: They’re everyone and no one at once.”) James Purefoy’s preening Frederick LeMaitre must bear the brunt of the worst play-within-a-play sequences since the slapstick routines in “Mack and Mabel.”
And so it continues with a cast notably lacking the gift referred to by Lacenaire in act two for “making people’s hearts beat faster.” That gift, of course, is why “Les Enfants” on film remains so transporting, even as its newest stage incarnation is instead dispiriting.