Jean Cocteau’s original book Les Enfants Terribles is the story of twisted, orphaned siblings inflicting misery on one another through subterfuge and manipulation. Helen Shutt’s first-ever English stage adaption remains true to the original story arc, except it loses hints of despair and surrealism. There’s no noticeable suggestion of an ulterior reality, all sinister action has a parody-like edge and dramatic events are steeped in an adolescent melodrama. In spite of this or, more accurately, in welcome avoidance of the usual Cocteau conventions, Harbinger Theatre’s production at The White Bear Theatre, Kennington was instantly beguiling and enjoyable.
The production artfully creates dark comedic elements and portrays cruel events without reverting to a theatre of cruelty. It isn’t an overwrought and emotionally sapping play, which allows it to tell an entertaining, albeit bleak, story not overwhelmed by suffering. The acting ensemble, with cut-glass English accents, is clearly comfortable on stage and in exploring their characters even when undressing or taking stances usually seen as humiliating. This in itself creates a comfortable bubble for them to parade and enact the disorderly events: the actors and set are self-contained despite no audience member sitting more than two feet away from the action.
In a pivotal scene where sister Elisabeth (a deceptively syrupy Alice Beaumont) struts from room to room (on a seemingly divided, yet open-plan set) completing a final act of destructive deceit, all other actors remain in various positions on the set in static poise, yet still in a flurry of internal disquiet. Brother Paul (Josh Taylor) is stricken in a near catatonic state. Taylor’s character is played with a believable tumble from obnoxious childish bravado to languid stillness. Victims of the sibling rivalry Agatha (Alma Fournier-Carballo) and Gerard (Max Krupski) are equally nonplussed and distraught as their youthful innocence is taken advantage of. Throughout the entire two-act play there is an acceleration of time from playful youth to perturbed adulthood that is visibly palpable - even without the signposts granted by the plot. In the midst of this action Les Enfants Terribles is a tale observed through a picture frame, witnessed but not engulfing.
Amber Dernulc’s set design and Alice Buckingham’s costumes are expertly picked. The combination of elegant furnishings, shimmering costumes and poised performances cements Les Enfants Terribles as a romantic portrait. A musical score ranging from Bach to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds added an aural allure to the proceedings.
Harbinger Theatre states in its manifesto it is a ‘theatre of pleasure...of playing, trying, crying, failing and laughing’. Les Enfants Terribles certainly achieves an entertaining stable of playful performances and gorgeous set and costume. It is a spectacle without trying to squeeze every inch of tragedy and emotional infliction on an audience and is all the better for it. Standing independent from the work of an illustrious novelist and creating an interpretation that still resonates with the original is a fine accomplishment.