Ann Louise Ross - Les Parents Terribles
The Cocteau hour
Actor Ann Louise Ross tells Mark Fisher about the wild family passions behind Les Parents Terribles
In the early 20th century Paris, Jean Cocteau was considered avant-garde. He was the kind of artistic butterfly who, when he wasn’t publishing volumes of poetry, giving encouragement to young (and sexually attractive) artists and hanging out with the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Erik Satie, was staging scandalous ballets with Diaghilev or reworking classical convention in plays such as the surreal Orphée. By the time he came to Les Parents Terribles, however, he’d decided he wanted to resume the ‘tradition of boulevard theatre’ and to offer his audience something more mainstream.
But, says Ann Louise Ross who’s playing Yvonne, the archetypal terrible parent in Dundee Rep’s new production, Cocteau’s idea of conventional boulevard theatre isn’t everyone’s. ‘It’s conventional in the setting and the fact that it’s about a family,’ she says. ‘But they’re not a conventional family. It goes at such a pace that neither the characters nor the audience have time to think. It takes some very strange turns.’
Drawing heavily on Cocteau’s intense relationship with his own mother, Les Parents Terribles is about a dysfunctional bourgeois family whose passions have got out of hand. The possessive mother can’t cope with the idea of her 22-year-old son having a girlfriend and, although the relationship doesn’t go as far as incest, it’s near enough to have outraged the Municipal Council of Paris who closed the show down in 1938. Not that that changed anything; the production simply moved to another theatre where it enjoyed a six-month run.
‘The mother has a complete obsession with the son,’ says Ross, adding that the other relationships in the play are hardly less intense. ‘She’s overpowering. There’s nothing in the script to suggest incest, but they are physical with each other. She spends most of the play in bed and, when the son is around, he’s invariably on the bed with her. It could be distasteful to some people, but it’s just a mother’s absolute obsession with her son.’
Written in an eight-day opium-fuelled frenzy, the play was once described as a ‘camp version of Oedipus Rex’. Performed by a core team from Dundee’s award-winning ensemble, it is directed by Stewart Laing, no stranger to work about drugged-up sexual ambivalence. He, for one, is happy to revel in Cocteau’s inconsistencies. ‘As actors, we’re sometimes finding it difficult to get a through-line, but Stewart suggests we don’t try because there isn’t one,’ says Ross. ‘You turn on a sixpence. You say one thing, then the opposite and it’s completely accepted.’
Although it’s at the outer range of the work of the company that brought us Sunshine on Leith and Peer Gynt – both heavily nominated in the forthcoming Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland – it is also a highly entertaining and energised piece of theatre. ‘At the same time as being very dark, it’s extremely funny,’ says Ross. ‘Apart from the extremes that these people go to, the domestic situation is fairly recognisable. It’s just what they get up to within those conventions is what makes it good theatre.’
Les Parents Terribles, Dundee Rep, Sat 7-Sat 21 Jun.