It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Camille Claudel, and watching Gael Le Cornec’s impassioned and fiercely intelligent portrayal of the oft-forgotten sculptor, it’s no surprise to learn that she numbered Auguste Rodin and Claude Debussy amongst her ill-fated entanglements. A woman greatly wronged but never destroyed, she was relegated by critics and historians from Rodin’s inspiration and a genius in her own right to mere model and assistant. The action of this one-woman show moves fluidly and poignantly between the studio where Claudel obsessively perfects her work to the asylum where her last decades were wasted in exile and obscurity.
The one-woman show serves as the perfect form for Claudel’s life because Camille is, above all, profoundly and devastatingly alone. Le Cornec has a remarkable talent for holding the eye of invisible figures and her tireless commitment brings them into existence for us too. This parade of generally foolish men – her helpless brother, Paul, the passionate but ultimately neglectful Rodin, an infuriatingly patronising government minister – come and go with the very freedom she lacks. A consummate and mesmerising performer, Le Cornec ricochets from manic joy to desolation with fascinating subtlety and ease.
As the audience, we are her confidantes and conspirators; she invites us to drink, to sing, to understand – the lyrical linguistic mixture of French and English, (romanticism and cynicism, perhaps) is charming and evocative rather than alienating. “If you don’t know the words,” she cajoles, “just la-la-la-la!” and we all do. A cross between an adored child we wish to please and a temptress we can’t predict, there is something dangerous about Claudel – her fervency and her vision, the very refusal to contain herself that eventually brings about her condemnation. The black leather boots and red underwear are a striking reminder of her definitive sensuality, for the most part concealed beneath the layered white dress that whirls and flutters as she tears around the space with an energy that is both graceful and feral. “I don’t bite!” she claims, but we can’t be sure. Claudel may be tender, but she is not weak – a point proved by the fact of her self-administered abortion that is retold with discomforting clinical coldness, “right hand, left hand, right hand” – much like sculpture, but an act of destruction rather than creation.
Yet Cornec does not allow the traumas of Claudel’s life – events that we might assume demand only bitterness and rage – to cloud her talent. The imprisoned Claudel, bright-eyed and feverish, frantically describes her ideas for new sculptures by flattening and bunching the material of her skirt, forming tiny figures and forms out of the white landscape in a beautiful but haunting image of a woman disregarded by the world she so desperately deserves to be recognised by.
The play does conclude with some misleading wishful thinking as Le Cornec re-writes the terrifyingly sad ending of Claudel’s life into the hope of a fantasised escape. The truth is far more harrowing, for, despite appeals from the press, public and even her own doctor demanding her release, Claudel died after thirty years of confinement and was buried in an unmarked communal grave. It is fortunate then, that Camille Claudel stands as a worthy and towering memorial to her life and work, one that I hope receives the attention and admiration it so deserves.
**** – 4/5 stars
Camille Claudel played at Pleasance Courtyard until 27 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival.