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The pleasure, the pain

A daring play on suicide holds a strenuous challenge for Isabelle Huppert. She loves that.

September 25, 2005|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Paris — "IT'S extremely self-satisfying to be an actor -- and this show really satisfies that narcissism," says Isabelle Huppert of her role in the late British playwright Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychose," in which she stands virtually still and often alone on a bright stage for two uninterrupted hours, exploring a poetic landscape of mental illness, sexual ambiguity, suicide and death.

"It's not an altruistic act to perform in front of an audience. It's a pleasure you can't even imagine to be exposed like that on the stage -- it's like having a two-hour close-up."

Directed by Claude Regy, the play will be performed in French with English subtitles from Oct. 5 through 9 at the Freud Playhouse as part of UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival.

Huppert is one of France's most accomplished and celebrated stage and screen actresses, a prizewinning performer known for cerebral, daring roles who is perhaps admired more than adored. She has arrived late to the bar at the Hotel Lutetia near her home, where she gives all her interviews, without makeup on her 50-year-old face, wearing sunglasses and a hunted look, though most of the people in this stiff, Art Deco room of $10 cups of tea are either fellow actors or tourists who don't seem to have a clue. She stops a passing hotel employee who is not a waitress to order her Darjeeling with milk.

"4.48 Psychose" refers to the time of night when, Kane imagined, the suicidal woke up clearheaded and made good on their dark intentions. And while Kane's literary executor and brother Simon has said that he does not want the play sensationalized as autobiography, there is the compelling fact that in 1999, a 28-year-old Kane left the text printed out on her desk before hanging herself by her shoelaces.

"The state she was in normally wouldn't have permitted her to write a play," says Huppert in a low voice, nasal and hoarse from a late-summer cold. Dressed in jeans and a white puff-sleeved blouse, her auburnish hair pulled back into a ponytail, she looks puny sunk back into a wine-colored love seat. "What's incredible is her lucidity right through to the end -- which allowed her at once to be above it all, because she was going to die, and at the same time to use what she was experiencing to create a work of art."

Nevertheless, Huppert admits to having some curiosity about the author. "I wanted to see what she looked like," she says. "I saw two photos of her. She was very pretty -- tomboyish, but with a femininity in her face." Huppert's costume -- black leather pants, a T-shirt and sneakers -- and plain hair and makeup are meant to reflect Kane's rocker sensibility and sexual ambiguity, themes that run through her work.

"But I didn't ask myself much about her," Huppert insists. "At the same time, the play is very constructed, very precisely written, and when you work on the text she's there, supporting you. You can't talk about a character -- there are only voices. But at the same time, it's someone who is completely incarnated, by the force of the language."

It's impossible to tell how many voices are in the play, with some dialogue seeming to be between Kane and a doctor, and the rest any number of variations on a person talking to her one or many selves. A British production of the play seen at UCLA last year used three actors. This production, which features Gerard Watkins as the doctor but is largely a solo act, was first performed by Huppert at the end of 2002 at Paris' Theatre des Bouffes du Nord with Regy's 29-year-old theater company, Les Ateliers Contemporains, where Huppert received rave reviews for her performance, the critics calling her "masterful" (Liberation) and "a magician" (Le Figaro).

"I thought of her immediately," says Regy by phone of his decision to cast Huppert, whom he had directed in the role of Joan of Arc at Opera Bastille in 1991. "It just seemed obvious to me, but I was not at all sure that she would say yes. After all, it's a dangerous role."

Dangerous, he says, because it does not flirt with theatrical conventions and limits but obliterates them, in this play without characters or a plot, whose central voice is stranded in the abyss.

But Huppert has long been fond of difficult roles that critics tend to characterize in grandiose terms such as "brave" and "fearless." And if the media are saturated with breathless accounts from actors haunted by the trying on of other souls, Huppert -- whose resume includes a challenging stage version of "Orlando" directed by Robert Wilson and the sexually repressed heroine of Michael Haneke's 2001 film "The Piano Teacher," who stabs herself in the heart with chilling self-possession -- says the painful performances hurt us more than they do her. "It's never hard to play a role that is difficult to watch," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm obliged to maintain a certain distance. It's the spectator who is totally thrown off balance, more than me, in the end. Happily."

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