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Ondine by Jean Giraudoux, adapted by Maurice Valency
Directed by Sam Shammas
Performed at the Shaw Theatre, Brixton
Wednesday 2nd - Saturday 12th October 1996

"Try as everyone might, Ondine, the 16-year-old water spirit, is impossible to dislike and the same can be said of this revival adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's fairy tale... Sam Shammas' big-hearted, ruddy production is as doggedly wholesome as the heroine."
Patrick Marmion, Time Out (October 1996)

Jean Giraudoux was born in 1882, and died in 1944. His plays include Amphityron 38 (first produced in 1929), a great success in London and New York for the Lunts in a translation by S N Behrman, and revived by the National Theatre in 1971 with Geraldine McEwan; Judith (1931), seen in London in 1962 in a production by Harold Clurman; Intermezzo (1933), presented in London in 1956 by the Renaud-Barrault company and revived at the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich in 1986; Electra (1937); The Madwoman of Chaillot (1945); and Duel of Angels (1953), translated by Christopher Fry, presented in London and New York with Vivien Leigh. He is probably best known to British audiences for The Trojan War Will Not Take Place (1935). This was presented in London in 1955 as Tiger at the Gates in a translation by Christopher Fry. The cast included Michael Redgrave, Barbara Jefford, Leueen MacGrath and Diane Cilento. Kenneth Tynan wrote that this play represented the "highest peak in the mountain range of modern French theatre". It was revived by the National Theatre in 1983.

Ondine is adapted by Maurice Valency who is probably best known for his version of Durrenmatt's The Visit, originally performed by the Lunts in a production by Peter Brook, and most recently revived by Theatre de Complicité at the National Theatre in 1991. He is also a dramatist in his own right whose works include The Thracian Horses, Battleship Bismarck and Regarding Electra. His other translations include two other plays by Giraudoux: The Madwoman of Chaillot and The Enchanted (originally Intermezzo). He is also well known for his version of Offenbach's La Perichole, commissioned for the Metropolitan Opera. He was Professor of Comparative Literature at Columba University until his retirement in the mid 1980's, and is also the author of a number of academic works on writers such as Strindberg, Chekhov, Ibsen and Shaw.


The play deals with the meeting, mating and misalliance of Ondine with the knight-errant Hans von Wittenstein zu Wittenstein. Ondine is a water-sprite, ostensibly fifteen-years old, and attracted to the world of mortal man - so much so that she lives, as their daughter, with an old fisherman and his wife. To their lakeside cottage comes a knight-errant; Ondine falls in love with him, and, banishing all thought of the woman who has sent him off on his quest, he with her. Eventually he takes her back to court - and then the trouble starts.

Ondine, though she has rapidly acquired some of the less amiable human characteristics, hardly fits in with organised society. Bertha, the knight's abandoned love, as dark as Ondine is fair, is understandably put out - but not defeated. Moreover the sheer intensity of Ondine's love soon begins to irk Hans...

The mermaid's traditional attributes were borrowed from Aphrodite, the classical Goddess of love: the comb symbolising fertility, the mirror symbolising vanity. According to the 16th Century scholar Paracelsus, mermaids had every human faculty except a soul, and that could be obtained through marriage to a mortal. Goethe personified the four elements as Salamander, Undine, Sylphe and Kobold. The Romantic German writer, De La Motte Fouqué, was inspired to weave the tale of Undine about the second of these, drawing also on the legends of Lohengrin and Melusine. Heine writes: "It is a very kiss; the Genius of Poesy kissed the sleeping Spring, and he opened his eyelids with a smile, and all the roses breathed out perfume, and all the nightingales sang - this is what our excellent Fouqué clothed in words and called Undine." The siren, the Lorelei, and even Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid all possess this haunting and unspeakable beauty which has the power to lure unwary men to their graves.

In Giraudoux's hands, the legend has the usual fairy tale moral lurking within it: a warning that marriage between people of different worlds leads to tragedy. Rather more profoundly, though, the play hints at the need men have for a certain privacy of spirit, a need which women seem not to share. Giraudoux provocatively asserts that it is precisely this female single-mindedness that makes woman the stronger sex.

What have I done to thee? Where wouldst thou go?
Is it the world of men that thou wouldst know?
I warn thee, maiden. Man's a curious thing,
Who naught but woe, to such as thee could bring.
Although, perchance, with ours his fate's entwined,
He is, yet is not quite, of our own kind.
His world is ours - and yet, I say, beware!
Half here, he lives - half, no-one could tell where!
Half he's our brother; yet, this many a day,
A foe he's been, and lost to us for aye.
Woe, woe to all who our free mountains flee
To join these mortals, hoping bliss to see!

In 1938, "Giraudoux produced what many believe to be his finest work" (Phyllis Hartnoll in The Oxford Companion to the Theatre), Ondine. The play opened in Paris in April 1939 with a cast including Louis Jouvet and Madeleine Ozeray. A French production by the Theatre-National de Belgique was seen at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1953.

This translation was first performed on Broadway in 1954 in a production by Alfred Lunt with a cast including Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn - in the role that made her a star. The play also won the 1954 New York Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Its London premiere was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, directed by Peter Hall, with Leslie Caron in the title role, and a cast that included Richard Johnson, Diana Rigg, Eric Porter, Clive Swift, Sian Phillips, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Roy Dotrice, Ian Holm and Peter Jeffrey.

Although not based on the Giraudoux play, the legend is also known through ballet and opera. Ondine, a ballet, was choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton to a score by Hans Werner Henze and opened at the Royal Opera House in 1958 with Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in the lead roles. It was revived by Sir Anthony Dowell in 1988 with Maria Almeida and Dowell himself dancing the leading roles. A similar tale is told by Dvorak's opera, Rusalka (text by Jaroslav Kvapil), which was first performed at the Czech National Theatre in Prague on March 31, 1901. The most recent production of Rusalka was at the English National Opera in 1991.

"The naive and the ultra-sophisticated are blended here in such a manner as to blur the frontiers of human experience...The technical skill with which the author accomplishes his tight-rope passage from mood to mood is only equalled by the virtuosity of his scene-construction and the certainty of his delineation of character."
Donald Inskip discussing Ondine in Jean Giraudoux: The Making of a Dramatist, 1958

"Giraudoux's lines, imaginatively adapted by Maurice Valency, glint with romantic gems... [and] exotic verbal nuggets..."
Milton Shulman, Evening Standard, January 13th 1961

"Giraudoux, who died in 1944, undoubtedly possessed one of the finest talents in the modern French theatre. His titles... echo the wistful cerebration, the scented emotionalism, the sophisticated recasting of ancient legend that are blended together in his unique and inimitable plays."
Robert Muller, Daily Mail, January 13th 1961

"At its best, this play has a sad, sighing beauty... At its most assured, it has a lingering beauty, a melancholy grace..."
Illustrated London News, January 28th, 1961

publicity still featuring (l-r) adam smith, pandora clifford, barry cooper, graham root, marissa sarfatti, julie corbett, dale kirk, luke morris and barry lee-thomas

Dale Kirk

Sasha Anna Fooks

Julie Corbett

Chloë Mostyn

Jeff Bellamy

Luke Morris

Pamela Hall

Graham Root

Pandora Clifford

Barry Lee-Thomas

David Burrows-Sutcliffe

Adam Smith

Barry Cooper

Marissa Sarfatti

Sam Shammas

Dale Kirk

Anna Greensweig

Bruno Poet

William Pool

Nick Buglione

David Burr
Brave Druid Productions

Jules Brown

Emma Cutt

Rupert Blakely & Liz Cooke
Oxford Theatre Workshops

Marcus Tylor

Dewynters Plc

Gemma Knight & Fran

Cocteau Twins
Future Sound of London
Alan Silvestri
Debbie Wiseman

The production was presented by arrangement with Samuel French Limited

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