Empress Maria Theresia von Österreich incarnates patriarchal authority – played by a man in a massive crinoline this is no gentle Conchita Wurst, but a regent giving tactically birth to a serious regiment of arch dukes and duchesses to be married off to every royal circle possible. One of them is Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna. Arriving as the crown prince’s bride and dauphine in France’s luxurious palaces even before puberty hits, she soon is put off by the porcelain people with their artificial faces of sugar-coated marzipan. Masked balls in Paris become her favourite distraction – here she and her best friend, the princesse de Lamballe, can breathe life and entertainment without the etiquette corset of Versailles’ absolutism. The Swedish count and marshal Axel von Fersen becomes her confidant and lover; with him she is not Marie Antoinette, just Josefina. At the royal palace, her hair dresser keeps her busy with exorbitant wigs, topping the embodiment of rococo with a miniature guillotine in the name of fashion. Rather than Gluck operettas, electronic and pop music surround her letting go while later angry French rap enters her world (unfortunately not surtitled). King Louis / Ludwig XV’s favourite concubine Du Barry is a chanson-singing Madame Thénardier and therefore more accepted by the French people then Marie Antoinette ever will be – forever marked as l’Autrichienne, even after her father-in-law’s death she will never been perceived as the queen regnant, at least not as a Queen of the French people. For them, she will always stay a foreigner, addicted to parties and gems. Farmers, taxed so highly they can no longer afford to live off the land, move to the cities to survive as day labourers and believe every piece of propaganda the Parisienne press produces.
Now Queen of France, Marie Antoinette only falls back into her native dialect when speaking with her visiting brother, one of the very few people daring to address her wholehearted, and not shy of openly talking to her shy, sober, unspectacular if not even dull husband about the rumours of his impotence, which reached the international courts. As a result, King Ludwig XVI gives her the Trianon, an estate within walking distance of the royal court through the vast parks, her own residence. There is no denial: This marriage of two human beings having almost nothing in common lacks passion, but they find a shared level of understanding, a warm companionship. Finally impregnated, the yellow press is now in favour of the royal family.
But the stirring politics catch up and thousands of women march through tremendous rain over twelve kilometres from Paris to Versailles to strengthen the people’s self-declared National Assembly – the French citizens refuse to be any longer just the Third Estate, always cursed as a minority when aristocrats and clerics win against them in every vote. Demonstrations shortly lead to military interventions, deaths follow, and the royal family is forced to move to the Tuileries in the centre of crazed Paris.
It is Ludwig’s advisor who loses his countenance when correcting the king famously: No, the storm of the Bastille is no revolt, it is a revolution. Just this scene is worth watching Niklas Ritter’s strong script alone, without doubt influenced by Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s timeless biography Marie Antoinette: The Portrait Of An Average Woman, first published in the early 1930s. Indeed, writing and pace are so strong and believable that well-known scandals like the necklace affair can easily be left out completely and Camille Desmoulin’s vocabulary dropped without further references.
A woman who previously only feared boredom and responsibility, has now lost her appetite for proms and opera and instead writes letters to Europe’s great monarchs, planning her escape – Axel assists by ordering a royal vehicle in the name of a Bavarian aristocrat for the whole royal family to travel incognito. They’ll first enjoy the masquerade but then get caught speaking with mock Swiss accents instead in a not at all subtle vehicle. A chandelier follows the royal family to their new home but is now the grid of their cage.
The press changes its tone literally, names like Robespierre and Marat dominate the headlines and on the day the monarchy is abolished, the imprisoned Antoinette is informed in the most sadistic way with the murder of her best friend, the princesse de Lamballe – not the way I had read about it in history books, but by no means less cruel. Taken away from her, her only surviving son is now a puppet of the revolutionaries, represented by the same dummy she was at her mother’s imperial court back in Schönbrunn. It was her mother who advised her to burn all correspondence, and in the now erupting terror regime based on bureaucracy, this might be her only chance of survival. Turning again to Axel von Fersen, he asks her if he is the dauphin’s father; she claims that it now does not make a difference any longer. Aware of his looming execution, her husband sings goodbye through the prison bars to her, accompanied by voices and other instruments than the piano he plays somewhere in the dark.
Now simply the Widow Capet, the former queen is accused of treason against the nation for engaging with foreign monarchs – or as some historians see it, for being alive, for embodying the Ancien Régime during which she celebrated herself as a rococo icon at the costs of the starving people. But with not enough paperwork to prove this, further accusations are added, supposedly made by her manipulated eight-year-old son. She faces him in court, defencelessly challenged by desperate, disgusting and undignified defamations. Refusing to confess to the clerics having voted against her, she cries as a mother in anger and fear when being pushed to the guillotine, intelligently used by the same alcove earlier representing her bed and carriage.
With all trips abroad cancelled, I will not discover the Austrian Vorarlberg and its theatre any time soon. It further took me three attempts to watch both parts of Antoinette Capet on my phone, laying on my tummy on the sofa without the need of glasses. Still, I was excited by this excellent new play which premiered in November 2019, and hope to see it from a real theatre seat one day. For those of us working all day with laptops, more screen time is just not the answer. However, a big thank you to the Vorarlberger Landestheater for making this outstanding production available to everyone.
**** out of 5 stars
Antoinette Capet by Niklas Ritter
As I have not been yet to the Vorarlberger Landestheater, the photos above (if not credited otherwise) were taken on my trip to Paris and Versailles in September 2019