Romance and commercial politics in a scintillating brew - and with a cast of only seven

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Writer's notes

I had for some time been looking for a French novel to adapt for theatre - one that spoke to contemporary issues but which also had a good measure of spice, politics, romance and intrigue.

As a young man, I had read Zola's work, Thérèse Raquin, and was much taken by its dramatic narrative power. Then, more recently, when Fay and I were resident at the Cité des Arts studio in Paris (courtesy of the Australia Council and the late, great Australian writer, Nancy Keesing) Fay suggested I look at Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames on the arrival of the first major department store in Paris.

Here was romance and commercial politics in a scintillating brew. One of its challenges was to present this sprawling and engrossing tale with a cast size of seven, in order to keep it within the budgetary constraints of most contemporary companies. This involved a judicious amount of character-merging, where two of the book's many characters become one - in view of the fact that they present a similar demeanour and perspective - or on using the name of a minor character to embrace a larger one. Although Denise has two brothers with her in the novel, it is only Pepe that remains in focus throughout the book, and I chose to involve him considerably in the play. Whilst being faithful to the book's narrative, the constraints of time and structure necessitated a selection of moments and sequences to tell the story. I reflected over the translation of its title - The Ladies' Paradise - and decided on a more embracing title, The Department Store.

Justin Fleming

Director's notes

Justin Fleming is one of the most strikingly original and poetically inventive of modern Australian playwrights. The Department Store is his free adaptation of Emile Zola's Au Bonhuer De Dames. In his hands, this classic of 19th century French Literature is transformed into a modern theatrical parable of globalisation and corporatisation and their impact on individuals and society. Mouret is a Svengali-like figure. He is the object and motif of the piece - whilst his target - the Baudu family - is the subject.

His charm, skill and insight are irresistible - he is apparently the perfect coporate conquerer - making money from his unerring ability to see the needs and desires of those around him even before they are aware of them themselves.

But in Denise he has met his match. Her own capacity for human insight is prodigious - though untrained, and untainted by greed. He finds in her the purified version of himself and so falls in love. With Mouret and his coporate behemoth symbolically interchangeable - both are irresistible through their limitless capacity to grant the desires of those who come into contact with them, but both must be humanised. Thus the play is a parable for a powerfully modern paradox: the dilemma faced by both individuals and all of modern society in the wake of globalisation. It's a direct showdown between worldviews - both flawed: Corporate consumerism; which encapsulates both greed and equality and Traditional humanism; compassionate, but also arcane and exclusivist.

THE PARADISE: Mouret's eponymous department store presents a symbol for the familiar dilemma of de-regulation and globalization. Denise is seduced as much by her desire to do good as by the irresistible Mouret.

This is a play which tells the story of many world cities like Sydney - and will fittingly be performed in Kings Cross - at the nexus between global corporatisation and the homes of those it enriches - where somehow a small pocket of non-conformity, bohemianism and impoverished underclass suffering still survives.

This story focuses on the human interaction. The complexities of the fact that there seem to be no bad people in the story - but many people who commit bad, foolish, ungenerous and manipulative acts. We understand and sympathise with them all - thus placing us in the crux of a moral dilemma - and dominating everything is the sense that actually none of these people, including Mouret, are in control of their destiny. Rather a system - implacable because it responds so perfectly to human desire - is gradually encroaching on the humanity of all present. Mouret's expansions are only possible because a faceless figure above him is planning to shatter one of the world's great cities with a massive boulevard. A teeming mass of humanity must be rent asunder in the name of "progress'.

The original nineteenth century setting is ostensibly preserved in the script though re-imagined with a contemporary sensibility. The era is useful to us for the elegant absurdities it provides. We create an imagined nineteenth century Paris that is in reality a mirror for 21st century Sydney. This facilitates the unique stylistic experiment that Justin undertakes. Justin is developing a style for the piece that offers a pastische of 19th century epigrammatic dialogue and romantic melodrama - combined with a 20th century absurdist/expressionistic dramaturgy, and refined with a sensibility that is international in outlook but Australian in its irreverent flavour.

The production will seek to respond to this style in order draw out the work's central paradox - a theatrical style is being developed that synthesises modernity, simplicity and a heightened theatricalisation of the era. It is key to this approach that the staging engage the audience's imagination and invites them to draw the direct parallels between the world of the story and our own. We do not see this at all as a period piece. It contains elements of satire and of farce - and its goal is to open an audience's awareness to the sinisterly seductive nature of its central motif and the subject it symbolizes. Just as Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara seduces its audience with the seemingly sound arguments in favour of building "weapons of mass destruction", so The Department Store presents the seductiveness of Commercial Imperialism. In both cases the goal is the same - to empower the audience with newly honed vigiliance.

Christopher Hurrell


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