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“This is boring, maman,” my 11-year-old daughter said 15 minutes into the play.
On my other side, my eight-year-old was already yawning, her little head leaning against my shoulder, eyelids slowly closing.
In this production of The Emperor’s New Clothes there was no dialogue and no action. The whole play was being narrated by a monotonous voice mumbling from above.
Between the audience and the stage was a transparent, muslin-like curtain that gave the play an eerie sense, like watching a fuzzy television show on a 1970s TV. I kept wanting to reach out and adjust the rabbit ears to get a clearer reception, or a better understanding of what was happening on stage.
Boring indeed. I turned toward my husband to see him rolling his eyes at me.
Every year, just before Christmas, we pick an event to attend as a family. It is our intimate way, just the four of us, of celebrating the holiday season.
With the crazy-busy lives we lead, it is our time to slow down, spend quality time together and, hopefully, be entertained.
One year we saw the ballet The Nutcracker; in other years, fun-filled children’s plays at Cookie Cabaret or Story Book Theatre at home in Calgary – always something fun and lighthearted.
I plan the outings meticulously – they are a seasonal tradition I have come to cherish.
But Christmas that year was special, as we were in Paris. Our theatre experience en famille had to be extra-memorable.
We had chosen The Emperor’s New Clothes. I knew this time-tested tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It had just the right amount of entertainment as well as a good moral for our daughters, I thought. And it was being presented by La Comédie Française. Certainly we could not go wrong with this world-renowned theatre founded by Louis XIV. It had been around since 1680, so they must be doing something right.
We made a day of it, not rushing around, enjoying a two-hour lunch à la française before the show.
We carefully picked out which clothes to wear. One does not go to the theatre in jeans in Paris – Sunday best is required.
“You are going to love this play, girls,” I said. “It is funny and the costumes are always great.”
In my excitement I did not think about the details of the play’s story – or the cultural differences of going to the theatre in France. After all, what could go wrong with a classic tale of vanity, swindlers and sticking with one’s convictions?
But the French have a way of adding their very own je ne sais quoi to everything. We were in for a real French treat.
I had assumed that any play in Paris would be good. Like the food, the wine and the architecture, there could only be quality entertainment there. My rose-coloured glasses were shiny-clean.
Though it was only 90 minutes long, The Emperor’s New Clothes dragged on that afternoon. All around us, children’s and adults’ heads were bobbing up and down, chins resting on chests, heads resting on neighbours’ shoulders. Between my catnaps I could see others doing the same.
“This is not good, grandmère,” a little boy in front of us said loudly. If a five-year-old was saying that, indeed the play was not good.
The little French boy’s comment had woken up many of the spectators around him, including the four of us, just in time for the final five minutes of the production.
My 11-year-old was not quite as eloquent as the little boy.
“Oh, yuck!” she blurted out.
The Emperor was now standing on stage in his new clothes. But his new clothes were non-existent. He had been swindled into thinking that his new outfit was so exquisite that only the most intelligent people could see it.
We were obviously not among the most intelligent, as all we could see was a pasty, middle-aged French actor standing on the stage, naked.
The room was silent. A French twist, indeed.
This year, as I was perusing the paper for something to see this holiday season, I was smiling, thinking of our afternoon at La Comédie Française.
We had left the theatre laughing, yet puzzled.
“Did you know about that, maman, that the guy would be naked?” asked Gabrielle, 8. “Are you sure that was a play for kids?”
Nathalie, 11, adopted a pre-adolescent tone: “Well, that was certainly interesting!”
We were not sure if it was the nudity or the whole play that turned us off. But we were not alone: I later read that the play was reviewed as one of the worst children’s productions in Paris that holiday season.
Every year now, when I ask my family what we should attend on our special day, they say: “As long as it is better than The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Thank you, Emperor. You certainly were memorable.
Ingrid Littmann-Tai lives in Calgary