June 20, 2022. The team of Monsieur the priest is having a fit is in full rehearsal. Black shirt and full beard, Reynold de Guenyveau is standing on the stage of the Sainte-Bernadette amphitheater, parish hall of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville church, in Paris. Pinched mouth, raised eyebrow, arm folded over his chest as if carrying a file, the gestures of the young actor are precise, dry.
Despite his immaculate Roman collar, the young actor is not in the skin of the main character, Father Benjamin Bucquoy… but of the one who horrifies him: “Evelyne. Bossard. Dupin. Responsible for the catechetical formation of the diocese”, he announces in a sour tone. “No longer pinched the mouth, comments Mehdi Djaadi, director. More Elisabeth Borne in style. Go ahead, take it back. »
The character of Évelyne Bossard-Dupin, sketched by the pen of Jean Mercier in his novel Monsieur the priest is having a fit (Quasar Poche), is one of the last to be composed on stage by Reynold de Guenyveau, the actor, Mehdi Djaadi, the director, and Héléna Sadowy, the assistant director. “The idea is to start from the cliché so as not to do it, Mehdi insists. The cliché, we sand it, we plane it, we adjust it…” During rehearsals, each gesture, each facial expression, each behavioral tic is worked on, reworked, dissected to bring out this nuance so dear to Jean Mercier, who, himself in his work as a journalist, could spend hours on a sentence, to find the right word, the right expression.
One actor, 15 characters
In total, these are the features of 15 characters that the young actor borrows during the hour and a half of the only-on-stage. Pipe, hoarse voice and wiggling eyebrow for Ildefonse Laporte, the tireless defender of the Taubira law; an air of precious ridicule and a high-pitched voice for Monique Bouchard, retired responsible for the liturgy in the parish; hand on an imaginary pectoral cross, chin tucked in and good-natured voice for Bishop Vignon; nerd glasses, soft voice and well-chosen words for Julien, the Padreblog-compatible priest and friend of the hero… All of this without any setting other than that of the church in which the actor will play his only-on-stage.
Passing from one character to another, Reynold de Guenyveau, whose first major role it is, shines with his plasticity. It is also thanks to this that he was chosen during the auditions, which brought together more than 40 candidates.
The actor, also a practicing Catholic, who was playing at the time in several Parisian theaters, was informed of the adaptation of Mister the preist by his spiritual guide. “At first, I didn’t want to do a Catholic project so early in my career. We are quickly categorized, locked up in a world”, deplores the actor, sitting on the terrace of a pizzeria in Saint-Ouen. The young father, who is still temporarily working part-time in marketing, is preparing to embark on the show tour in October, which will begin at the end of September… and to plunge into the life of a full-time actor. “When I saw that Mehdi was in charge of the staging, I rushed. »
“Walking in the footsteps of Jean Mercier”
Because in the world of actors, everyone watched Mehdi Djaadi’s show, coming outachieve success. “He went from the Montmartre-Galabru theater, to the Petit Montparnasse, then to the Tristan-Bernard… lists Reynold. There, we said to ourselves, “there is a trick”. » Hailed by the spectators, acclaimed by critics, the show recounting the conversion of the young man from Islam to Catholicism did not fail to tickle the ears of Première Partie, producer of the show.
“We have been wanting to adapt Monsieur the priest is having a fit at the theatre, says Grégory Turpin, co-founder of the production box. When we thought about the person to direct, the name Mehdi came quite naturally. » He is also first offered to play the priest himself. The actor refuses. Fear, there too, of being put in a box. “Artistically, I rather wanted to put my ten years of observation and diving into the Catholic microcosm to good use. » Finally, he will be director and co-producer.
To adapt this novel, the result of 20 years of experience as a journalist in contact with the parishes and sold more than 42,000 copies, the pressure was palpable. Expectations of readers of Jean Mercier; his family’s fears about the adaptation of the adventures of Benjamin Bucquoy; expectations, too, of the spectators of coming out.
Before constructing his staging based on the theater adaptation of Mister the preist written by screenwriter Victor Pierson, Mehdi Djaadi met relatives of Jean Mercier, to better understand what the journalist had wanted to convey. “I wanted to follow in Jean’s footsteps… while keeping my Nike sneakers on,” summarizes the director.
Play with cathos codes
Appropriate the melody by adding a few notes: an allusion to the Sauvé report here, a nod to the encyclical Laudato si’ there, a word about the priests fidei donum… “We took Jean’s two-dimensional characters and tried to put them in 3D, to give them a story, political opinions, a way of moving, of expressing themselves”, says Mehdi Djaadi. “As we know the Catholic world well, we could play with the codes, with the different facets of the Church”, adds Reynold de Guenyveau.
On the side of Chantal Cretaz, the widow of Jean Mercier, the fears were real. “When I found out that there would be only one actor and that the main character was the priest, I was afraid that it would be made into a clerical spectacle, that Bucquoy would be presented as a hero… so that all come out of their confinements. » It was not, however, the first time that Monsieur the priest is having a fit was suitable for the theatre.
“When the novel was published in 2016, I organized a drink with Jean’s friends, remembers Chantal Cretaz. My husband’s writing was so theatrical that with Marie-Lucile (Kubacki, friend of Jean Mercier and journalist at Life, editor’s note), we played the scene of Mado and the old lady discovering the walled-in priest. John laughed! »
A work on the suffering of priests
Invited to the residence exit event at the end of June, during which the troupe made a first presentation of the piece to the project partners and to the parishioners who hosted the rehearsals, Chantal Cretaz came out of it relieved. “Jean was a theater enthusiast. My first thought was that he would have loved to see this show. »
With the exception… of the interpretation of Jennifer Duploux, the journalist of The German Echo, with a superficial tone, nonchalant chewing gum and a detached air. “The journalist is caricatured, whereas it is thanks to her that the truth comes out… and that the book was written by a journalist! », Chantal Cretaz gets annoyed. A choice assumed by Mehdi Djaadi, who responds tit for tat: “All the characters are a bit caricatural! I stayed on the line of Jean Mercier by forcing the line a little. If the theater disturbs, then the bet is successful! »
Written following Jean Mercier’s anger on returning from mass on a Sunday, the novel, a mixture of Bernanos and ghosthad echoed among many priests. “Jean had been very marked by the reception of this book, he had not expected that what he had written as a comical parable could be taken at face value… and that this would be the reality of certain priests. He became even more aware that many of them were suffering in their ministry,” remembers the author’s widow. A suffering highlighted by the artistic choice of the only-on-stage. “The one-on-stage can say something about the position of the priest in his parish”, notes Gregory Turpin.
The Church of France at the crossroads
For Mehdi Djaadi, staging this text was also a way of paying homage to these men of the Church who marked out his spiritual life. “I understood a lot about Jesus thanks to them. The priests I am close to have been educators, friends, brothers, sometimes fathers. I have a priest friend who took me to rugby, me to a boxing gala, we go out to drink beers… as with any friend! I admire priests, while having a very simple relationship with them. Mister the preist confirmed what I was experiencing from my relationship with them. »
Mehdi is convinced of this. Synod on Synodality, motu ownerCiase, resignations of bishop… the Church of France is at a crossroads. “Coming from another religion, I observe the internal struggles of Catholics. We need spaces for discussion. Theater and humor are good entry points. Let’s say that this play is my contribution to the synod, so that we can laugh and talk together in the Church, which must once again become a place of life! »
To provoke empathy for a priest crushed under his ministry, then to image the progressive conversion of those around him (ending with that of the priest), all played out in a church… “In its own way, this show is a beautiful homily,” adds Grégory Turpin, who hopes that the piece, which each parish will be able to bring to its church, will be the subject of debate between priest and parishioners. Because that’s probably what art is for: asking questions without giving the answers.
Monsieur the priest is having a fit will be on tour from the end of September.
September 29, at the Saint-Honoré-d’Eylau church in Paris (16th century)
October 14, at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Cholet (49)
October 18 and 19, at the Saint-Symphorien church in Versailles (78)
On October 20, at the Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours church in Asnières (92)
Other dates to come. To bring the show to your parish: https://www.premierepartiemusic.com/spectacles/mrlecure-spectacle/
coming out by Mehdi Djaadi at the Tristan-Bernard theater (75): resumption on October 19 until December 22
Monsieur the priest is having a fitby Jean Mercier, Quasar Pocket.