In October 1934, a young Benjamin Britten visited the great European capitals of culture for the first time, and discovered that all of his long-held suspicions about English cultural complacency and amateurism were well founded. ‘I felt so sorry for you,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘with those London orchestras!’ For several years, a similar kind of snobbery, far less justifiable, has driven my desire to go to Avignon. Why wait for the Théâtre du Soleil, Odin Teatret, Tanztheater Wuppertal or Societas Raffaello Sanzio to come to the Barbican, once every five years? It’s surely a better investment to blow one’s annual theatre budget on a week in an ancient walled city in Provence, where the entire ‘European Theatre’ comes to play for a few weeks in July.
A friend of mine went up to Edinburgh the other day. I sent him a text: ‘I feel so sorry for you, with those London companies.’
I’m being silly of course: that’s why I listed an absurdly legendary group of ensembles, and put the words ‘European Theatre’ in inverted commas. The notion that British theatre remains somehow detached from the experimental performance traditions of France, Germany, Poland and Russia is ridiculous. Still, name a festival in the UK willing or able to curate a programme featuring the work of Kirill Serebrennikov, Putin-baiting artistic director of Moscow’s Gogol Centre; Thomas Ostermeier of the Schaubühne, a theatrical galáctico; Krystian Lupa, whose influence in Poland has arguably surpassed Grotowski’s; Hervé Loichemol, of the Comédie de Genève; and Angelin Preljoçaj, representing France. All came to Avignon, in some cases only for a single day.
And representing Britain? Nobody! Not even Simon McBurney! (Okay, Hofesh Shechter was here but he’s primarily Israeli, right?) We’re clearly rated higher by the European opera scene: down the road, at the Festival d’Aix en Provence, Katie Mitchell was directing Handel’s Alcina, and a young Anglo-French company called FellSwoop Theatre were working on an experimental opera-in-progress. But in Avignon the lack of English voices, both creative and actual, was weirdly conspicuous, at both the main festival and its ‘Off’ fringe, which is almost as massive and unwieldy as Edinburgh’s.
All the more reason to make the 69th (it really was a particularly erotic year) Festival d’Avignon my first. In four days I saw ten pieces by ensembles from as far away as Argentina, all programmed as part of the main festival. I frequently received half-cut recommendations regarding Off works I should try to catch, but they were always very, very sold out, so for that side of things, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Apparently Éric Bouvron’s take on Joseph Kessel’s Les Cavaliers was a minor masterpiece.
The relationship between women’s voices and women’s bodies, prohibited and exploited and disrupted for thousands of years, was a central theme of my three highlights, one set in Ancient Greece (or rather, Troy), one in 16th-century Paris/Flanders and one in the recent past.
Cassandre, a collaboration between Loichemol, the serialist composer Michael Jarrell, and legendary actress Fanny Ardant, was an adaptation of Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra, a first-person account of the Trojan prophetess’s recollections and revelations before she is killed by Clytemnestra. Wolf’s reconfiguration of the traditional Trojan Wars narrative gives Cassandra a voice that contextualises her prophesy, suggesting that her fate, never to be believed and to suffer the consequences with her body, was the result of political expediency and Cassandra’s gender as much as it was the product of a mythological curse. For Wolf, this chimed with her experiences of Cold War censorship in East Germany. Loichemol’s crisply lit, multimedia staging drew more contemporary parallels between Cassandra and whistle-blowers. One set of projections directly recalled the ‘Collateral Murder’ video that launched (a thousand) WikiLeaks.
Cassandre was a deconstructed operatic monologue. An orchestra was positioned above the stage, rather than below it, and Ardant delivered an hour-long torrent of words with the precise phrasing, pacing and tonal variety of a musical score, accompanied by a soundscape created by Jarrell to emphasise, undermine and even directly threaten the integrity of the text. He achieved this with the luminous, imagery-rich orchestration he’s known for, all weird instrumental combinations, special effects and bland electronica. As a reflection on its own music-theatrical form it was a triumph, a postmodern but not at all abstract exploration of what a composer and a director can do when ‘there’s no reason left to sing’. Its conversation with its subject matter felt less resonant until I realised that the preoccupations of both focuses were essentially the same: how truth is constructed, delivery is meaning, and reception can’t be relied upon. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop talking.
Gaëlle Bourges’s A mon seul désir also located modern themes in antique art, this time the famous tapestry of the same name, the sixth of the ‘La Dame à la licorne’ sequence. Like Cassandre, it presented an acutely scholarly interrogation of its subject matter, and found space for theatre’s three dimensions, but whereas Cassandre’s extrapolation was contained, A mon seul désir was explosive and wildly uninhibited. It was measured, insightful and respectful in making sense of the subtly encoded meanings woven into medieval iconography, before celebrating the spectacular freedoms of its own art form and contemporary feminism. This is Bourges’s rather admirable speciality, as an art historian with a background in erotic dance.
It began with four dancers recreating the tableaux of the six tapestries, building up a background of mille-fleurs and then ritualistically easing into the roles of the lady and her animal companions depicted in each scene, including a fox, a monkey and a unicorn, their naked bodies deployed as post-naked animal bodies. As a wonderfully humane voiceover explained the symbolism of each tapestry – ‘the fox is a sign of appalling deceit, because it walks only in a zig-zag pattern’ – its formality began to unravel. The lady turned round for the first time, revealing that her dress was backless, she was naked from behind, because what tapestry is double-sided? Meanwhile, the bagpipe drone she’d played in an earlier tableau started to twist and glitch. And after creating the final scene, mysterious ‘A mon seul désir’ itself, the ambiguity became too much. The lady stripped naked and convulsed like a hungry dog, before tearing down the background of the tapestry to reveal apparently infinite stage space behind, teeming with the 30 or so rabbits that give the tapestry its erotic edge. These were naked men and women in scary Donnie Darko masks performing a kind of demented strobing riverdance, orchestrated by a unicorn singing a song.
It was a thrillingly cathartic explosion of the bubbling transgressive energy we’re so often told is embedded just beneath the surface of medieval art, celebrating animal nudity and human nudity and collective nudity for noble and joyful reasons, and launching itself at the audience in a manner that denied any opportunity for the complacent connoisseur’s or the medieval chauvinist’s gaze. I would urge everybody to try to see it when it goes to Château-Thierry in October.
Preljoçaj’s Retour à Barratham brought Avignon back to earth with a bump, despite being staged in the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des Papes, the festival’s (and possibly the world’s) dreamiest venue. Like Cassandre, it explored the impact of war on the minds of men and the bodies of women, this time in the recent past. A piece of dance theatre with an incredibly dense text, delivered by a not entirely convincing chorus of three, it explored themes every bit as shattering as a Homeric poem, and in fact brushed against the great canonical narratives of love and loss – but it also lacked the reassuring scope of the epic, for here everything was primitive, dirty and hopeless. Fortunately Preljoçaj’s choreography oscillated around moments of pure, instinctive beauty, which brought humanity and a note of optimism to the story.
Telling the tale of a young man returning to a brutalised place in perhaps Albania (Preljoçaj’s parents were Albanian refugees) in order to rescue the woman he loves, Katja, only to discover that there is no redemption in the aftermath of modern war, it was one of those works of dance with an extremely prescriptive storyline. This tends to result in a loss of the abstract or ambiguous pictures and sometimes their replacement with slightly musical theatre-esque set piece chorus ‘numbers’, a tendency Retour à Barratham was surprisingly susceptible to, with a salsa dancing scene, a sexy yearning brothel scene and so forth. Factor in an underwhelming design of burnt-out cars and thrown-around bin bags and it’s not surprising that the most potent and direct moments in the piece were solos and duets. These ranged from an extraordinary wedding scene – which saw Katya, clothed in an ‘overwhelming dress’, meticulously unwrapped by the ensemble and left alone, completely naked, completely still, and then suddenly overcome with a fit of frenzied movement – to a fight that forced its way out of the constraints of choreography and culminated in an act of completely unmediated aggression.
The lack of convincing interplay between narrators, ensemble and soloists had the advantage of making the final tableau more affecting: a brief moment of female solidarity after scenes of relentless male/male and male/female violence. The female chorus, Katya, and the women of the ensemble put their heads together and moved as one, in a manner that recalled the strange tenderness of a Victor Alimpiev film With this sequence, Preljoçaj located the same knot of simultaneous suffering and power that Jarrell and Bourges had found in the voices and bodies of women deployed in patriarchal landscapes.
If Retour à Barratham’s impact was diluted as a result of an extremely specific text, two other dance pieces suffered from, if anything, the opposite problem. Eszter Salamon’s Monument O sought to express the energies of war itself, and consider its impact in a more general, postcolonial sense. Adopting the structure of a kind of ambiguously tribal fashion show, its spectacularly costumed and made-up ensemble shrieked and thundered through a set of haka-like war dance skits that ranged from the frightening to the absurd, the virtuosic to the wildly energetic, drawing on the traditions of Africa and the Middle East, Tibet and Bali, and the voodoo dances of the Caribbean.
Salamon’s stated project – to sidestep academic history with ‘fictions from which new interrogations’ can emerge – treads an impossible but courageous path through the thickets of appropriation and fetishisation, otherness and cartoonishness, to arrive at a place that feels uninhibited and new but also alarmingly anarchic. She clearly recognised the fire she was playing with, here, because her concept began to interrogate itself, as her dancers gradually started to emerge dressed in everyday clothes (but still flailing tribally) before the piece entered its final phase, a rather Schechter-esque commemoration of specific acts of violence enacted by the ‘West’ outside of Europe. The integrity of the work was saved by a brilliant conclusion that saw a European/American grotesque smashing a path through the cemetery that had been created, which ensured Monument O’s theatrical language suddenly felt more universal and less chaotically iconoclastic.
Fatou Cissé’s Le Bal du Cercle also created a fashion show out of ancestral custom. Cissé’s subject was the Senegalese Tanebeer, a woman-only ball that represents a space for sexual display and social regulation. Traditionally both cathartic and inherently conservative, in the manner of the carnivalesque ‘relief valves’ that keep the lids of a lot of societies, Le Bal du Cercle tried to take the Tanebeer in a genuinely transgressive direction, with a blur of excessive costume, dance-off confrontation and, most significantly, an ambiguous male character flitting between all-out transvestism and judgmental detachment. Its athleticism was remarkable but it lacked meaningful development and precision, particularly in terms of the glances and gestures that were supposed to be its chief currency.
A particular focus of Avignon 69 was the theatre of Argentina, and the two Argentine works I saw were at either end of the structural spectrum. I enjoyed the simplicity of Dinamo, which found convincing resonances in a slightly ‘zany’ premise. Set in (and occasionally outside) an ingeniously constructed caravan, it rubbed three very different characters against one another in a very small space: Ada, an aging rocker; Marisa, her niece, a psychiatric patient keen to resume her tennis career; and Harima, an illegal immigrant who lives in Ada’s cupboards and crannies and is only discovered by the other two halfway through the play, like the Japanese homeless woman who lived in a man’s closet for several months. Neatly choreographed and accompanied by a guitarist doing emotion-helping things, its physical comedy and character acting grew into something warm and melancholy, as the story of Harima’s separation from her son came into focus. The final empathetic moment shared by Ada and Harima, one putting her head on the shoulder of the other, was a like a snow globe version of Retour à Barratham’s conclusion – that is to say, not at all trite.
The structural premise of Grupo Marea’s Cuelva vuelva a casa voy a ser otro could hardly have been more different. Here it was literally impossible for the actors stay put in a single location, because the stage was two conveyor belts running in parallel in opposite directions at varying speeds, which was of course so reminiscent of Argentina’s most successful theatrical export, Fuerza Bruta, that I spent the first ten minutes wondering why it is that Argentines love conveyor belts so much. It spun a story of almost Guy Ritchie-esque interconnectivity and coincidence out of scenes which only lasted as long as one full cycle of the belt, sliding between settings ranging from a bedroom to a club to a carnival in Paraguay. These were realised with modest ingenuity, as were the 20 or so characters created by a handful of actors, but all of this effort was frequently channelled into the entrenchment of only minor plot points. Like later Lepage, it felt more interested in its engineering (both actual and literary) than its themes, and it was the props guys tasked with catching everything as it fell off the conveyors who received the loudest applause.
A far more justifiable project was the intellectual Rubik’s Cube of Samuel Achache’s Fugue, which utilised Pythagoras’s theories of harmony and temper – ‘Its paradox: the cycle of fifths it is based on cannot be closed … the cycle it produces is a spiral’ – as a metaphor for the flawed symmetry and unresolvable tangles of human relationships. What this meant in practice was a bizarre story of friendship and love triangles played out in the South Pole (the actors dressed for a steampunk Antarctic in a medieval cloister on a 30-degree night in Provence) with dialogue, physical theatre and early and Baroque music that was all orchestrated based on the basic premise of the fugue: independent voices imitating one another in counterpoint to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
As with Cassandre, it was helpful to approach Fugue as post-opera, a deconstruction/reconstruction of operatic components and insights into a new form that is every bit as mannered, but in a way that is more suited to interrogating the postmodern experience of being alive in 2015. Its best sequences relied on the virtuosity of Léo Antonin Lutinier, whose outrageous naked mime and decent counter-tenor voice brought pathos and human truth to Fugue’s tricks. One particularly brilliant sequence saw him lying in a bath, inflecting Bach with the everyday actions going on behind him, gargling the melody when another actor drank some tea and so forth. Fugue’s conclusion seemed to be that the same rigid and impossible structures will ultimately catch up with you regardless of your situation, emotions or genius – and perhaps that it is early music’s unparalleled expression of these structures which has ensured its survival as a viable cultural form. And with that, two conclusive chords played by everyone on stage signalled that this particular spiral had an end-point after all, as all works of art must. And that is art’s greatest lie.
A good illustration of Avignon’s beguiling inversion of many of the truisms of British theatre arrived in the form of its children’s show, Stereoptik’s Dark Circus, and the only disaster I had to sit through, Meursaults. The précis of the former contained many of the worst clichés that have come to define the Edinburgh Fringe – all sinister fairy tales, sad clowns and Le ballon rouge-esque whimsical redemption. It turned out to be a masterpiece of decorative art, thanks to the virtuosity of Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet, who are superhuman in their dedication to subversively family-friendly craftsmanship. Meursaults, meanwhile, had a brilliant source text, Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation, which gives the anonymous Arab killed in Camus’s L’Etranger a name, a story and a place in Algerian history; it had a wonderfully elegant set; but it amounted to a work of such relentless dreariness that half the audience had walked out by the end, muttering about declining standards of mise-en-scène.
Indeed, there were mutterings throughout the 69th Festival, on the face of it far more chill than Avignon 2014 , about an institution that is losing its way. I often shared my breakfast or supper with one of the hundreds of retired couples who have brought their caravans to Avignon every summer for 30 years, and many were deeply suspicious of the flamboyant new festival director Olivier Py. A particular gripe was that he’d claimed the most prestigious position in the programme, opening proceedings at the Palais des Papes, for his own production of King Lear, and relegated a theatre god – Avignon worships Ostermeier – to a slot at the Opéra Grand. Ostermeier’s take on Richard III was a triumph; Py’s controversial (and inevitably, naked) take on Shakespeare was universally panned. It seems audiences at Avignon want their festival to be run by competent bureaucrats rather than mercurial artists. Then again, one gets the impression that this sort of bubbling discontentment is, as with British institutions like the Guardian, Avignon’s lifeblood.
Still, the generosity of training and rehearsal time evidenced by the number of actors able to draw on exceptional movement and musical skills; the unselfconscious but also unashamedly intellectual exploration of liminal and postmodern forms; and the unrepressed interrogation of themes like art and music and sexuality and violence and ennui (but not colonial legacy, as clumsily handled over there as it is over here): the concentration of all of these things in the work I saw at Avignon was a modest vindication of my silly continental Europhilia. And quite apart from assertions of superiority and inferiority, a trip to Provence can always be justified based on a more simple question: how many of these pieces will vault the Channel into an English venue? One? None? This is a situation that has to change, and audiences moving more freely between British and French theatre festivals could be the first phase of that evolution.