Halfway through Samuel Beckett’s Cap au Pire at the Théâtre des Halles, Avignon, the young woman sitting next to me leans her head forward onto her knees. In five minutes she’s gently snoring. When I crack, and try to make out my watch in the darkness, we’re two thirds of the way into a 90 minute performance. The audience drifts in and out of a collective and contagious concentration, by turns focussed, then distracted and quietly fidgeting.
It may come as a surprise, but it’s precisely because of this that along with Katherine Hunter in Rockaby, directed by Peter Brook at the Young Vic, and Simon McBurney and Mark Rylance in Endgame at the Duchess, this is one of the best performances of Beckett’s work that I’ve seen. The production is controlled, effective, and above all faithful to the playwright’s philosophical project. Cap au Pire seems to me one of Beckett’s most intimate journeys into the abyss of language. It’s in this play that he voices the famous dictum “D’essayé. De raté. N’importe. Essayer encore. Rater encore. Rater mieux” (“Tried. Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”). Beckett tries to make this text perform the failure of words, to drill away at the fabric of meaning until language itself is entirely in question. At times there is a glimpse of the recognisable, but it’s easy to get lost in the constant drip of words. In director Jacques Osinski’s production, the performer Denis Lavant barely moves, standing on the edge of a lightbox that just about illuminates his face, and intones each phrase slowly, carefully, with a rhythm that ends repetitively on the downbeat in the bass registers of his voice. There is something meditative here, and something deliberately and profoundly mind-numbing. Cap au Pire refuses to entertain.
If Beckett’s attempt to make language fail was a political gesture on the brink of postmodernism, which attempted to pull the rug from under Enlightenment principles of empirical “truth”, what politics does the intentional failure of theatre negotiate today? In the face of “fake” and “fake fake news”, is the existential deconstruction of language ever more necessary, or might theatre instead find ways of constructing shared and accountable messages? Amidst the misrepresentation of both the powerful and the vulnerable, what stories can theatre tell, and how?
Something like France’s equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival (with ‘le Off’ corresponding to the Fringe) the Festival d’Avignon is the largest theatre festival in the country, with over a thousand productions staged in over a month each year. Now in its 7th decade, Avignon is not only a showcase for established national and international companies, but (especially as regards the Off) also a laboratory for younger practitioners to experiment and emerge. Unsurprisingly, then, the diversity of approaches to the questions I raise here was impressive.
Perhaps most controversial of the performances I saw was Discours à la Nation at the Théâtre des Carmes, a powerful series of monologues by Ascanio Célestini performed unflinchingly by Charlotte Adrien. Dressed in an orange velvet top hat and tailcoat, Adrien was the ringleader of an imaginary cast of compatriot spectators. She seduced us with a skill that alternately called to mind an expert salesman, a practiced political orator and a sly court jester. She made us laugh, but it was a nervous laughter, as we felt both shocked and complicit. And there were no holes barred. One of the first monologues argues for free movement of peoples in France. Why curb immigration if migrants are willing to work like slaves? Why regularise their status if they are ready to be exploited? “Why this passion for legality?” she asks us. Let’s allow immigrants to work for a couple of years, and then kill them off… and eat them. She begins to lay out an argument for racialised, selective cannibalism. An argument articulately made, carefully reasoned, nonetheless abhorrent. I’m squirming throughout, captivated by a speech with all the trappings of persuasion, yet horrified by its content.
The play opens with the story of a man who watches water slowly drip from a leaking tap: he wonders whether one day the basin will fill, overflow, flooding the apartment and plunging through the downstairs ceiling, and finally destroying the entire block. Impossible, he thinks, turns away, and looks at the wall. When we return to the same story at the close of the performance, our uncomfortable pleasure in Adrien’s performance translates into a recognition of our own responsibility as witnesses to the dystopias we’ve glimpsed.
Migraaaants, by Matéi Visniec at the Théâtre du Chêne Noir starts from an entirely different relationship to the audience. The clue is in the subtitle: “On est trop nombreux sur ce putain de bateau” (“There are too many of us on this fucking boat”). The production seems to want to shock us with the realities of migration and refugee crises, to open our eyes to a world of organ salesmen, spin doctors, human traffickers, oppressed Muslim women and racist East Europeans. In a series of vignettes loosely spliced together, the play ends up feeding us images that are already recognisable to the point of meaninglessness. Projected photographs of barbed wire borders, the sounds of the Mediterranean sea and the presence of the iconic orange lifejacket are all too familiar both from TV and from other performances that try — and in my mind fail — to tell an original story about contemporary refugee conditions (Brett Bailey’s controversial Sanctuary, recently exhibited at the Friche la Belle de Mai in France’s immigration capital Marseille, is another good example).
These symbols are powerful and moving, and the realities of passages to Europe should be publicly and carefully shared. But I feel that in such cases they are shortcuts that reinforce stereotypes rather than challenging them. Lacking in Migraaaants is any sustained or intimate storytelling that digs deeper than the shock factor. Nor are the positions of any refugee characters particularly clear, since they are largely staged murmuring and nodding, as a boat trafficker in the style of Captain Hook barks orders at them and waves his machete around unconvincingly.
Most troubling was the depiction of three women played by actors who clearly hadn’t taken the time to learn how to put on a niqab correctly. France has a history of banning the niqab and more recently the “burkini”, which has proved controversial not only among Muslim and non-Muslim opponents more broadly, but in particular for feminists who state that Muslim women are not simply victims of a tradition deemed patriarchal, but also people who make various choices about why and when to wear a veil. In Migraaaants, two entire scenes were given to enumerating the reasons that women are dirty and sexually provocative, an aping of Islamist dogma that the women had apparently internalised despite its oppressiveness. Not only was this an inaccurate generalisation, it invited a purely condescending response from the audience.
It was in Laïka, a sequel to Discours à la Nation played at La Manufacture by the virtuosic David Murgia that the balance between the public and the intimate was struck most persuasively. An angelic presence on a contemporary run-down estate, Murgia unleashes a surge of monologues about the characters he sees from his window in the disenfranchised suburbs of an unnamed French city: a homeless man in the supermarket carpark, a sex worker, an exploited African immigrant, workers on strike, an old woman losing her memory. These characters are prismatic of wider social problems, but never stand in for them as archetypes. Instead, the play knots the cosmological to the absolutely mundane, enchanting (but never romanticising) the banality of day-to-day survival with a shared wonder at the power of storytelling to rejuvenate the familiar.
Drawing on Beckett, the text has something relentless in its rhythm, powered by Maurice Blanchy’s accompaniment on accordion. Long, repetitive stretches tell us absolutely nothing except the specific order in which days off are arranged at the depot and the precise circulation of crates that are little, medium and large; little, medium and large. Yet it is the images evoked by the text that remain most clearly. An old woman surrounded by piles of notebooks as she struggles to record her memories. A sex worker burning rubber in the street to keep warm. A worker on strike holding the picket line with one hand, while with the other he holds up the sky. If this play admits failure, it is that only a subjective and fictional narrative is told here, with no didactic claims to social truth. Yet there is something in that specific failure of theatre that makes it — and us — responsible for an act of witnessing that we take with us when we leave the auditorium.