Voilà! is the annual French/English theatre festival in London. Billing itself as a non-Brexit-fearing festival, this year it has reached beyond the idea of exploring one specific national culture and transformed itself into Voilà! Europe. A festival that gives theatre with a decidedly European outlook a platform in the UK. Exeunt writer Annegret Märten went to the festival with two other EU immigrants, Doriane Zerka and Leila Essa. Together they watched a show about the German national poet Goethe, as well as a French stand-up, and it got them into thinking about how Europeanness translates onto London fringe stages.
ANNEGRET: My word processor just underlined the word Europeanness in red. I found that quite telling. I had not been aware that there was a French theatre festival in London. As an immigrant I find that delightful, but it also makes me a bit melancholic to witness the tide turning against the idea of an ‘open’ Europe which is characterised by cultural exchange. These days, looking at the news, it feels as if something I thought was a crucial part of me is being cancelled out. Yet, we are still here, three Europeans in a country that seems to be closing itself off from Europe more and more. Don’t you find it utterly futile that there is a decidedly European theatre festival in London?
DORIANE: Futile? Hell no! A decidedly European theatre festival: I’m all in — talk about stating the obvious — I find it very heartening to see initiatives challenging this isolationist viewpoint in creative ways. Although I guess we have a special connection with the ideas at the heart of these initiatives: not only are we all EU expats, we are also all researchers in the Modern Languages. We share the belief that differences between cultures and languages are infinitely enriching and that arts and humanities are fundamental in creating social dialogue. We cherish cultural exchange and value the European multicultural community, by trade but also out of personal experience. This environment helps foster a strong optimism for the idea of an open Europe (and sometimes makes it all the more painful to come face to face with the political reality.) That being said, I am aware that this rosy view might piss off (pardon my French) those with a more conservative outlook, a different experience or simply another opinion. My view of European society corresponds to a certain ideal which is definitely a bit naïve.
LEILA: And that awareness of one’s own of naive idealism was precisely what the plays we saw at the festival seemed to be all about, wasn’t it?
ANNEGRET: Definitely! We saw two plays at Voilà (or more correctly, one play and a one woman stand up show) but there were something like 30 shows in the ten days of the festival. Already, in the small glimpses that we did get I sensed a strong commitment not just to the commonalities but also to the cultural diversity within Europe. La Franglaise, for example, used multilingualism for comedic effect. The performer Alexandria MacLeod is bilingual and I thought her set used the cultural hybridity that comes with that very confidently. Especially in the way it played not just with national stereotypes but also with different expectations of how women perform their sexual identity in the different countries. She showed us how there are all these wonderfully messy ways of being a woman that lie in-between the unhelpful stereotypes of snooty French girls and promiscuous British “slags”. Plus, it was also proper gasp-out-loud funny. Very smart in places, very silly in others. I could see it work extremely well in Edinburgh. Although it has to be said, that there were very few of her jokes that you could “get” if you didn’t speak both English and French. So of course there were also some English, monolingual audience members and I wonder if they felt alienated at all?
DORIANE: I don’t really think so. MacLeod opened her show by asking the audience: who comes to Camden to watch a bilingual French/English stand-up comedy show, on a fringe stage, as part of a European theatre festival? “Cultural elite, much?” Judging from the roar of laughter, she struck a chord there. Is the festival’s audience solely composed of the remain voter, liberal, cultural elite? Is that type of festival always going to be an echo chamber with the shows preaching to the converted? I think these performances and this festival hold a lot of potential to reinforce commitment to European values, but do they reach someone with a less positive outlook on Europe than us? A Morrisseyfarage would loudly complain about ‘European theatre festival in London’ having ‘out-of-touch metropolitan’ written all over it, but would they actively hate it? Being scared that ‘the Europeans’ will take away NHS money doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with a refusal to see the benefits of cultural exchange. In that sense something like Voilà could actually stand a chance in resonating with people outside of that bubble.
LEILA: The other show that we saw, Goethe + Christiane, brings both Germany and Italy to the festival as it traces young Johann’s formative years, but basically ignores Britain. I certainly got some close British-European contact out of it anyway by accidentally sitting on one of the performers upon my arrival — the seats in this venue were not made for big bums! Luckily Grace Wardlaw, who plays Goethe’s confidante Charlotte von Stein, handled the intimate introduction as gracefully as her role.
ANNEGRET: Speaking of the venue, apart from the “seating incident”, I loved loved loved the Applecart Arts space in Plaistow. It had a real community feel to it, not too gentrified yet and you could instantly tell they are really committed to getting new writing on stage. A lovely café too. I don’t know why the venue stuck with me a long time after we went there. Perhaps it’s the idea that the groundwork for the kind of change we want to see has to start in quite intimate community spaces. But you do seem to imply that the play stakes out some sort of analogy that helps us get to grips what’s going on today?
LEILA: Yes, written and performed in English, Joe Prestwich’s coming-of-age romance about one of Germany’s most important poets makes for plenty of room for Brit-related interpretations. Goethe (Edward Kaye) — young, privileged, cosmopolitan — benefits from European connections and comes back from Itally educated and with all sorts of progressive views about social norms. In the central relationship between him and Christiane (Kelsie McDonald), a commoner who, in today’s terms had no “social capital”, the play shows him to be slightly self-involved in his idealism. “Out of touch”, if you will.
ANNEGRET: I like that idea. Considering that a lot of the Anti-European sentiment is staked out by populists as taking place between “elites” and the everyday man or woman…
LEILA: Having followed this play through different versions from a ten-minute taster at a scratch night to this one hour performance, it’s exciting to see how this aspect of the play progresses and will progress further. One moment perfectly sums up young Goethe’s pretentiousness. Christiane tells him that she is pregnant, and considering that this is eighteenth century Germany, she would face some dire social consequences for bearing a child out of wedlock. And he moans that marriage is “too mundane” for him.
ANNEGRET: I’m no Goethe expert but the play was so full of references to his works and his biography and yet still managed to engage me in the character conflict. The strangest moment for me was when they read one of Goethe’s poems in English, you know, the one about the roses that prick and that Robert Schumann set to music? I had a strange out-of-brain-experience, I knew the text but had never heard it in those words. I like that it’s a young British writer who starts to critically engage with the genius cult that underpin a lot of the Goethe reverence in Germany, both in terms of the character but also on a more irreverent subtle language level. The continuous outrage in the reviews if someone here in the UK tries to update Shakespeare’s language…and in Germany they do it all the time.
LEILA: It’s exactly the play’s subtle Goethe-criticism I enjoyed the most, actually. The character is shown to be that little bit ridiculous, but open to change and, at the end of the day, absolutely worth our time — erm, a bit like the EU?
DORIANE: Never mind the EU for now, I really wanna talk about the reluctant feminism in the piece. I know that Goethe and Christiane did get married in the end, an aspect the play doesn’t show us (yet), but certainly one that complicates his youthful lack of self-awareness. If the playwright decides to develop the piece, how would this change affect the way we see him and the women in the piece? Would he be less pretentious? As it stands, Prestwich plays with depictions of female sexuality that remain framed by the virgin/whore dichotomy. Silvia Manazzone, playing Faustina, walks slowly across the stage, casting sultry glances over our young Goethe who carries on rambling about art. Once returned from Italy, Christiane enters his life, and she is drastically different and completely innocent. As his new ‘muse’ she slowly helps Goethe tidy the papers strewn across the stage, and the poet finds in her what he did not find in Faustina. Christiane becomes the ‘wife material’ that the sexualised Italian lover was was not, and even then, as Leila discussed, the infuriating poet won’t marry her. Talk about one-way relationship: the poet needs Christiane for his art, but refuses to help her. Kelsie McDonald portrays an endearing, wide-eyed, excited Christiane, whose sexuality is never expressly mentioned before she falls pregnant.
ANNEGRET: It’s true that she goes from one pre-conceived female role to the next without the possibility of breaking the moulds: from innocent girl, to muse, to future mother and quasi wife. The stand-up La Franglaise was certainly a little more invested in looking at the in-between messiness of female sexuality, one that was not defined by a male perspective.
DORIANE: Then there was the third woman in Goethe’s life, Charlotte von Stein, the subject of his young unrequited love, taking on the role of near-emasculator. Grace Wardlaw manages to turn von Stein into a haughty but wounded woman — she made me hate her character just through the tone of her voice–the actress sat next to the audience two rows from me and I could only see parts of her leg and her foot.
LEILA: I think that element of tension between celebrating Goethe and criticising the sexism informing his relationships to women also comes across even in unevenly named title. Would a British audience automatically recognise who Johann + Christiane is about? I’m not sure, but I would like to see more of Christiane, too! Step aside, Johann.
ANNEGRET: But also, step aside conservative programming! Some bigger venues in the UK could really take a leaf out Voilà’s book. One way of supporting European immigrants in the theatre industry, and there are many of them, is to make sure their work can be seen. Yet, a lot of the more established venues have responded to this time of political instability by commissioning English playwrights, sometimes to explicitly to ruminate the state of the nation. I’m never too sure how much such an inward turn to questions of “English identity” can contribute to the conversation. It’s small theatres like The Cockpit — which is also part of the Voilà festival — who often put their producing power into more European and outward-looking projects. Making these voices heard in this climate is by no means futile but essential.