Every so often, I watch a piece of theatre that moves me simply because it manifests so precisely what theatre itself as an artform can do. Assoiffés is a production like this. Written by the Lebanese-Quebecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Assoiffés is staged here by a young company who worked collectively to devise the performance: actors Mélaine Catuogno, Vivien Fedele and Alexandre Streicher, lighting designer Sarah Ballestra, and company co-founder Pierrick Bressy-Coulomb.
Mouawad’s playtext interweaves stories, legal documents, impeccably detailed naturalism and highly stylised characters (here played in masks) to create multiple layers of fiction. To stage this play convincingly takes a delicate balance of trust that makes transitions in theatrical conventions seem sharp and organic. The company measure this expertly, creating the kind of magical drifts between fiction and reality that is the special prerogative of the theatrical form.
Assoiffés — which I would translate as ‘parched’ (the plural form, importantly, refers to more than one character) — is told from the perspective of a forensic anthropologist who finds two adolescents, male and female, entwined in each others arms and dead at the bottom of a river. Discovering them decades after the death, he struggles to ascertain the identity of the figures, before realising that the boy is someone he knew at school.
A mouthy, insolent teenager, 17 year-old Murdoch speaks in a broad Quebec accent loaded with slang and expletives (imagine the phonetic offspring of a Cornish person and a Texan, speaking French). He erupts onto the stage (as, in fact, do all the characters) with an immense, frantic gulp of air that I recall from dragging myself suddenly out of a vivid dream into waking life, thirsty for oxygen.
One day, Murdoch refuses to shut up. He engages fazed old ladies in quickfire conversation on the bus; he babbles throughout his geography lesson, asking why he needs to use words like ‘dick’ and ‘pussy’ to finally get heard; he explodes a deluge of words on the audience, animated by Streicher’s vivacious wide eyes. Murdoch is parched: for what he calls beauty, and what seems to me to be a vitality too readily evaporated by routine and predictability. It’s not the question of whether he will find what he is looking for that moves me, but the memory of the intense, existential desire for meaning that seems to have been diluted in the ten years since I was the same age. At the end of that day, Murdoch disappears.
Other thirst-stricken characters, whose narratives eventually braid with Murdoch’s, are figments of fiction, memory and imagination that are sculpted on stage before us. Layers of mise-en-abîme — at times clearly marked and at others finely nuanced — are navigated with care and conviction. The actors play against their training, opening themselves to a fruitful risk. Fedele, with a background in Commedia del Arte, is cast as the anthropologist narrator; Streicher, trained in improvisation, plays a Murdoch that is at once exaggerated and larger than life (he is, after all, a teenage memory), yet also manifestly fragile enough to be deeply empathetic. Catuogno, more acquainted with a cerebral approach to her characters, plays a figure confronting a nightmarish discovery that flies in the face of logic and realism.
This, explains Fedele, has helped the performers to avoid the traps and tempting effects of genre that might make the anthropologist too professorial a storyteller, or Murdoch too typically the rebellious (albeit charming) teenager. Starting work on a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra that involved weeks of reading and translating the text before getting on stage at all opened up a methodology that again threw the weaknesses in Assoiffés into relief: the production, like the company, is always on the move. It is this balance, which weights the company’s mastery of the text and the theatrical form against their patent vulnerability, that proves so effective in captivating an audience who exit the theatre trembling.
Assoiffés is on until 30 July 2017. Click here for more details.