Avignon Festival: Seagull dead in the water, but Ibsen comes alive
Published in The Guardian, 25.07.2012
I’ve never known a festival so full of connecting threads. Every show programmed by curators Hortense Archambault and Victor Baudriller adds to the spiderweb in your head: economic crises stare down revolutionary ideals; globalisation locks horns with environmental concerns and various forms of inequality. A 360-degree commentary on today’s world emerges over three weeks and 45 shows.
Well, 44, really: Arthur Nauzyciel‘s version of Chekhov‘s La Mouette (The Seagull) stands alone in its sheer awfulness. One could, I suppose, draw parallels between Chekhov’s would-be playwright Treplyov, who defies popular tastes to seek truth through his art, and this production. But Nauzyciel is more concerned with tipping the play’s unrequited loves into full-blown melodrama. Gallais wears a hunchbacked coat to suggest Treplyov’s self-disgust at his inability to win Nina’s love. With sighing and soliloquising, Nauzyciel stretches its 60 pages to four excruciating hours of over-acting and extreme enunciation. I swear one actor managed to squeeze four syllables out of the word “nuit”.
Worse, though, is the sheer literalism. Riccardo Hernandez’s design might be stunning, but starting the cast in seagull masks and making the stage a metallic cliff face says less than nothing.
Thomas Ostermeier’s version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, by contrast, is full of life. He cuts a couple of peripheral characters, but leaves the plot intact. The spa town’s water system is still polluted; the town’s authorities still try to hush the problem up for economic reasons, despite the idealist Dr Stockmann’s increasing protests. Here, Stockmann and pals become hip young professionals, churning out breezy Gnarls Barkley and David Bowie covers. For them, work is an extension of leisure and pay cheques go towards luxury items.
Ostermeier’s major surgery comes when Stockmann’s final public address to the town, after the local paper has blocked his article about the pollution, is switched for a genuine French anti-capitalist manifesto called The Coming Insurrection: “The economy is not in crisis. The economy is the crisis,” he bellows. It triggers a genuine debate among the audience, which a cascade of paint bombs eventually curtails. Stockmann stands stained and consumer capitalism starts to look inescapable, no matter how good the intentions.
The staging gets right to the excoriating core of Ibsen’s play, but the update leaves his plot looking a little trite. Lawsuits, penicillin and broadband make Ibsen’s core subject – those polluted baths – look unlikely to cause the social implosion of an entire town.
Stockmann’s last stand links to the Greek philosopher Empedocles, whose most famous contribution to drama (apart from his pioneering work in natural philosophy) was the manner of his death: by jumping into the seething lava of Mount Etna. Visionary Italian director Romeo Castellucci has taken it upon himself to stage the event in a show called The Four Seasons Restaurant (the title is a reference to the New York eaterie for which Mark Rothko was commissioned to paint, before he withdrew from the project because he couldn’t face the idea of his art becoming mere wallpaper). Castellucci offers us a view on to a mass of violently swirling black feathers, blown upwards by two industrial fans to form a volcanic eruption; from the ash-like vortex, a flag starts flying, then vanishes. The moment recalls Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, suggesting the magnetic lure of self-destruction, but this is Castellucci at his most baffling. Even so, it’s characteristically heartstopping stuff.
Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek wrote The Merchants’ Contracts: An Economic Comedy months before Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. She was ahead of the game: it’s a blistering, sprawling satire, a bitter protest and a dead-serious warning; 260 pages of solid text, of which I barely understood a word (it was in German and surtitled in French). No matter. I loved Nicolas Stemann’s live-directed freewheeling production, capable of handing script and stage to an irate, aggressive spectator. A plant? Probably, but I’m still not entirely sure. Admittedly, it’s both entrenched and monotone, but the anarchic sense of possibility, that anything might just happen, was genuinely thrilling. At one point, actors defied their director to devote 20 minutes to an off-piste fake magic trick that could, they claim, double our money. If we only stump up €50.
After all, as Bruno Meyssat‘s 15% tells us, banking is “a modern form of alchemy”. Half-verbatim, half-visual theatre, it’s almost as if the Tricycle had commissioned Pina Bausch to retell the history of the financial crisis. It starts with bankers in ice-hockey helmets brandishing lawnmowers and chainsaws. The same reckless masculinity returns at the end, after a stint of penitence in which shirts are soaked and the odd banker is symbolically executed. The future, Meyssat suggests, looks much like the past.
Forced Entertainment isn’t so sure in Tomorrow’s Parties, in which two performers stand in front of a string of coloured bulbs and speculate about the future. A neat companion piece to Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott’s apocalyptic environmental lecture Ten Billion, which made a brief stop here before travelling back to London’s Royal Court, Tomorrow’s Parties is no mere the-end-is-nigh placard. One performer offers: “In the future, there’ll be no men.” Or no banks, responds the other. Or overcrowding and suicide pills. And so on. And on, testing us with boredom as time warps and those futures seem far off. You don’t so much watch the piece as exist alongside it, fading in and out – sometimes frustrated, sometimes piqued. In a festival that sets out to imagine the future, Tomorrow’s Parties is a perfect little gesture.
Photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images