Fuel blog: Avignon Festival uncovered

Posted: 21/08/12

As summer approaches, many people think about a trip to the Edinburgh Festival to get an injection of culture as the theatre world decamps to Scotland in a frenzy of colourful shows and characters. At the end of July, I went against the tide and ventured to the south of France to visit the Avignon Festival.

Avignon is a beautiful ancient walled city with a patchwork of slanting roofs and a papal palace - the popes moved there for seventy years in the 1300s. But there is more to the city than the lavender for sale on every street corner and the famous bridge. In July the city comes alive with theatres, just as Edinburgh does in August.

Like Edinburgh, there is an international festival and a fringe festival (called the Off). The ancient city walls are plastered with posters and it has its own Royal Mile - a leafy street filled with restaurants where people sell you their shows as you sip rose. I saw a troupe of butchers describe their farcical whodunit, and a comedy cabaret artist whose songs were inspired by pasta (not all the shows were food related). I saw one show in the Off called Le Porteur d'Histoire (The Bearer of History) that was playing to packed houses every night, but my main focus was the International festival. 

The Avignon International Festival's two artistic directors, Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, work with an associate artist every year, who collaborates on the programming around a theme. This year, the associate artist was Simon McBurney of Complicite, who themed his festival around the 'spirit of complicity' - with elements including the question of what contemporary theatre is, what pulls us apart and what draws us together, theatre inspired by other art forms such as visual art, music and literature, and theatre in discourse with reality. 

My favourite show drew from the final element, exploring the deviations of the financial system. Die Kontrakte Des Kaufmanns. Eine Wirtshaftskomödie (The Merchants Contracts. An Economic Comedy), by director Nicolas Stemann and the Thalia Theater of Hamburg, is written by Nobel Prize winning Elfriede Jelinek who changes and adds to the script daily. The play was performed in the beautiful courtyard of lycée Saint-Joseph from 9.30pm to almost 1am (though you can escape to the bar at any point). A screen counts down from page 99 to page 0, at which 'the' deal must be done, though as the play has been performing since 2008 the counter seems to change almost at random; the show now runs at about 3hours 45minutes with over 400 pages, which the seven cast members tear up and discard as they go along, littering the stage with paper. This is a reflection of the vacuous jargon spieled by the Merchants, who chant a frenzy of false financial opportunities, which seem almost rational following continued repetition. Awash in the midst of this are an elderly couple who have been duped by the Merchants and their deal, causing them to lose everything. They appear first as healthy, then as crippled and aged by their misfortune and later as sheep and a fairytale prince and princess as they are seduced by the promise of the deal - a strong comment of our own relationship with the financial market and crash. A great strength of the show, for me, was that by the end of the show, I felt I had myself been wooed by the Merchants and felt it difficult to feel the same contempt for them and sympathy for the elderly couple that I did at the beginning, unsettling my sense of corporate responsibility in present circumstances. You can see the tour schedule here, though the closest it currently gets to us is Calais next March.

It was also great to see a lot of English shows on the programme, as a result of McBurney's influence: shows by 1927, Forced Entertainment, John Berger and Katie Mitchell joined Complicite on the listings alongside shows from France, Germany, Italy and South Africa to name but a few. 10 Billion, Katie Mitchell's new show with Stephen Emmott director of the External Research Office at Microsoft Research Cambridge, was also performed at the Royal Court this month. The show investigates population growth and the impossible stretch of the world's resources. It is set in an exact replica of Emmott's office and is delivered as a lecture. It sparked debate in the UK press about its role as a play though in a post show discussion I went to questions were almost entirely directed at the worrying scientific content and I only caught one person after the show challenging them on the point of its presentation as theatre, with the answer being that theatre inspires and provokes and as such, the piece belongs on stage.

I would also highly recommend keeping an eye out for Forced Entertainment's new show Tomorrow's Parties when it tours. Two performers, a man and a woman, stand on soap boxes against a back drop of fairy lights and present possible futures. It's playful and comical but also questions clichés of hope and anticipation. The shape of the piece moves the audience from alien invasions to the seeming humdrum reality of life a sit stands, with everything in between, and was brilliantly programmed as part of the festival's 25th Hour, which begin at half past midnight and caught the audience between both days and realities. 

The festival has just announced the associate artists for 2013: author, actor and director Dieudonné Niangouna from the Republic of Congo and French actor and director Stanislas Nordey. So if you fancy a festival visit with a difference then take a trip to Provence next summer - just don't forget your French dictionary.