One of the most potentially chilling words in the French language is "d'après". As, for instance, in "Giulio Cesare – spectacle de Romeo Castellucci d'après William Shakespeare", one of the international productions at this year's 52nd Avignon Festival. Brutus's speech over Caesar's body is delivered firstly in a helium-fuelled chipmunk voice, then with a vibrator attached to his throat to induce artificial tremolo; Antony's response is halting and croaky, since the actor playing him has been tracheotomised; Cassius changes sex during the interval; Stanislavsky wanders around, looking like Christ; a rain of shoes falls upon the stage. Ho hum. In fairness, the second act contains some powerful images, but is preceded by a first half so conceptually top-heavy as to be beyond redemption. Castellucci seems to have got his retaliation in first by sub-titling the first act "Onan". Enough said.
Disintegration of society – or its reconfiguration in new arrangements – is more effectively dealt with in Xavier Durringer's Surfeurs, in which the campaign of an innocent political candidate is first contrasted then intermingled with the dealings in sex and drugs which go on, on a multi-level set fronted by two large pools of water, literally beneath his apartment. Durringer has a sure touch both as writer and director, and his social dissection spares no class, group or political persuasion. However, he feels overly compelled to cover the entire waterfront (no pun intended), leading to a protracted final phase which steers the piece from a kind of Our Friends Across The Channel into the territory of Lindsay Anderson's if.... I regret to admit that, cowed as I already was by a couple of thunderstorms leading first to postponement, then to the interruption and restart from the top of this outdoor production, I gave up taking notes some 20 minutes after the natural ending to the play and as long again before its actual ending.
The Festival's largest and most prestigious venue is the two-thousand seat Cour d'Honneur of the mediaeval Palais des Papes, which the French state has announced its desire to purchase from the town of Avignon, and which hosted this year's opening show, Jean-Louis Martinelli's presentation of Hölderlin's adaptation of Sophocles' Œdipe le Tyran. Martinelli's production was poorly received and, alas, rightly so. Having chosen to leave the forestage as the sole territory of the one-man Chorus, he placed the bulk of the drama on a long, shallow podium resembling nothing so much as a railway platform. Actors seemed to have been directed to abjure palpable emotion in favour of oratorical grandeur, to leave off acting and concentrate on the two-dimensional blocking. In short, Martinelli all but ripped out the empathic human heart of the play, and with it any reason for caring about the strutting, jostling, rhetorising figure of Charles Berling's Oedipe.
The "Festival Off", as in Edinburgh, dwarfs its big sister in terms of numbers of events, although unlike its Scottish counterpart the Off seems content with its overall subordinate role. This year, however, a third element pervaded the cultural atmosphere. It fell to Declan Donnellan to unify these currents.
Donnellan's production of Corneille's Le Cid is characteristically clear and fresh, innovative without being modish. The murdered father of Chimène patrols upstage as she (forcefully portrayed by Sarah Karbasnikoff) tirelessly sues for revenge upon his killer, her beloved Rodrigue; duellists fight each other in empty air on opposite sides of the stage, whilst scenes of dialogue are played out in the space between them; William Nadylam is uncannily reminiscent of Adrian Lester as, in the role of Rodrigue – the Cid himself – he shows himself genuinely modest and awkward at his military triumphs against the Moors, rather than simply affecting such modesty for his own ends.
But at the curtain call after Sunday's performance, Donnellan gave himself the most dramatic words of the evening: "France trois, Brésil zero." The main street outside was already packed with seemingly the entire population of the departement of Vaucluse, with still more thronging in, celebrating the World Cup victory. As an upstairs nightclub threw open its windows and blasted out music to be taken up by the jubilant crowd, I witnessed something I would never have considered remotely possible: Queen's "We Are The Champions" was, that night, more socially and culturally eloquent than either Shakespeare or Sophocles.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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