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This was the interview that wasn’t. I arrived in 110km/h winds to find Ariane Mnouchkine grim-faced about storm risk to her theatre and a serious leak in its kitchens. A chat with this iconic figure of European experimental theatre about her new production, which opened this month, was off the agenda.

Because Mnouchkine, probably more than any other director, is her theatre and her company. She set up the Théâtre du Soleil collective in 1964 and installed it six years later at a former munitions factory on Paris’s eastern boundary. The Cartoucherie quickly made its own myths. People came from miles away and had to be fed. The actors had no dressing rooms so made up in public. Mnouchkine herself took tickets at the door.

Now the theatre’s food is famous in its own right, an integral part of a theatregoer’s day or evening there, and the company has swollen to 70 members spanning 22 nationalities. It tours widely, films its major productions and holds Unesco’s Picasso medal for its outstanding contribution to culture. But that special relationship with the public remains and it is Mnouchkine who asks you with a steely twinkle in her eye to “really turn off your mobiles” before each show starts.

She looks like everyone’s favourite granny in her baggy jersey and cords but at 67 Mnouchkine is feisty and uncompromising. “The present is all I care about,” says the woman whose company is renowned for its overt social and political engagement and who famously called Eurodisney a “cultural Chernobyl”. Radical productions of Greek tragedies, Molière and Shakespeare have been followed by contemporary plays by Hélène Cixous tackling everything from France’s contaminated blood scandal in the 1990s to political paralysis in the face of environmental disaster. The colossal Le Dernier Caravansérail explored the global plight of refugees, based on testimony gathered in Sangatte, Afghanistan and Indonesia. It scooped four national theatre awards in 2005. Yet, she notes scathingly, no politicians came to see it.

Mnouchkine believes passionately in the power of theatre to expand both heart and mind and the Cartoucherie is anything but an ivory tower. In 1996 it opened its doors to dozens of illegal immigrants expelled from their refuge in a Paris church. The other side of the idealistic coin is punishing perfectionism. More than once, she has turned a performance into a rehearsal, given the audience their money back and then invited them to stay and watch.

She has described herself as a “dinosaur”. Her companion, the Brazilian actress Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha, explains what she means. “She feels very alone in today’s theatrical landscape. To keep going for over 40 years, all of us on the same salary, such attention to the public . . . She’s always the first to arrive and the last to go, even though she’s the oldest. Many see this as the true spirit of theatre.” Mnouchkine has been highly critical of the lack of support for theatrical troupes, of big institutions for smaller ones. While her modus operandi and pay scales deter established actors, young actors still queue up to join. The selection procedure exhausts her. At the last one, 2,500 hopefuls underwent rigorous screening before 400 were chosen for the free workshop at which new members are recruited.

Given this background, Les Ephémères is an intriguing departure and a big risk. For the first time, Mnouchkine has gone completely textless and abandoned her historical or socio-political stamping ground. “To talk of beauty, we had to tackle loss and danger,” she has said. “We look at everyday life through the prism of the family, especially the mother. Out of ordinariness emerges an abyss of complexity, suffering, the questions we never asked our parents . . . Theatre perfectly matches the ephemeral character of what we are.”

Work started last March. About the only constant has been the concept of stage-as-river. Otherwise “the first idea was quite woolly”, says music director Jean-Jacques Lemêtre cheerfully. The actors had to imagine a meteorite was falling and how they would react if the end of the world was nigh. They tested the idea for two months and then abandoned it as too cinematographic, not credible to a live audience. So Mnouchkine started them on a Proustian quest. “We realised that proposals based on memories were the ones that worked,” recalls Carneiro. The actors tracked down photos, souvenirs and masks to nourish the raw material. “But the meteorite stayed, in the sense of ‘we haven’t got long to live’.”

Improvisations proliferated. Mnouch­kine chose 29 out of 450, staged in two three-hour parts that can be seen separately or on the same day. The mix of stand-alone scenes and interlinked narratives encompasses the pain of abuse, divorce and bereavement and the joy of unexpected compassion. Child actors – of whom there are 15 – play a key role. Many are linked to the troupe. Paco, who has Down’s syndrome, is grandson of the company’s physiotherapist.

“You can only do this with mutual trust,” says Carneiro, relishing the way in which older actors help new recruits to understand the perspective of different generations. “I can look them in the eye, even when they’re completely terrorised, because they’re very young and still frightened of Ariane.”

Some storylines come uncomfortably close to home. One involves a woman tracing her grandparents after her mother’s death and discovering they were deported as Jews. It is partly inspired by a chance meeting Mnouch­kine had in Brittany, which led her to identify the hotel where she holidayed with her grandparents and to be reunited with an old couple who, Carneiro says, “remembered her grandfather’s Russian accent you could cut with a knife”. Her grandparents were among the last people deported from France to Auschwitz. “They were denounced by the concierge,” Carneiro adds. “We went to the national archives and found the convoy number. And the names of her parents on the wanted list, as foreigners” (her mother was English, her father the Russian film producer Alexander Mnouchkine). “Ariane’s name was on the list too. She was five.”

Mnouchkine has completely remodelled the Cartoucherie for this production and calls the wide corridor stage an “autopsy room”. It is flanked by high banks of seats, with tiny lights along each row casting a glimmer on spectators’ faces. Lemêtre and his battery of instruments sit in a gallery at one end.

Scenes are staged on low platforms on wheels, rotated gracefully by other actors to ensure constantly shifting perspectives. They contain sitting-rooms, kitchens, doorways, designed by the actors with meticulous attention to detail. “Material objects are crucial,” Mnouchkine says. “They transmit memory to future generations.” At the end of each half, the platforms spin softly back down the stage – a powerful image of life flashing before your eyes at the moment of death.

In spite of her own doubts, critics have been as enthusiastic as her loyal followers. A distinguished political broadcaster told her during a radio show that it was the first time he had ever cried in a theatre. “We took a bet,” Mnouchkine replied, “that we’re all alike really. Spectators recognise moments they’ve lived through, even if they wish they hadn’t.”

Lemêtre’s music accompanies the whole show. “It’s particularly important as there’s not much text,” he says. “I wanted a symphonic approach, more writing. I’ve played some of these instruments so much” – he has about 2,800 – “that, short of sleeping with them, I’ve done everything. As I don’t want to sleep with them, I hunted for something else.” This vow of musical celibacy led him to compose 40 hours before rehearsals began. “I focused on time, solitude, ennui, Europe. After a while, the actors took possession of the music and couldn’t work without it.” He pauses. “The music isn’t there to drive home the horror and hardship. But it acts as a kind of therapy. The public don’t move a muscle during scenes – the silence is almost spiritual – but between scenes they breathe out together and the music helps.”

Mnouchkine reappears, looking less strained. The wind is dropping. “Lunch?” she asks. I am reminded that food is a big deal here, where the menu is redesigned to match the theme of each play. The kitchen leak meant catering had to be done in a tent in the middle of winter. “Oh she was worried,” winces Carneiro. “We could only serve soup. She apologised to the public. And New Year was crazy. We had to serve 600 pre-paid meals. Each actor waited on four tables and we’d only just done the premiere!”

On my way out I pass bowls of catfood. How many cats, I ask. “Two,” beams Lemêtre, “a boy and a girl. Pili and Pili. Their mother was called Pili-Pili.” Now that’s taking solidarity to the limit.

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