Avignon Festival: death and horror - all welcome

It was just another opening night in Avignon. Before the first performance of this year’s theatre festival began, a microphone was brought on to the stage of the Palais des Papes. In silence, 2,000 audience members listened to a manifesto signed by four unions, calling on François Hollande and his minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, who was in the audience, to pay greater attention to the woes of the arts world.

Protest is a time-honoured Avignon tradition, and art and politics routinely rub elbows in the City of Popes. But the first days of this year’s festival also neatly exemplified the contradictions of France’s theatre industry as the current funding squeeze continues.

That afternoon, Filippetti had officially inaugurated La FabricA, a purpose-built venue designed to host year-round artistic residencies and rehearsals. The brainchild of Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, festival directors since 2003, it is an impressive accomplishment in straitened times. In line with the festival’s ethos of cultural democratisation, it has been situated in a suburb to reach out to Avignon’s broader community.

Too often, however, this ethos seemed to stop at the door of the 20 or so official Festival venues. You have to wonder what FabricA’s neighbours would make of this year’s programme, whose opening weekend featured frontal nudity and inexplicable violence, murder, incest, paedophilia, rape, kidnapping and suicide (Jan Lauwers’s Place du marché 76 conveniently featured them all).

Stanislas Nordey’s ‘Par les villages’

Archambault and Baudriller, who will hand the festival on to a new director, Olivier Py, from next month, have claimed that their programming reflects a misunderstood avant-garde. So it may – but the vision of humanity that their favoured directors promulgate is still a dispiriting one.

This year’s edition boasts two associate artists, French actor/director Stanislas Nordey and Congolese director Dieudonné Niangouna, and they opened proceedings with productions eerily similar in spirit: heavy on text, light on clarity. In Par les villages (Walk about the Villages) – the festival’s manifesto-prefaced opener – Nordey explores Peter Handke’s tale of a failed homecoming. Nordey himself, as Gregor, guides us into the semi-abandoned villages at the heart of the play. Handke’s words are the main draw, particularly in one rousing scene where building workers claim a voice of their own against caricatures of the working class. At four hours, however, the production is far too static to carry the more difficult sections of the text.

Dieudonné Niangouna’s ‘Shéda’

The next evening, Niangouna trapped a puzzled audience in the Boulbon Quarry, an open-air venue a shuttle ride away from Avignon. Once on site, there was no fleeing the five-hour Shéda, the unintelligible work Niangouna spent 12 years, he indicated, elaborating. A community in an arid village is the main focus. Characters launch into monologues about Africa, nature, liberalism, adventure films and electric chairs; we witness disappearances into a pool, explorers drafted from another age, bodies being thrown from a cliff, even a few songs. Inventive but rambling, Shéda begs for an editor.

Ironically, it was left to the words of Michel Houellebecq, that apostle of the demise of western civilisation, to breathe some sense into Avignon. Les particules élémentaires (translated into English as Atomised) was his second novel, back in 1998, and 26-year-old Julien Gosselin is the first to attempt an adaptation for the stage in France. Here is a director whose passion for the text is infectious. Video projections point to a link between Houellebecq’s often grotesque characters and reality TV; the author’s grand pronouncements are offered with unusual conviction. The energy and pace of Les particules earned the committed cast an enthusiastic ovation in the Salle des fêtes de Vedène.

Another engaging performance came from Angelica Liddell, an Avignon favourite. In Ping Pang Qiu, she discusses her love for China and its contradictions with self-deprecating charisma – “China no longer exists,” she ventures, after the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed what she deems the country’s “beauty”.

Dance will take centre stage at the Palais des Papes later in the month, but French choreographer Christian Rizzo showed a beautiful if uneven new work, D’après une histoire vraie, in a smaller venue. Woodstock-esque, with bearded men in jeans and sets of drums on stage, its folk-based choreography has eight dancers in patterns that grow dizzyingly fast and intricate.

For light relief, however, the best option remains the “Off”, Avignon’s Fringe. With more than 1,200 shows happening on every street corner this month, it is the beating heart of Avignon. Its performers are true entertainers – and tell a very different story of humanity from their peers on the main stages.

To July 26, www.festival-avignon.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.