Turning Avignon’s medieval Palais des Papes into a dormitory for a hundred actors takes panache. Sparkling white sleeping cubicles, glass-walled changing rooms and showers, rubber flooring: think minimalist gymnasium against a backdrop of ancient stone. A picnic supper was in full swing on stage as we took our seats, with kids charging around and people being themselves. It was worlds apart from the strained, nervy universe of a resistance fighter.
And yet wartime extremes of fear, friendship and defiant humanism underpin this text by surrealist poet René Char. Feuillets d’Hypnos isn’t a play, poem or anything recognisable. Its 237 fragments were jotted down around 1943 while Char was fighting hidden in the Maquis: a mix of aphorisms, poetic fragments, chilling anecdotes of loyalty, brutality and loss. No sequence or story, but luminous contour lines that map out a philosophy of resilience and passionate attachment to local people and landscapes – fragments that Char only submitted for publication once France was free.
So the Feuillets were an intriguing choice by the director Frédéric Fisbach, guest artist at this year’s festival with a solid record in experimenting with forms of theatrical writing and actively engaging the public. Fisbach was drawn to Char’s transmission of an ethic, the postwar idea that broadening access to culture helps prevent wars and promote freedom – down to recruiting 100 locals to bolster the professional cast.
Making this beautiful but often obscure text into theatre was never going to be easy. Fisbach’s approach is high-speed, high-energy, high-risk, and it disappoints from start almost to finish. He takes the concept of fragmentation to its literal extreme. Actors fire off the number of each new fragment, deliver much of the text in quick-fire staccato and change linguistic register with bewildering rapidity. Their use of microphones (hard to avoid in this massive open-air venue) becomes a distraction in itself, with virtuoso acrobatics round trailing wires. The action shifts abruptly from one side of the tennis- court-sized stage to the other, keeping spectators’ heads swivelling. There are plenty of clever visuals, but it is exhausting to watch and listen.
“Pause! Please!” I kept thinking, just to let us soak up the text and its changes in mood and style. Wonderful lines flashed by without the time to absorb and reflect: “France has the reactions of a shipwrecked vessel disturbed in its siesta”; “Acquiescence lights up the face. Refusal gives it beauty”; and the famous “lucidity is the wound closest to the sun”.
Much more could have been done through lighting to explore the dreaminess and the doubt. Instead, Daniel Lévy’s eight massive street lamps remained on for most of the action. The occasional snog took place under neon lights, far from the intimate cubicles. The ambience was more shop window than the recesses of the human imagination.
It was not the professional actors’ fault. Their performances were taut and well-crafted even if only the two older actors, Wakeu Fogaing and Fred Ulysse, were given time to let their texts breathe. But, ironically, the production improved hugely once the impressive cohort of amateur actors filed silently on to the stage in shades of blue and grey, nicely evocative of the factory or military uniforms. The soloists wove elegantly through the crowd as each amateur spoke his or her fragment, simply and without frills in a merciful break from hectic choreography and a much-needed infusion of dignity and stoicism.
In the end all the devices to make the text accessible backfired. Its beauty became blurred, its depths levelled out. The umpteenth costume change into black Lurex was the last straw.
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