Avignon Festival, France – review

Is it the offstage drama? The excitement generated by a new director? Either way, the Avignon Festival is back on fighting form this summer. While the heavily conceptual fare that dominated the festival under Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, who left last year, divided both audiences and critics, the political streak running through this year’s edition feels timely and has provided a welcome injection of energy onstage.

Olivier Py may have wished for a quieter inauguration. Like many French summer festivals, Avignon has been at the heart of a drawn-out dispute between the government and the intermittents, the part-time performers and technicians who make up a significant part of the arts workforce in France. The state has historically given them a generous safety net of benefits; new rules were devised earlier this year to cap them, raise mandatory insurance contributions and institute a delay before payments kick in, but their perceived unfairness and a lack of dialogue have led to industrial action.

There is a precedent: the 2003 Avignon Festival was cancelled outright in the midst of another intermittents crisis, but since then the situation has changed. Insurance against strikes, which proved a lifeline for festivals at the time, is no longer available because of the heavy losses incurred that year.

The festival went ahead this time, but not without disruption. Not a single performance went by without pre-show announcements and other action. Both opening performances were called off on July 4, and a second strike, on July 12, yielded more cancellations. (Add to that weather that has been only passable, and Py was visibly chafing at his luck when he announced on Saturday that the festival had already lost €138,500 in revenue.)

Rebelliousness has always been part of Avignon’s DNA, however, and Py’s first programme has proved eerily, if sometimes unwittingly, relevant. It’s no coincidence that several productions have paid tribute to Avignon founder Jean Vilar: Py’s vision of theatre is similarly committed and inclusive. Productions based on existing plays are back in fashion this year, as is old-fashioned stagecraft; some tough subjects have been tackled, but there is also a renewed sense of joy and shared pleasure to the experience.

Py led by example with a new play penned for the occasion, Orlando ou l’Impatience. Staged at La FabricA, the purpose-built venue inaugurated last year in the suburbs, it is an exuberant statement of intent, a four-hour declaration of love to the stage, in turns rousing and chaotic. Orlando, the son of an actress, embarks on a doomed quest to meet his father, and finds theatre instead. Along the way, Py gives us a memorable parody of a culture minister and exalted monologues that require all the verve the excellent actors can muster, from Matthieu Dessertine (Orlando) to Philippe Girard and Jean-Damien Barbin.

Another coming-of-age play, Le Prince de Hombourg, opened the proceedings at the Palais des Papes. Once directed by Vilar on the same stage, Heinrich von Kleist’s meditation on power and discipline returned in a production by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti. His cast proved uneven, but no other director in recent years has harnessed the Cour d’Honneur with such grace; Igor Renzetti’s outsized video projections on to the façade behind the stage were a work of art in themselves, from stylised war maps to a palace within the palace, drawn around the Cour’s stained glass windows.

Across town, in a modest school gym, the small-scale sensation of the first week was Emma Dante’s Le Sorelle Macaluso, a modern Sicilian cousin of The House of Bernarda Alba with seven ageing sisters. Dante’s layered story of family trauma juggled theatre and dance in a series of brisk, piercing scenes – a rare Avignon play that deserves to be expanded.

In a welcome departure from his predecessors, Py has also chosen to dedicate one venue, the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, to productions for young audiences. The idea will probably take time to catch on: few children were actually in attendance this year. It has additional potential as a training ground for up-and-coming directors, however, and 26-year-old Lazare Herson-Macarel made the most of the opportunity. His Falstafe, based on Valère Novarina’s take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, packed a refreshing punch, with its motto “La jeunesse doit vivre” (“Youth must live”). The episodic storytelling was occasionally self-indulgent, especially in the nightclub-like interludes, but it brimmed with ideas, its five actors eagerly revelling in Novarina’s vivid prose.

There was one offensive blip last week. Freely inspired by Mozart, Antú Romero Nunes’s Don Giovanni. Letzte Party invited women from the audience to join its hero on stage, warning husbands that they would be “taken care of”. The curtain closed on the party for the duration of the interval, and when it opened again, Nunes had an actor walk among the women and kiss a dozen or so on the lips at random. At a time when street harassment is so often in the news, Avignon should know better than to treat its female audience like props in an unsavoury game.

Dance will take centre stage later this month, but the “Sujets à Vif” series in the Jardin de la Vierge, a stronghold of experimental, often inscrutable short works, provided one highlight: Religieuse à la fraise, a quirky, tender duo created by dancer Kaori Ito and actor Olivier Martin-Salvan. Ito is as tiny and compact as Martin-Salvan is tall and large, and as she slid into his clothes or stood perched on his stomach, theirs was a narrative of mutual respect and discovery.

Another dance piece, Thomas Lebrun’s Lied Ballet, fell victim to the rain in the outdoor Cloître des Carmes and was ultimately cancelled on Sunday after a series of false starts. For dance lovers and strike days, however, a venue not included in the festival played host to seven hour-long performances daily: the CDC-Les Hivernales, Avignon’s centre for the development of choreography. I caught Michel Kelemenis’s substantial if somewhat monotonous Siwa and Brahim Bouchelaghem’s Sillons, the latter a work of astounding formal sophistication for six hip-hop dancers; Bouchelaghem hasn’t quite mastered the art of creating characters, but his talent needs nurturing.

When it comes to dance, Avignon has in recent years focused on contemporary work to the exclusion of other genres. There is space in the line-up to explore new dance territories, however; Py’s first allegiance is to theatre, but the signs so far are good that, with him at the helm, Avignon will broaden its horizons.

Until July 27, festival-avignon.com

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