Jean Vilar, Avignon Festival’s founding father, would have been 100 this year. It hasn’t been a vintage year, but the 66th festival was unusually British in character, with Simon McBurney as artistic associate and Complicite’s storming success The Master and Margarita, seen at London’s Barbican Theatre in March, sittingly perfectly in the Cour d’Honneur. Furthermore, Forced Entertainment and Katie Mitchell had two shows apiece, and 1927 provided this year’s quiet hit with The Animals and Children Took to the Streets.
A scene from Ein Volksfeind (An Enemy of the People) Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Festival d’Avignon
Vilar’s festival remains a hotly contested territory. In France, everyone has an opinion on its remit. Some demand classics and works by top French directors - others want innovation and internationalism.
Thankfully, Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, in their ninth year as Avignon’s artistic directors, subscribe to the latter view. This may have led to the odd catcall, but largely their programming has made the medieval city in the south of France a pilgrimage site for progressive theatregoers, lured by some of Europe’s leading theatrical visionaries.
However, this year, they let us glimpse the alternative approach, granting acclaimed French director Arthur Nauzyciel the festival’s largest space for The Seagull. It’s a Cour d’Honneur horror, a grimly funereal four hours. Chekhov’s play is only 60 pages, but Nauzyciel has his cast bloat the language beyond recognition. As Irina, Dominique Reymond wrings four syllables out of the word “nuit”, until the play becomes the melodrama Chekhov so carefully avoids. Admittedly, Riccardo Hernandez’s designs look exquisite - the cast start in seagull masks, dancing in front of a vast metallic cliff - but elegance is no recompense for empty literalism.
Of course, classics needn’t be conservative. Just ask Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin’s Schaubuhne. Actually, his updated An Enemy of the People is almost well behaved. He zaps Ibsen into the internet age, pops in some David Bowie, but leaves the plot largely intact. The spa water remains polluted, the town authorities still hush it up. It’s not an entirely successful update - lawsuits and penicillin make a bacterial swimming pool seem small fry - but that’s not really the point.
Ostermeier swaps Dr Stockmann’s speech for a recent French anarchist manifesto: “The economy is not in crisis. The economy is the crisis.” It opens into a genuine, real-life debate, in which the town authorities deftly shift the goalposts and Stockmann is finally silenced by paint bombs. If it’s frayed at the edges, there’s a robust and urgent core. Can we oppose the all-pervasive? Is it all or nothing?
Romeo Castellucci seems to think so. The Italian’s latest concerns eradication and self-sacrifice. It invokes stellar winds and black holes, Roman emperors and women that cut out their tongues, dead horses and an ancient philosopher, Empedocles, who threw himself into Mount Etna. Only Castellucci could - indeed, would - put a volcano mid-eruption onstage, but though The Four Seasons Restaurant is visually arresting, it’s also frustratingly indistinct.
Elfriede Jelinek wrote Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns. Eine Wirtschaftskomodie (The Merchant’s Contracts. An Economic Comedy) in 2008, mere months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. An unremitting and angry satire, rasping with cynicism, it mauls corporate greed and presents economics as a confidence trick. Onstage, bankers beg us to believe.
German director Nicolas Stemann takes on the task - the text is 260 pages of thick, formless prose - and, despite my barely understanding a word, concocts an enthralling event that’s part gig, part satire, part television broadcast and part protest.
Stemann directs live, leaving room for manoeuvre and, at one point, hands the script and stage over to an irate audience member. It is, perhaps, tonally one-note - furious scepticism - but the whirligig of cabaret singalongs and absurd financiers, together with a 20-minute off-piste section involving a fake magic trick that multiplies money, make it utterly essential.
Bruno Meyssat’s visual and verbatim piece 15%, which takes its name from the minimum required return on a pension fund, is best when it catches the same energy. He puts bankers in ice-hockey gear and arms them with lawnmowers. One walks around with a chainsaw whirring around his shins. Finance becomes a reckless boys’ club, a “modern form of alchemy”. The play can be overly descriptive in charting the banks’ rise and fall, but it leaves little doubt that, when confidence is restored and penitence paid, the shredding will restart.
In Tomorrow’s Parties, yet to premiere in the UK, Forced Entertainment isn’t so sure. Tim Etchells’ text, a litany of possible futures split between two performers, is by turns optimistic and apocalyptic. “Or,” the actors interrupt each other, “in the future…” It’s a low-fi sci-fi that conjures rising oceans and expanding cities, new inventions and old traditions and suicide pills in front of a string of fading fairground light bulbs. Etchells does lists beautifully, and there’s a touching melancholy to his latest. Its uncertainty makes it a sly companion piece to Katie Mitchell’s Ten Billion, currently at Avignon before it returns to London’s Royal Court.