Outside Avignon station, a French bulldog was (I kid you not) cocking its leg against a poster for an English-language production entitled Brexit. It was an inauspicious start to my first experience of continental Europe’s flagship theatre festival.
But I needn’t have worried. In fact, even Brits with the most rudimentary grasp of French can have un bon temps at the Avignon festival. Perhaps more welcoming than the official ‘IN’ programme, the ‘OFF’ fringe has an easily navigable programme highlighting works in English or with English surtitles and features a raft of physical and visual theatre where language really isn’t a barrier.
Non-French speakers could spend a happy couple of days at La Manufacture, which is the go-to venue on the OFF for interesting, contemporary theatre – think Avignon’s Summerhall. Its fare had a strong international flavour – I particularly enjoyed Jogging by Hanane Haji Ali, a humorous and moving one-woman reworking of the Medea myth exploring the lives of contemporary Lebanese women; and Under Ice, a white noise blast of rage, toxic capitalism and masculinity-in-meltdown from Lithuanian director Arturas Areima.
Elsewhere, Varhung – Heart to Heart was an evocative dance piece by Tjimur, “Taiwan’s premier indigenous dance-theatre company”, which will make its way to Dance Base in this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. Audio-guided dance piece Die Strasse unfolded like a breathless film noir through night-time Avignon’s winding alleys and backstreets – elegant and thrilling.
In the IN festival, I managed to miss out on Julien Gosselin’s much-hyped Joueurs, Mao II, Les Noms, an epic 10-hour adaptation of three Don DeLillo novels about which the theatrati were buzzing. But I did catch Thyeste, directed by Avignon darling Thomas Jolly, renowned for past productions here including Henry VI and a celebration of festival’s history. Seneca’s most gratuitously gory work, performed against the ostentatious backdrop of the Palais du Papes, was never going to be subtle. But taken as a total theatre spectacle it was certainly memorable: infanticide with rap numbers, a glitter ball Tantalus and ghosts from a del Toro nightmare.
Milo Rau’s extraordinary La Reprise – Histoire(s) Du Theatre (I) alone would have made the trip worthwhile. A meta-theatrical interrogation of the means by which we distance ourselves from the suffering of others, it was a profoundly moving work about the homophobic murder of Ihsane Jarfi, created in collaboration with those close to the case. As Matt Trueman has recently highlighted, it is an indictment of a national theatre culture that tends towards the insular that we see so little of work by theatremakers such as Rau in Britain. We’re certainly missing out.
At 5pm on Sunday, the theatres emptied and we gathered around screens in the Village du Off to watch France beat Croatia in the World Cup final. Gazing around at the multicultural crowd knocking back glasses of Provençal rosé and chanting “allez les bleus” was a salient reminder that international acts of cultural congress are so much more than the sum of their parts. It seemed more important than ever.