The Avignon Festival is a central event in the French theatre calendar. Every July, hundreds of productions are presented between the official programme and the thriving fringe.
Yet the festival demonstrates surprising blind spots. When director Olivier Py announced a “focus” on Sub-Saharan Africa this year, the line-up was scrutinised: all productions fell under the umbrella of dance, music or mixed-media performance. Congolese director Dieudonne Niangouna promptly denounced the lack of African plays.
After a period of radio silence, Avignon programmer Agnes Troly told Le Monde that the selection was “one vision of [Africa’s] noteworthy artists.” There were certainly strong voices on offer including a triple bill of contemporary dance works from the 1990s (★★★★), which ranged from an exploration of domestic violence (Kettly Noel’s expressive Tichelbe) to the all-women Sans Reperes, by the late Beatrice Kombe, which grappled with tradition and evolving values.
Basokin, a Kinshasa music collective, was a less obvious candidate for a theatre festival, however. While their performance at the college Vernet was spirited, it was a concert. It’s worrying that Py, who has defended text-centred work since his appointment in 2013, didn’t see the issue with a focus eschewing Africa’s noteworthy playwrights.
It’s also a symptom of French theatre’s larger issues with diversity. Other prominent productions featured next to no racially diverse casting, starting with Py’s own creation, Les Parisiens (★★). Based on a novel he published last year, it’s a sprawling affair that ticks all of Py’s usual boxes: queer identity, father-son issues, nudity, exalted odes to theatre and satire of the arts establishment.
It crossed the line into self-indulgence with scenes that seemed designed to shock (zoophilia included) and yet another parody of a culture minister. Old grudges don’t always make for good theatre – Py would do well to branch out.
His programming elsewhere was stronger. Simon Stone’s Ibsen Huis (★★★★★) brought the Toneelgroep Amsterdam in a creation inspired by Henrik Ibsen and his preoccupation with dysfunctional family life.
Ibsen Huis has the benefit of a superb set, a rotating house made of wood and glass designed by Lizzie Clachan, and moves seamlessly between four generations of a single family, from the 1960s to the present. It probes the way unresolved trauma is passed down to the next generation; the 11-strong cast found truth in every character.
Two young directors, Julie Bertin and Jade Herbulot, took risks with their company, the Birgit Ensemble. They presented twin productions steeped in history: the documentary-like Memories of Sarajevo (★★★★), evoking the siege of the city during the 1990s Bosnian War, and Dans les Ruines d’Athenes (★★★). The latter imagines a reality TV show, Parthenon Story, where the prize is debt relief, to explore the deepening crisis in Greece since 2009 and Europe’s deficient response to it.
Both are well-researched if on the long side, and their parody of international negotiations is often spot-on. The Birgit Ensemble will be one to follow.