THE GARDEN OF AVIGNON
Andrew Todd, July 23rd 2023
Untitled show, El Conde de Torrefiel / Paysages Partagés, Stefan Kaegi and Caroline Barneaud
The 2023 Avignon Festival has -for this observer- a defining image: an audience of 300 seated on tripod stools faces into a vineyard; a small tractor advances slowly towards them between the rows of vines. Inside the tractor’s high-tech cab is vigneron Corentin Combe, speaking through a microphone to the headphoned audience about his struggles with heat, drought, bureaucracy, banks and neighbours practicing invasive and intensive agriculture; and about his attempts -through minimal intervention, gently turning the earth- to enable earthworms to make the most of the upper levels of soil, keeping it rich in life, negotiating the best possible conditions (despite his constraints) for all the living things on his plot, resulting in the manifestation of thriving vines and succulent, complex grapes.
Stefan Kaegi and Caroline Barneaud -enablers of the far-reaching project Paysages Partagés- and Emilie Rousset, creator of this segment of the broader project- are dramatising the garden, causing the audience to feel implicated in the choices we must make to husband and constrain plants to serve our needs (as well as their own). Earlier (before the slow ‘upstage’ appearance of the tractor) two actors appeared perched in fallen trees at the far end of the vineyard, intimately audible through our headsets despite the distance. The actress Emmanuelle Lafon channeled -prompted by an interlocutor- the words of Faustine Bas-Defossez, Director of the European Environment Bureau, responsible on a macro scale for ecological and health policies. She unravelled the Shakepearean complexities of the Common Agricultural Policy, how it remains ecologically recalcitrant despite the best intentions of all the governments concerned. The audience was rapt, hearing the EU has a tragic flaw at its heart no less intractable than Hamlet’s - a tragic flaw that affects us all.
We had felt these effects first-hand, having had to schlepp through Avignon’s ramparts and then across a pedestrian-hostile road bridge and over a mind-meltingly hot expanse of tarmac, in order to catch our bus to the project site in the hills of Pujaut. Even the normal heat of an Avignon summer induces a hot-yoga trance, levelling up the audience as government ministers, critics and plutocrats perspire in an egalitarian manner alongside locals, theatre fans and technical staff. This year the temperature -literal and figurative- was raised by news from the near south of an unprecedented heatwave and forest fires (fires around Boulbon had scorched the memory of the preceding year’s festival).
The conclusion of Paysages Partagés (after seven hours’ errance through various natural sites, and a plethora of vignettes of varying force) took place across twilight with a menacing surtitle screen (orchestrated by Tanya Beyeler and Pablo Gisbert) glowing over the horizon and the distant Mont Ventoux, flashing admonishing messages from a disembodied ‘Gaia, nature or god.’ Skewering the audience, the screen-oracle (with an equally menacing hissing voice) laid bare our responsibilities for the hellscape that awaits us as we face our species’ endgame. The audience cheered the oracle, not -I think- out of disaster fetishism, but out of recognition and gratitude. Theatrical tragedy -as in ancient Athens- cleanses and renews, reminds us of duty, allows us to face the worst and -perhaps- pick ourselves up and fight anew. And who knows? Perhaps there was a European Commissioner in the polis, needing a slight spine-stiffener for the next round of CAP negotiations.
Inside (rather than on) another limestone hill in Avignon’s periphery, Philippe Quesne cooked up a different kind of hellscape in a tragic garden. His loose, trippy meditation on Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights was not scattered across a natural site, but distilled in the cauldron of the Boulbon quarry, a space as focused, grandiose and enigmatic as the Epidauros theatre. The hillside was gouged away in the 1960s for a beneficent purpose -slowing the flow of the nearby Rhone in order to produce hydroelectricity from the Vallabrègues dam. The resulting extracted void found its first hermit crab-like dweller in the person of Peter Brook, who used the space with minimal transformations for his 1985 creation of the Hindhu epic poem The Mahabharata. The world almost ends in this 2,500 year-old drama: a mighty weapon (which mercifully misfires) was represented by Brook in the form of a blinding magnesium flare in the rockface, unleashed a couple of hours before the dawn. If the actual anthropogenic end of the world was not uppermost in people’s minds 30 years ago (although Brook often referenced the question in private), it very much is now, and Quesne -with his brand of goofball eco-tragedy- is a most worthy quarry-crab to follow Brook as dweller of this space.
The Garden of Earthly Delights follows his usual schtick of a band of bathetic but admirable questors, charismatic, innocent misfits entrusted with a strange, vague task seemingly vital for humanity. In this case their efforts centre around the curation of a giant fractured egg -an explicit reference to Bosch’s paintings- which they plant with great care on the quarry’s rocky floor having arrived there -seemingly at a dead end- in their shared bus. Dressed as genial, slightly confused Westerners in cowboy hats and boots, they are part Leningrad Cowboys Go America!, part High Plains Drifter. Various disjointed sketches ensue, ranging from base comedy to the sublime, deploying modes from slapstick to holy incantation (for example, of Dante’s Divine Comedy passage about a quarry in hell). The characters’ status is elastic in a Godardian manner, with outsize gestures, overplayed monologues and straight readings of underpinning texts from deep history. The protagonist holding the whole thing together is the quarry itself, by turns sheltering, glowering and -by the end- trembling with portent, rent with cartoon lightning, potentially a portal to another world, the next chapter of their quest, burning with a laser-focused beam recalling Brook’s world-ending weapon. In one of many microgenius moments a character requests that the buzzing of the cigales be stopped – which it suddenly is. Crafty Quesne had blended in a soundtrack as the noisy insects took their rest, allowing this wonderful sleight of hand from the control booth. It provokes a belly laugh, but also a hollow gulp as we remember that stopping species in their tracks is something that we actually do, on a daily basis. There are two funny-holy sequences (directly referencing the paintings) in which actors become molluscs in stretchy full-body suits, pushing interspecies empathy to new limits, and following theoretical tracers left by philosopher Emanuele Coccia in his book Metamorphosis.
My only quarry-quarrel lies with the loopy logic of the ending (in an otherwise brilliantly crafted show), in which a new, whole egg (presumably a thing of hope) is rather hurriedly presented and dispatched. Having faced the worst in this end-times auditorium, we deserved -perhaps- a more structured wink at potential redemption.
Gardens imply custodianship, artifice and selection. The chief gardener in this case is a new arrival, Tiago Rodrigues, the first foreign director of the Festival. Tilling his predecessor’s soil, scattering seeds in farther fields, his collection of play-plants shows a keen awareness of the burning questions we face. The beauty of such a festival is the peculiar, open collaboration of garden and gardener. Its true meaning depends -more than on one authorial ego- on the varieties of growth assembled and the pollinising actions of tens of thousands of audience members, crisscrossing the region, creating myriad links between manifestations which would mean something very different (and probably much less) if seen in isolation as part of an annual theatre programme. This year -more than in previous years of recent memory- there is the sense of a buzzing co-creation, of webs of exchange and understanding being communally grown.
One significant corner of this garden is dedicated to certain exotic species fetched from afar, exfiltrated to Avignon’s fortified theatre-hortus from behind the battlements of Brexit. In an act of generous transplantation, Avignon’s audience is able to see a whole mini-festival of British work, much of which has already been seen in some form in its home -and culturally isolated- island. Of these, writer-performer Tim Crouch has two shows, including the excoriating and excellent Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel, which stretches largely French audiences with its reliance on stand-up comedy modes. Vicky Featherstone and Sam Pritchard direct actress Kate O’Flynn in three monologues, interspersed with mini-intervals featuring cheesy organ music, making this anglo-observer yearn for the apotheosis of a whipped ice and Flake before the main feature in the cinemas of his youth. The subject matter of Alistair McDowell’s playlets is -indeed- very humdrum, three unremarkable women musing on their condition, in what turn out to be deeply remarkable ways (All Of It -speeding from birth to death- is a sort of suburban housewife version of the disembodied mouth in Beckett’s Not I, intoning 'driving to work, driving to work' obsessively in the rush towards decline and death). The second piece -In Stereo- feels as though it might draw on euro-philosophy of the likes of Latour, Despret and Coccia, as the woman is absorbed into mould in a wall, becoming at one with a microbial environment which was already part of her continuity.
British-directed shows seen here for the first time include Alexander Zeldin’s The Confessions, also an exhaustive arc of a female life, in this case his mother’s. Having announced that the show was based on extensive interviews attempting to get the complexity of her entire life on the record, the finished piece dissimulates this (doubtless interesting) process and presents her life story as a unified, brilliantly-crafted piece of straight theatre which is about as unconventional (and as crystalline) as a Terence Rattigan play. Having acquired a reputation in France as a socially-minded, Loach-like creator facing outwards, Zeldin has received some commentary bristling at this change towards facing in, much as Hal Hartley was cherished for his perceived iconoclasm and then berated for showing humour and goofy religiosity (both of which -he has contended- should have been detectable in the original mix). The French garden might cherish certain anglo plants, but it sometimes is not appreciative of the manifestation of hybrid characteristics, preferring to prune back to a familiar shape. For my part, I greatly enjoyed -for the sake of variety and refreshingness- the presence of a ‘common,’ familiar sort of plant in this otherwise exotic garden.
Tim Etchells -long-venerated in France- is given a very particular (and challenging) brief, to take his (Festival-produced) show around the periphery of Avignon playing in a different location every night -ranging from village squares and halls to the Pontet prison. In an act of territorial acupuncture, his show l’Addition (devised with its performers, comedy duo Bert and Nasi) presents a transparently simple comedy set-up (of what Etchells calls an ‘avoidable disaster’) and repeats it ad nauseum, almost exhausting the laughs as we slowly realise that this piece of gentle slapstick is also a correlative for our inability to change course as we barrel towards (still avoidable) climate disaster. It is an admirable (and brilliantly-executed) enterprise of outreach, causing the mainstream pollinators of the Festival’s audience to buzz far from the hive on nightly sorties to the hinterland, and mingle with local residents perhaps unfamiliar with the Festival.
One of the last shows to première -and perhaps the most consequential and qualitative as multimodal theatre-activism- is concerned with the global garden, with the war over plants and their territory in Amazonia. Milo Rau’s Antigone in the Amazon revives the memory of a brutal 1996 massacre of landless peasant activists by State Police, during a peaceful demonstration on the Transamazonia Highway. Intervening directly in history and politics (as he has done with brio before in his film The Congo Tribunal), Rau takes Belgian actors from his company and a film crew to join local activists and one protagonist-survivor of the original massacre to make a faithful reenactment of the event on its anniversary in 2023. This intervention is not anodine, stirring memories, generating obstruction (despite permissions) from the local police force, and forging new alliances and energies a generation after the event. This is shown -as a document- on screen, interwoven with manifestations -both in Brazil and before the audience- from Sophocles’ Antigone, a story about the never-ending cycle of violence and the duty to remember the victims (which, in the case of Antigone’s attempts to honour her dead brother Polynices, spawns a new cycle of violence).
Rau uses the force of his maturity as a theatre artist to bind all of these sheaves and shoots into a meaningful whole comprising the diverse means of music, ancient drama, witness statements, cinema and scenes of distressing violence enacted live and on screen. If it remains somehow confidently incoherent and unbalanced, then perhaps this is the nature of the world we have to grapple with today. Like the Festival itself, our world-garden is throbbing with intense questions, shuddering with rapid growth and decay, needing new forms of attention and engagement.