At the Avignon Festival, a dark start


AVIGNON, France – The Festival d’Avignon could not have prepared the ground better for Tiago Rodrigues. On Monday, the Portuguese director was announced as the next director of the event, one of the most important on the European theatrical calendar. The same evening, his new production of “La Cerisaie” by Tchekhov, with Isabelle Huppert, opened the 2021 edition, which will run until July 25.

The excitement was high, despite the huge queue to enter the Cour d’Honneur, an open-air stage set in the grounds of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. The French government requires proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for all events with over 1,000 spectators, and checks resulted in a 40-minute delay and grateful applause when the pre-show announcements finally began.

Two hours later, the reception was noticeably less warm. While Rodrigues has brought to Avignon in recent years highly regarded productions of “Antoine et Cléopâtre” and “Sopro”, his “Verger de cerises” is a strangely amorphous proposition, built around actors who often seem to be in love. opposite on stage.

It doesn’t help that Huppert plays Lyubov, the aristocratic landowner who remains blind to his family’s financial situation, like a close cousin of Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie”, which she just played in Paris. She brings the same diction and the same childish, brittle energy to both characters, even in her quivering lips.

The production welcomes Huppert rather than the other way around, nor does it require his stage partners to merge. Rodrigues didn’t impose a specific acting style, and the community at the heart of “The Cherry Orchard” is never really cohesive.

Some artists take advantage of this. Breaking with French habits, Rodrigues opted for a color-blind cast: Lyubov’s relatives are all played by black actors, just like Lopakhin, the self-made man who ultimately buys Lyubov’s estate. In this role, Adama Diop is by turns energetic and sympathetic. The role of the aging Christmas trees, who aspire to the heyday of the aristocracy, is taken up with a beautiful lightness by a veteran of the French scene, Marcel Bozonnet.

Instead of Lyubov’s beloved trees, the stage is filled with old seats of the Court of Honor, which have been replaced this year with new ones made of wood. There’s even a heavy number on the renovation – one of the many interpolations of Chekhov’s text – by Manuela Azevedo and Helder Gonçalves, who provide live music throughout.

“Things will change,” sings Azevedo. “Even these chairs have moved.” It’s a nice touch, but here as elsewhere, this “Cherry Orchard” is too anecdotal to say much about the world. Rodrigues will likely return to Avignon in 2023, the first edition he has to oversee. Hopefully then a little more insight.

Aside from “The Cherry Orchard”, this year’s lineup is finally giving women prime seats, after years of male programming under the direction of current director Olivier Py. The premiere of “Kingdom” by Belgian director Anne-Cécile Vandalem suffered its own delay due to heavy rains, but those who waited were rewarded with the festival’s best new work so far.

“Kingdom” is the conclusion of a Vandalem trilogy started in Avignon with “Tristesses” in 2016, followed by “Arctic”. The overall theme of the three plays is “the end of humanity,” according to Bill, and after tackling far-right extremism and global warming in the first two, Vandalem comes up with a dark story. utopia gone wrong in “Kingdom”.

In it, two families have chosen to give up the modern world and return to nature. Yet they come to blame themselves for land conflicts and perceived slights, and their sustainable way of life becomes untenable.

Vandalem likes to weave video into his work, here through cameramen ostensibly filming a documentary on one of the families. They follow the central characters in their small huts, visible and surrounded by trees and water on stage, but closed to the public.

Intimate moments are only seen on a big screen, and this setup draws audiences into the lives of the characters with greater realism than that achieved by many plays. The cast maintains the narrative tension with understated force – to the point of unraveling their little world.

“Kingdom” was far from the only dark offering from the early days of the festival. Brazilian director Christiane Jatahy also returned, with “Entre chien et loup”, a creation loosely based on Lars von Trier’s 2003 film “Dogville”. Nicole Kidman’s role on screen as an outsider abused by the community in which she takes refuge is echoed here by actress Julia Bernat, also Brazilian.

The cast is constantly being filmed, with less precise editing than in “Kingdom”, and most of the twists in “Dogville” are recreated, but Jatahy also finds some distance from his source material. Bernat and others speak directly to the audience at several points and they break up the character to explain the film’s ending. After that, they elaborate on what they see as the rise of fascism in Brazil and elsewhere.

There’s a dark subject, and then there’s “Brotherhood,” Caroline Guiela Nguyen’s highly anticipated sequel to her 2017 hit, “Saigon”. The supernatural premise of “Brotherhood” is similar to that of the HBO series “The Leftovers”: part of humanity (in “Brotherhood”, 50%) has simply vanished, leaving loved ones in shock.

Unlike “The Leftovers”, however, “Brotherhood” is by no means subtle in exploring grief. For three and a half hours, it drains and emotionally harasses viewers: many around me have cried at least once. After so many people have died from Covid-19 in the past year and a half, this is dangerous territory, and Guiela Nguyen addresses people’s sense of loss like a bull in a china shop.

The action takes place in a “Care and Consolation Center”, designed for survivors to deal with grief by leaving video messages for the deceased. These are performed by a commendably diverse group of professional and non-professional actors from around the world. (Several languages ​​are spoken in “Brotherhood,” with rather awkward live translations by other interpreters.)

Perhaps because fans are still finding their feet, acting often feels on a note, with lots of screaming and few emotional arcs. The plot revolves around the idea that people’s hearts almost stopped after the Great Eclipse, as the demise is known, which in turn slowed the universe down. Some related sci-fi developments quickly turn silly, especially when an oversized plastic heart is introduced to soak up the memories of the survivors of their lost partners and relatives, in an effort to keep the planets moving.

At least Guiela Nguyen didn’t hesitate on what was an ambitious humanist project, and it’s a treat to see “Saigon” star Anh Tran Nghia again, even though she is underutilized. But directors also have a duty to be careful following a real tragedy. Bombing audiences with relentless pain doesn’t necessarily lead to catharsis, and we’ve all been through enough of it.

Avignon Festival
Various locations in Avignon, France, until July 25; festival-avignon.com.