Earlier this month I was introduced to the vibrancy of Avignon during festival season and spent time seeing the work of France’s best and up and coming theatre makers alongside international productions at the Avignon Festival.
Little prepared for the eclectic and busy programme let alone the soaring temperatures and that very particular mistral wind I spent five days rubbing shoulders with the artists shaping the French theatre scene.
Each year Avignon comes to life during July with an International programme (the “In”) and an overwhelming number of fringe productions (the “Off”).
Think Edinburgh in August but within ancient medieval walls and in a city the size Reading. The sheer quantity of work is impressive and although my focus was on the International programme it was great to see our Advisor Finn there with a production (and some much needed English speaking respite over lunch for an Artistic Director with only GCSE French under his belt).
I saw a lot of great work but the two that are most vivid and had the greatest impact were IBSEN HUIS, the latest from Simon Stone and the peerless Toneelgroep Amsterdam (which hopefully I can catch in the UK and make more sense of in English) and CLAIRE, ANTON ET EUX from François Cervantes and the Conservatoire national supérieur d’art dramatique .
Both are at opposite ends of the spectrum for spectacle, with IBSEN HUIS taking place in a purpose built house that revolved over the course of the four hour performance, all the action taking place inside or just outside of the beautifully detailed set. In the courtyard, as dusk became full blown darkness, the tensions of a family straining to make sense of their entangled past crept up and even with my limited understanding of the French surtitles, the power of the performances could be felt.
It was also refreshing to see a group of diverse acting students take such confident ownership of their own heritage and stories, whilst crafting humorous, honest and really quite moving performances with very little other than their bodies and a few costumes. The performance seemed to take the many journeys and histories of the young performers own relatives as its starting point and watching as they stepped in and out of each other’s lives was the perfect antidote to some of the largesse of the rest of the programme.
I’ll admit I was nervous heading out solo to spend almost a week meeting and engaging in work that I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully understand. I made the most of my limited French and decided that there would be something to take from each performance even if I did have to do a lot of reading before and after to get closer to the complexities of each one. Looking back on it now though, I was so glad I went outside of my comfort zone and although I am sure I will get the chance to see some of the work when it does the rounds to the UK I would highly recommend watching performance outside of a language or culture you are familiar with.
As a Director seeing work in other languages or not being able to make sense of that language makes you pay much more attention to the physical interactions, the actor’s bodies in space, their relationship to the physical world they inhabit on stage. There’s also an opportunity to witness audience behaviours and the politics of what stories are being told away from the UK (at Avignon a lot of the programme both IN and OFF seemed to dance around or tackle head on questions of migration, the experience of refugees and our fraught political reality, which was of no great surprise).
In short, I’d recommend the Avignon Festival to anyone looking to explore the region, (there’s great food and drink to be had) or for those seeking an international festival that will feel recognisable but offers the best of large scale European theatre alongside a fringe offer that feels vibrant and a street performance culture that makes the most of the warm weather.
I’d also encourage you to get along to the Lambert Collection of Contemporary Art which is one of the most impressive collections I’ve seen, packed full of Keith Haring and Basquiat, alongside more recent acquisitions and when I was there, a special exhibition curated by Agnès b
For more information on the Avignon Festival
For more information on the Avignon Off Festival