THE AVIGNON THEATER FESTIVAL TURNS 60
Considering the press coverage the Tour de France is getting , you'd be forgiven for thinking nothing else is going on in France right now, or Europe, for that matter. Yet in Avignon, a small city in Provence, almost 900 live shows are scheduled this month, to say nothing of the many lectures, workshops and debates that also take place...
Indeed, the city that was once home to the Roman Catholic Popes, in medieval times when Rome was unsafe, hosts a Summer Theater Festival, now in its 60th year. And in addition to the official, prestigious festival, an ever-growing number of theater and dance companies as well as musicians, vie for the attention of the audience, many of them performing every single day at makeshift venues. Locals take advantage of the high demand for roomy spaces to charge unseemly rents, thus leading budding performers to take considerable risks in order to produce a show during the festival; the marketing strategies of some companies seem flat out desperate and embarrassing. If the survival of the fittest ever was a relevant concept in art, you can see it at work in Avignon.
The festival, moreover, allows for all of European contemporary performing arts pickles to be played out. For instance, the official festival has long ago jettisoned its original mission of bringing the classics to the people, in a kind of indiscriminate pledge to promote contemporary theater and dance. I say "indiscriminate" because it sometimes feels as though the artistic directors consider that producing any classic play despicable, no less, and as if any contemporary show were admirable as long as it were shocking - last year, for instance, the Featured Artist was Jan Fabre, of, among other feats, onstage-peeing-dancers fame (yes, really).
This makes for a strange situation. On the one hand, you have the heavily subsidized official festival, with its exclusive performances, its venues that are mostly breathtaking architectural landmarks, and its shows that cater only to the tastes of a jaded audience - I saw a three-hour performance of Homer's Illiad in the guise of a dead-serious kung fu musical in Russian and it was a lot worse than anything you can imagine (http://mary-laure.blogspot.com/2006/07/festival-davignon-illiad-xxiii-homer.html). On the other hand, you have young companies scrambling to survive, many appealing to the lowest common denominator - think lewd humor, complete with racist jokes and picking on unattractive members in the audience (http://mary-laure.blogspot.com/2006/07/off-festival-davignon-fabrice-et.html).
In more ways than one, this is very symptomatic of what is wrong with performing arts in Europe, namely heavily subsidies poured into productions that are just trying too hard to be original, but it also possibly reflects what is wrong with Europe more generally. Case in point, the ongoing conflict between the French government and the so-called "intermittents", viz the free-lance performing arts workers, over the unemployment benefits of the latter. I don't want to go into the technicalities of the issue, but the bottom line is that the French workers will go to any lengths (and indeed, a few years ago, the "intermittents" went on strike, which lead to the cancellation of the festival) to prevent the welfare state from evolving into any market-realistic form; just remember how rocky WTO negotiations have become of late and you'll understand what we are dealing with here. Politics may also be seen as echoing Avignon's dichotomy, as Europeans in recent elections, given the choice between out-of-touch, untrustworthy elites and vile demagogues have ushered in far-right and far-left parties.
And frankly, it's a pity that Avignon is such a mess. Despite an overwhelming number of unmemorable or wish-I-could-forget-that-one shows, some still emerge as powerful, moving works. This year, Peter Brook's superb staging of the South African play "Sizwe Banzi is dead", Pippo Delbono's meandering in personal memories and dancer Thierry Bae's hilarious monologues are well worth the trip to a city that, when it surrenders itself to theater, also reveals Europe's contemporary agonies.