The Avignon festival, returning from a pandemic interlude for its 2021 edition, offers no easy release to audiences, turning instead to intractable questions of ecocide, incipient fascism and cosmic disorder.
Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues’s The Cherry Orchard (★★★☆☆) – the opening show, simultaneous with his announcement as incoming festival director from 2023 – falls short in the vast, almost geological Palais des Papes, but in revelatory ways. The bare staging (with acid-bright 1970s costumes) strips away the piece’s comic potential. Isabelle Huppert’s Lioubov is charmless – perhaps not intentionally so – and provides fascinating balance with Adama Diop’s excellent, dynamic, nuanced Lopakhine. Both are driven by trauma: she by filial grief, he by recovery from generations of enslavement. This wounded pair drive the destruction of the orchard, which was already doomed by a climate “inapt to favour the adequate”, as Epikhodov says portentously at the beginning. A generally tight cast propels the play along and spectacular set-pieces (a ghostly trance-ball; a shapeshifting magic show) provide the highlights of an uneven production from an excellent director who is a popular choice to take the festival ahead.
Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s haunting and deeply beautiful Kingdom (★★★★☆) uses – by contrast – a real forest on stage and an actual wood cabin, in which a family attempt to negotiate their place in the Siberian landscape after a retreat from the city. This forest is also threatened, but by a marauding gang of poachers dropped off by helicopter to shoot bears. A reality TV crew takes us into the intimacy of the cabin and becomes implicated as witnesses; two dogs and five child actors brilliantly complete the hyper-realistic tableau. An unpredicted deluge on opening night turned the audience into drenched, shivering wilderness-empaths, experiencing literally immersive theatre.
Christiane Jatahy’s Entre Chien et Loup (★★★★☆) uses onstage film in an entirely different manner, examining the perversion of collective charity. Drawing on Lars von Trier’s Dogville, it combines live filming with subtle shifts into recorded sequences featuring additional characters. We are drawn far closer to the dark, compelling subject than in Dogville through our real-time implication. Jatahy alters Von Trier’s ending and forces us to face the ongoing premonitions of this piece: that fascism (in her native Brazil, directly evoked) is brewed in the apparent joviality of unbridled WhatsApp groups and fertilised by the drip-drip of fake news. The deeply moving central performance by Julia Bernat adds fightback and moral outrage to the original portrayal by Nicole Kidman. The ensemble cast is perfect, creating a terrible sense of collective responsibility for individual suffering. It is a piece of high artistic maturity.
Fraternité, conte Fantastique (★★★★☆) by Caroline Guiela Nguyen also concerns self-governance by a small group – in this case a diverse bunch of Arab French and Vietnamese people and an American Nasa technician, played by a cast of mostly amateurs. The setting – an antiseptic clinic “of care and consolation” – is hyperreal but the story is utterly, brilliantly improbable. The group are survivors of a cosmic mishap who are attempting, through a spectrally attuned messaging cabin, to reach out to their lost loved ones. Their grief infects the cosmos, slowing the Earth and stars to a standstill, stopping time. They then have to sacrifice their most treasured memories in order to restart the universe and give themselves a chance of final reunion, which becomes their own sacrifice. There are shades of Interstellar and Solaris, but this drama is brought down to earth by the social project of a group of people adrift in time, attempting through painstakingly negotiated joint efforts to remain tethered to absent loved ones. In many ways, like this multigenerational theatre festival itself.