- Bodies in a Car Park; Or, Une Comédie Charcutière: Resuscitating Shakespearian Authorship in Contemporary French Street Theatre
The reinterment of Richard III’s remains in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015, opened deep historical rifts in the UK over the cultural and political ownership of the king’s dead body. The dispute—at times acrimonious—between the cities of Leicester and York was hardly surprising. What was at stake, both in the discovery of these six-hundred-year-old bones in a supermarket car park in Leicester and in the eventual decision to bury Richard in the Midlands rather than his family’s traditional powerbase in the North of England, were deep-seated conflicts over borders and boundaries, both spatial and symbolic, and over the cultural and political structures that maintain and define them.
As it happens, such conflicts are well illustrated in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Richard III. They are also at the heart of the global literary culture over which Shakespeare conventionally presides—a culture that has been much in evidence across the three-year period that connects the anniversaries of 2014 and 2016. Paradoxically, fifty years ago next year, Roland Barthes declared the symbolic demise of iconic literary authorship of this kind in his seminal essay The Death of the Author (1967).1 His claim, that texts are structured by multiple systems of signification open to the active participation of the reader rather than the controlling intentions of a dominant “Author-God,” was symptomatic of the antibourgeois intellectual climate of the period in which it was written. The 1960s closed with a sharp critique of accepted representational norms, including the consecrated status of the playwright in traditional theatre. In the wake of [End Page 145] 1968, politically aware theatre practitioners, particularly in France, sought to step up the democratic potential of theatre and break down the social and cultural boundaries between stage and audience. They also attempted to replace the classic “work,” seen as conservative and redundant, with a creative dynamic of textual play which, as I will argue, has profoundly transformed the contemporary environment of Shakespearian production.
Street theatre was born out of this movement. In France, contemporary companies such as 26000 couverts, Les 36 du mois, Generik Vapeur, and Royal de Luxe reject formal dramatic texts, seeking to distance themselves from conventional artistic norms which, they claim, alienate the audience with whom they wish to work. Their productions reject the familiar site of the built theatre and its bourgeois rituals, preferring instead to perform in markets, supermarkets, village squares, empty factories—and indeed car parks. Their repertoire is made of collaboratively written plays, and it relies on audience participation. The aim of this literal dis-placement is to free the actors from normative and institutional constraints and thus to generate an “authentic” relationship between performers and spectators.
This essay explores three productions of Shakespearian comedies performed in France in recent years by 26000 couverts, Royal de Luxe, and La Compagnie des Chemins de Terre. I shall focus on two apparent paradoxes in these productions. First: if, in a supposedly authentic theatre, the iconic Author is (or should be) dead…why perform Shakespeare at all? What exactly is it that is being performed when this literary body remains the starting point of such productions? To answer this question, I shall consider the ways in which the relocation of Shakespeare outside the theatre appears to displace “Shakespeare” himself. Second, I shall argue that, by taking classical drama out of familiar theatrical environments into urban spaces, street theatre challenges the place of the spectator in a performance as well as that of the author. I will concentrate on notions of spatial and social displacement drawn from the Situationist movement of the late 1950s and 1960s and ask whether—in street theatre based on a play by Shakespeare—Shakespeare’s play is present or absent, living or dead; and what happens to the audience when they are confronted by this destabilizing sense of authorial loss. [End Page 146]
Street Theatre, Situationism, and Displacement
A defining aim of the theatrical experimentations associated with the cultural revolution of May 1968 was to reach out to the...