- Festival D’Avignon
A middle-aged man in close-up stares out from the poster for the Sixty-second Avignon Festival, the reflection of the camera’s silhouette just visible in his pale gaze. A second, less ubiquitous poster for the festival dotted the medieval city streets during July of 2008: an infant’s face filling the frame, the passive stare in its blue eyes some antecedent to the elder visage. Together, the images signaled an attention to the generation of a figure (in the biological and temporal sense), and to that figure’s entrapment in a technological frame (of photograph, of stage), which ran as twin undercurrents beneath many of the festival’s fifty or so performances. As one of the largest and most wide-ranging theatre festivals in the world, Avignon’s implied thematic concerns represented a growing interest in interrogating the “naturalized” definitions of theatricality and its primary subject, humanity.
The centerpiece to this year’s festival, and the provocation for these two strands of thought, was the premiere of Italian director Romeo Castellucci’s trilogy based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Over the past twenty-five years, Castellucci’s company, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, has explicitly confronted canonical works such as Gilgamesh, Julius Caesar, and the Oresteia, not as representations, but as excavations of the structure or image system of a foundational text. It is a theatre of sensation, where lights, sound, and the entire theatrical apparatus become actors on the “stage” of a spectator’s body. The Avignon Festival has been a great supporter of Castellucci’s work and previously commissioned an episode from his three-year investigation of the tragic form, the Tragedia Endogonidia cycle (2002–04), which acts partly as a counterpoint to the Divine Comedy. This year, alongside French actress Valérie Dréville, the festival named Castellucci co-associated artist, this influence extending beyond the stage into its intellectual foundations. Under the auspices of the “Theatre of Ideas” lecture series, for example, he brought philosophers Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Georges Didi-Huberman to speak on the nature of image, gesture, and performance as medium.
At the beginning of Inferno, the director himself entered the vast stage of the 2,000-seat Court of Honor to proclaim: “My name is Romeo Castellucci.” Soon thereafter, in response to this seemingly hubristic gesture, a young boy spray-painted his name “Jean” on the massive façade of the fourteenth-century Palace of the Pope that backs the courtyard. Meanwhile, a nearly naked man scaled the wall’s expanse, hanging from a gargoyle a hundred feet overhead. Utilizing the vast scale of the theatre to truly impressive ends in one coup de théâtre after another, Inferno accumulated as a work of sacrilege, of iconoclastic pop graffiti on the solemn wall of history. Throughout, the question of the name ran as a unifying force, not in Dante’s sense of identifying (and judging) an individual with a history, but rather as a surface that covers the multitude of humanity. Gone were the stories of the ill-fated lovers Paolo and Francesca or the cannibalism of Count Ugolino; in their place was a pantomime of ever-changing partners and relations situated between two silent neon quotation marks. Where Dante had Virgil as aesthetic and spiritual guide for his journey, Castellucci cast Andy Warhol as both guiding light and Satan, the first artist (having claimed the right to creation and to mimicry) and lord of hell. If Dante revolutionized artistic representation by staging the historical depth of identity, then Warhol revolutionized representation by privileging the surface above all else. The proto–pop artist made an appearance in the performance’s final scene, stepping out from the charred carcass of a wrecked car to perform a horizontal, floor-bound dance, twisting and spinning on a turntable like the hand of a clock, but not before taking a Polaroid of us, the audience. Throughout most of the piece, however, a huge crowd of all ages—infants, adults, and elderly—played the collective protagonist as the masses damned to hell. They moved in unison, then...