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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 263-266
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Festival D'Avignon. Avignon, France. 16-18 July 1999.
When the influential French daily Le Monde surveyed the program of this past summer's Avignon Festival--which included two dramas developed from documents recording the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia; Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; Henry V; Richard III; and Sasha Waltz's new dance work Zweiland, literally "twoland"--it understandably predicted a collection of work influenced by the breakup of Yugoslavia and preoccupied by questions of national identity and self-determination. Yet in production these works constituted a collective meditation on a pressing, but inverse dilemma: the spiritual impoverishment and panicked reaction to a world in which globalization has robbed the nation of its appearance as an authentic aspect of our identity.
Besides the traditional emphasis on Francophone drama and dance, the festival this year showcased works from South America and two of Germany's leading young theatre makers, Thomas Ostermeier and Sasha Waltz, the new joint directors of Berlin's famous Schaubühne Theater. Over forty productions were featured in the main program, in addition to a small number of lectures and music concerts, and the off festival was comprised of over 500 separate productions. Jean-Louis Benoit's production of Shakespeare's Henry V was given the prestigious place opening the festival in the central court of the papal fortress around which medieval Avignon is built. Other Francophone dramas included Yann-Joël Collin's production of the Henry IV plays (performed together over nine hours from dusk to dawn); Richard III, directed by Geneviève de Kermabon; and Littoral, a drama written and directed by the Lebanese-Québécois writer Wajdi Mouawad. Other European works included a "concert" adaptation of Céline's novel Voyage au bout de la nuit [Theatre Journal 52.1: 128-29] in Italian. From South America, audiences could take in a passion play performed by the Brazilian troupe Circo Blanco; Argentine explorations of the tango and the cabaret culture of Buenos Aires; and puppet productions based on texts from Beckett, Heiner Müller, and Sophocles developed by the Argentine company El Periférico de Objetos.
Henry V had never been performed in France by professionals, which might seem surprising until noting the play is singularly unsuited for translation into French. This is true not because of its national biases, its historical falsifications, nor even its unforgiving portrait of the craven and vainglorious French, but rather because the French language plays a crucial role in the romantic subplot. Rather than take considerable liberties with Shakespeare's text, director Jean-Louis Benoit and translator Jean-Michel Déprats, chose to preserve Shakespeare's French dialogue. The effect of this was not so much to confuse the action, for these talented performers indicated easily enough the difference between French and "French," but to highlight the degree to which the production subordinated itself to the notion of the master-text. Indeed, with last summer's [End Page 263] [Begin Page 265] rather generic production of King John in the same festival venue, one senses a creeping Bardolatry at work in this medieval city, as if staging the entire Shakespearean canon were a worthy goal for the Festival, or France. Perhaps the greatest failing of the production, which featured the powerful and engaging Philippe Torreton as Henry, was its inability to justify why Henry V needed to be staged at this historical moment.
Indeed, the very lack of an original or even strong vision of this enthusiastically anti-Gallic drama is telling. The production, by insulating itself within an orthodox idiom of costume drama and stock comic relief, consciously avoided any reference to contemporary problems of national identity or inter-ethnic struggle. As much as anything, Benoit's Henry V seemed an exercise in cultural pluralism on the part of a French audience that, more and more, will need to discover avenues of accommodation with its most powerful European neighbors. (This exercise in tolerance was conspicuously led by the French Prime Minister...