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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 305
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The Theatre du Soleil Sourcebook
Collaborative Theatre: The Theatre du Soleil Sourcebook. Compiled and Edited by David Williams, translations by Eric Prenowitz and David Williams. London: Routledge, 1999; pp. x + 258. $85.00 cloth, $24.99 paper.
Collaborative Theatre: The Théâtre du Soleil Sourcebook offers an excellent selection of interviews, critical reviews, and scholarly essays, including an insightful overview of the development of the Théâtre du Soleil in the introduction by David Williams. The sourcebook's thirty-five diverse commentaries, organized in chronological order, provide a comprehensive look at the evolution of the art of theatrical collaboration as practiced by this long-standing theatre troupe.
The Théâtre du Soleil had its genesis in Paris in 1964 as a collective which soon came under the rigorous and charismatic artistic leadership of Ariane Mnouchkine, whose vision is inseparable from the evolution of the troupe. Mnouchkine and her international company of actors believe that the fundamentals of theatre and theatricality are found within the traditions of Asian theatre and the popular theatre of the west. Her approach to directing requires a continuing collaborative relationship with actors, designers and playwright.
Collaborative Theatre offers several compelling accounts of the troupe's work, including Victoria Nes Kirby's audience perspective on the staging of the signature piece 1789. Before performances the audience was free to watch the actors apply make-up and get into costume, and if the situation allowed, to speak with them. The environment for the performance of 1789 consisted of a vast empty rectangular space surrounded by five large plain wooden platforms intended to evoke the experience of an outdoor market place and fairgrounds at the time of the French Revolution. The audience, in its complicit role as "the people" of Paris in 1789, was surrounded by dramatizations of events leading up to the taking of the Bastille. These dramatizations, as enacted by the fairpeople, took the forms of various popular dramatic forms and stretched across the platforms and moved in and out of the audience.
Other articles collected in the anthology are Christopher D. Kirkland's detailed narrative of L'Age d'Or (1975), a production inspired by commedia dell'arte and dealing with contemporary issues concerning French immigrant workers; French critic Colette Godard's vivid review of a production of Shakespeare's Richard II (1981) influenced by the films of the Japanese master of cinema Akira Kurasawa; and Sarah Bryant-Bertail's feminist perspective on Les Atrides (1990-92). This last production was based on Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis and The Oresteia by Aeschylus and examines the story of the House of Atreus with a focus on Clytemnestra.
One of the strengths of the sourcebook is the many interviews with Ariane Mnouchkine, playwright Hélène Cixous, and members of the troupe in excellent translations from the French. Additionally, there is an informative article by Josette Féral on a mask workshop conducted by Mnouchkine. What becomes clear from these diverse articles is that Mnouchkine's methods are not esoteric or complicated but fundamental to the creation of theatre.
Another important element of the Théâtre du Soleil is their work with French feminist theorist and playwright, Hélène Cixous. In her article "A Modern Passion Play," Judith Miller sheds light on the Théâtre du Soleil's collaboration with Cixous on the play L'Indiade (1987). Written by Cixous, but informed by the improvisation-oriented rehearsal process of the Théâtre du Soleil, L'Indiade is imbued with a lyrical feminist perspective on Mahatma Gandhi's failed attempts to prevent the division of India. Miller's touches on fundamental characteristics of the Théâtre du Soleil--its desire to provide a heroic perspective in a time when they see disillusionment as dominant, and the almost holy atmosphere that can be found at the performances of their productions. Avant-garde in the exploratory process, Mnouchkine is a purist when it comes to defining theatre, and looks to the past in her quest for a theatrical grail.