- Shakespeare au Festival d’Avignon by Florence March
The Avignon Festival is a major, annual celebration of contemporary theatre with a substantial and perhaps surprising connection to Shakespeare. Although this festival is considered a laboratory for theatrical experimentation and a showcase for contemporary directors, Shakespeare remains the festival’s most frequently performed playwright and has been central to its mission all the way back to the opening season of Avignon Art Week (as the festival was initially known) in 1947. In fact, as Florence March explains in her excellent analysis of the festival’s seven Shakespeare productions between 2004 and 2010, in its earliest incarnation Avignon might well have become an annual Shakespeare festival but for the foresight of its founder, Jean Vilar, who recognized that producing Shakespeare alongside contemporary plays would prevent this festival from becoming ‘sclerotic’ (18). Comparing Avignon to Shakespeare festivals worldwide, it is clear that this combination of Shakespeare and contemporary theatre has produced an approach that is both significantly at odds with the wider cultural field of ‘festival Shakespeare’ and excitingly attuned to emerging tendencies in world theatre.
March’s focus is on productions between 2004 and 2010, but she situates these within a useful history of Shakespeare’s role at the Avignon Festival since 1947 and his reputation in postwar France more widely. A notion of popular theatre associated with Shakespeare by the French Romantics, as expressed in Stendhal’s Racine et Shakespeare, seems to be responsible for Shakespeare’s consecration as a guiding spirit of the festival, along with what March, citing Dennis Kennedy, convincingly demonstrates to be Shakespeare’s postwar function as a ‘cultural Marshall Plan’ (25). Vilar’s decision to cultivate a popular audience, not least in his choice to use the open-air Cour d’honneur of the Palais des papes with its capacity for some 2,000 spectators, aligned the festival with the public theatre of Renaissance England, and perhaps with Ancient Greece and Golden Age Spain as well, in opposition to France’s neoclassical tradition of elevated (and indoor) exclusivity. Indeed, it is a telling fact that while Shakespeare was a fixture at the festival from the outset, Racine was performed there for the first time in 1975. For more than six decades, Shakespeare has served as an acknowledged creative springboard and catalyst at the festival and its theatre artists, March demonstrates (11). This view of Shakespeare’s role is explicitly defined, by Vilar, against the more typical instrumentalist use which counterpoises his bankable plays with [End Page 324] riskier shows in a theatre season: for Vilar, and for the festival even after his departure, risk has been a hallmark of the Shakespeare productions just as much as it is of any other show in the festival.
The reasons for Shakespeare’s prominent position at the Avignon Festival are fascinatingly explored in the first section of March’s book and constitute an important analysis of Shakespeare in France from the 1940s to the present. In her second section, March looks closely at the ways that Shakespeare serves the festival in the period from 2004 to 2010. Rather than presenting a case-by-case performance analysis or a sustained review of each production, she considers them as a corpus and draws conclusions based on what they indicate collectively. This section is rich in analysis of the productions’ visual elements, such as the continental drift that gradually divides the set of Jean-François Sivadier’s King Lear, or the cemetery that occupies the foreground throughout Thomas Oster-meier’s Hamlet but that fails to contain the restless spirits it shelters.
As March accurately observes, a simple lighting decision can have a significant effect on the relationship between a production and the space it inhabits. Under Vilar, it was customary not to light the walls of the Cour d’honneur, allowing them to recede into obscurity and using the lights to direct the audience’s attention towards the dramatic space of the onstage action instead of the performance space around it. Ostermeier retained this customary approach for his Hamlet...