Radical expectations

Tessa Leong: Avignon Festival 2014

Intérieur, Shizuoka Performing Arts Company/Les Ateliers Contemporains

Intérieur, Shizuoka Performing Arts Company/Les Ateliers Contemporains

Intérieur, Shizuoka Performing Arts Company/Les Ateliers Contemporains

With threatened social welfare cuts, artists and other workers across France went on strike this summer, including on the first day of the 2014 Avignon Festival. With banners across every venue, announcements of solidarity before every show and politicians banned from theatres, a very particular political message framed the audience experience.

Works offering overt political analysis such as Solitaritate from Romania and La imaginación del futuro from Chile brought this context into sharper view. The political framework felt equally strong in Intérieur, directed by French master Claude Régy, despite his presenting no overtly political message. Analysis and action, generational political engagement and the politics of western democracies were among the topics posed at the festival under the new artistic director Olivier Py.


Solitaritate by Romanian writer-director Gianina Cărbinariu is a series of comic episodes which question the current guiding ideologies of Western democratic capitalism. Performers begin the show debating which audience rows they own—individuals claiming us as their territory. Falling walls are a repeated visual metaphor—from the theatrical fourth wall to a domestic argument which leads to a brick wall falling around a couple and their neoliberal ideals. This recurring motif unites the scenes that show all human experiences and intimacies reduced to commodities. In one scene we attend the funeral of “Eugenia Ionescu”—an homage to Romania’s greatest dramatist Eugene Ionesco. It’s a self-conscious attempt for this new generation of theatre-makers to bury the idols of their past and carve out theatrical space of their own. Cărbinariu places the blatant colonialism of marking out audience territory alongside a monologue from a nanny imported to work for a wealthy European family. A huge glittering Romanian flag—hung upside down—unexpectedly drops to engulf the nanny who struggles, trying to free herself from its oppressive weight.

Cărbinariu states that putting everyday lives in the theatre is a subversive act in Romania and no doubt this is what attracted the programmers. Unfortunately, the work seems somewhat contrived, its tone naive in an international festival where the context is starkly different. In a way the programming of this show for the festival mimics the very questions of consumerist ideologies posed by the company—and the power of their production is diluted as it becomes part of the marketplace it is questioning.

La imaginación del futuro

Further questions of political context are posed in relation to Chilean theatre company La Re-sentida’s La imaginación del futuro which replays the military coup and mysterious death of Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. The brute force and energy of this young ensemble is undeniable; however, rather than the future implied in the title we are presented with a past reimagined with irreverence and humour. Allende is surrounded by political advisors at every turn trying to enact influence, minimise damage and create spin with the construction of his famous final address filmed and re-filmed. The backdrops, costumes and the speech are manipulated and reconstructed in a live video feed. In a triumphant moment for the advisors, huge banners of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende are unveiled during a dance routine to Latino-American hip-hop group Cypress Hill.

La Re-sentida poses the question of how Chile became a dictatorship after the death of Allende and how the construction of truth and mythology is continually remade. Although these are worthwhile questions, the ensemble’s response suggests cynicism rather than proposing any liberating action. As spectators we embrace the show’s surface and join in mocking the past. However, the present tense cynicism of the production diffuses the possibility of any political action as we realise our own impotence.

While La Re-sentida have power in their analysis, their discourse fails to move on from political rhetoric while drawing a new, less nostalgic view of Allende. La Re-sentida have bravado, enthusiasm and wit, but do not transform their questions into action that results in true political engagement for the spectator.


There is no explicit political analysis in the work of 89-year-old Claude Régy’s Intérieur. Régy first directed Maeterlinck’s 1895 play in France in 1985. So when Shizuoka Performing Arts company invited Régy to direct a play for them, it was this piece he wanted to revisit, in Japanese, with Japanese performers. Intérieur in Régy’s hands focuses on the symbolism of death and transcendence. We are confronted by the rules this director imposes upon us on the way into the theatre. An announcement requests total silence. Maeterlinck desired us to be aware of the laws we are subject to. The writing is pared back to essentials: minimal text which is simple and direct. We look with the townspeople at the silent family inside the house. A small boy is asleep centre stage. His immobile body comes to symbolise death as we hear about the death of his sister in the river.

Every movement and phrase in this work is excruciatingly slow. At this pace, interactions become inhuman and language unrecognisable: all removed from the everyday. Theorist Walter J Ong has stated, “sound only exists as it is going out of existence.” Régy’s theatrical investigation takes this to its extreme. We are acutely aware of each syllable and the silence that surrounds it. With slow motion, we are forced to reconsider what it is to be a spectator and become acutely aware of those around us too—the audience that coughs and wriggles. The stage is covered in noiseless white sand on which the performers almost seem to float. The only defined feature is the delineation between interior and exterior: the subject of the play, marked by low lighting, shifting almost imperceptibly between one colour and the next.

The impact of Intérieur resonates long after the experience—whether one is confronted, enamoured or enraged. In reimagining Maeterlinck’s text, this production awakens the audience to reconsider their position in the act of watching. We are offered no way in which to process this—we are given no referent for the real world. Without this, and by boldly manipulating time and space, Régy manages to break the nexus between consumption and culture for the duration of the play. Intérieur brings us to a new awareness and engagement with the world surrounding us through its theatrical action which resonates as a brave political act.

2014 Avignon Festival: Theatre National Radu Stanca Sibiu, Theatre National Bruxelles (Romania/Belgium), Solitaritate, 19-27 July; La Re-sentida (Chile) La imaginación del futuro, 17-25 July; Shizuoka Performing Arts Company/Les Ateliers Contemporains (Japan/France),, Avignon, France, 15-27 July; http://www.festival-avignon.com/en/

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 10

© Tessa Leong; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 October 2014