With its declared mission being to widen participation, this summer’s 68th Avignon Festival in the South of France boasted 37 productions from 17 countries, with 25 of the works by newcomers and half by artists under 35. As well, the work chosen to open the beautiful medieval city’s three-week annual arts extravaganza was “Mahabarata — Nalacharitam,” a tale of love and intrigue drawn from an ancient Indian epic that its creator and director Satoshi Miyagi set amid the splendor of Japan’s 10th-century Heian Period.
However, Japan’s footprint extended far beyond that headliner, as the festival’s new director, the French playwright and stage director Olivier Py, is well-known to audiences here for his many productions at Shizuoka Performing Arts Center — where Miyagi is artistic director.
Stating in his program note that “the festival’s values are those of universalism. The fate of France is universalism and it manifests itself through culture,” Py put such lofty ideals into practice by reducing ticket prices and launching La Fabrica, a venue where new work can be seen year-round. As well, he actively fostered a big boost in participation by young and first-time companies.
Also alert to the festival’s roots as an initiative by French dramatists to take theater beyond Paris and to the regions, Py emphasized the value of cultural decentralization in an age of stringent economic reform. In the event, though, his idealistic parade was rained on somewhat as arts-financing issues led to some shows being canceled because of protests against moves to restrict freelance theater workers’ welfare benefits.
Nonetheless, among the festival’s many highlights was a 16-hour production of Shakespeare’s three-part history play “Henry VI” at La Fabrica. Directed by 32-year-old French first-timer Thomas Jolly heading his Piccola Familia company, this adaptation was sans doute a “total theater” experience with gaudily eclectic period dresses, kitsch costumes and clownlike makeup as well as fast-paced choreography and sets built and changed in real time.
Another Francophone child of the 1980s who stood out was renowned Belgian playwright and director Fabrice Murgia, whose new work, “Our Fear of (Not) Being,” explored the loneliness of young adults cut off from the world and living vicariously through computer screens. In his trademark style, Murgia presented an all-action multimedia stage with large-scale projections of live and recorded material screened on different surfaces.
In addition to younger artists, the festival was also graced by the masterful Claude Regy, continuing a remarkable career devoted to exploring contemporary European drama with his Les Ateliers Contemporains company. This year, the 91-year-old Frenchman brought his 1985 adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “Interior” in the refashioned version created with actors from Shizuoka Performing Arts Center, which premiered last year at the city’s small Daen-do theater.
In Avignon, though, the stage appeared like a dimly lit expanse of no-man’s-land — a Beckettian space in which bodies moved in slow and ritualistic ways reminiscent of Japan’s traditional noh theater, building tension through their brief but powerful encounters. Yet despite Regy paring down the minimal Japanese text even more to limit the intrusion of subtitles, and with little seeming to be said or done, the gifted cast created a memorable journey into the senses for audiences who stood to applaud at the end.
But to return to the festival’s piece de resistance, Satoshi Miyagi’s “Mahabarata — Nalacharitam,” was staged in an outdoor quarry excavated in happier economic times for Peter Brook’s famed and groundbreaking 1985 production of “The Mahabarata.” Whereas that version of the classic tale focused on the war between two royal families, Miyagi’s drew on the epic’s war-free story of King Nala and his wife Damayanti. Set amid medieval Japanese elegance, the story focused on an episode in which Nala is possessed by a jealous demon and is challenged to a game of dice by his cunning brother — a game he loses, and with it his kingdom and his wife.
Meanwhile, Miyagi also incorporated echoes of bunraku (traditional puppet theater) by dividing the cast into distinct groups of movers, speakers and musicians (here playing a mix of Asian and African percussion instruments) — a trademark of his before he became SPAC’s artistic director in 2007.
Then, in a further nod to his heritage, he had a raised circular stage built in the quarry 15 km from the city center so that, as in Japanese traditional theater, audiences would look up at the performers — in this case against a backdrop of the rock face and night sky that evoked in a noh-like way a sense of the gods of nature and humans’ smallness in the grand scheme of things.
However, despite the tremendous acclaim his production attracted, Miyagi’s tour de force was beset with cancellations due to adverse weather and protesters’ actions. Yet on one occasion early in the run, that merely served to elicit from him a quite wonderful response when, rather than pack up for the night, he led his company to perform excerpts of the play for free in the square outside Avignon’s towering stone Palace of the Popes. Truly, that will go down in the annals of this, one of Europe’s most-storied theater festivals.
Satoshi Miyagi’s “Mahabharata” plays at KAAT in Yokohama on Sept. 12-13. For details call 0570-015-415 or visit www.kaat.jp.