What: One of the biggest contemporary directors, the oldest constantly-playing troupe in France, and a text by Luchino Visconti. A universal gift package from the Comédie Française for those who want to see smart theatre, but don't want to take risks on experiments.
Where: Comédie Française, Paris
When: 24 September – 13 January
"The Damned," director by Ivo van Hove and featuring the actors of the Comédie Française, has been hailed as the biggest event of the most recent Festival d'Avignon. The Paris troupe hadn't played in Avignon for more than twenty years, and made its triumphant return this year with a script based on Luchino Visconti's film of the same name about the rise of German fascism. Organizers confirmed that van Hove did not settle on such a topic accidentally. They nodded mysteriously: just look at what's going on in the world. In France – Marine Le Pen; in other countries – other "beloved figures," each one more unpredictable than the one before him. Tickets to the extremely topical show were sold two per customer, even though a decision was made to note that the show contained rape scenes. In short: it was mobbed. For those who couldn't make it to the Palais du Papes, "The Damned" is now playing in Richelieu's pompous classical Parisian theatre.
At the heart of the story is the self-destruction of a dynasty of steel barons, with the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany in the background. In order to protect their interests, the Essenbeck family enters into an alliance with the regime, ostracizing in cold blood those of their employees who refuse to sympathize with the new ultra-conservatives. The young Martin, the baroness' neurotic son with pedophilic inclinations, who nevertheless manages to avoid all responsibility due to his mother's interference, wins in this battle for power. The aforementioned footnote about graphic scenes is directly connected with him – although these scenes will hardly shock those who have seen the 1969 film. There, Martin defiles his cousins, pushes a Jewish girl to suicide, and then brazenly rapes his mother. Ivo van Hove preserves these scenes, but makes them more "stylized" than in Visconti'’ film: it's scary, but you don't have to turn away.
Denunciations, betrayals, incest, and murders turn "The Damned" into a full-scale Shakespearean tragedy. The Essenbeck family's gradual destruction of one another is closely intertwined with historical reality: the shock of a series of murders gives way to news about the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933, one of the characters is “disposed of” during the Night of the Long Knives, and others are later sent to Dachau. The historical background is also present in the form of archival recordings, shown on a gigantic screen in the centre of the stage.
This screen is one of Ivo van Hove's chief scenic devices in "The Damned," and the close-up is one of his signature tricks. The operator and his camera, constantly present onstage next to the actors, pans across the actors' faces as they watch Martin slip on enormous heels and imitate Marlene Dietrich, or listen to the denunciation of the former vice president of the steel concern after he is forced to flee the country for his liberal tendencies. On the screen, horror-twisted grimaces of the murder victims periodically appear as though to try and climb out of a grave located right here, on the right half of the stage. This is indeed one of the show's truly shocking images. At the end of each act, the actors line up onstage and look the audience over in silence. The camera slowly transitions from their silhouettes into the house, and at one moment, crushed by the aggression of the fascist anthem in the background as it turns into a Rammstein song, you understand that you are watching yourself on the screen as a passive participant in the rising madness.
Insofar as we couldn't go without spoilers, we can allow ourselves one more, but of a more serious tone – and those of a more sensitive constitution are better off not Reading to the end . At the end of the show, Martin, the main villain – or better, one of the few surviving villains – sends a burst of machine gun fire into the audience, covered in the ashes of his victims. It was said that after the July terrorist attack in Nice, there was a serious discussion among the production team in Avignon as to whether or not to leave that scene in the play during the festival. In the end, the show played without changes, and remains so to this day. Scary, but tastefully so.
Europe's favorite 73-year old Polish director, Krystian Lupa, accompanied per tradition by texts from the scandalous Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard. The latter died at the end of the 80s, but managed to vilify his countrymen handily before then. Partially, in the words of his characters, owing to the fact that there are more Nazis in contemporary Austria than during Hitler's reign. A hard-hitting dose of Eastern European criticism. Good, classical theatre with text and costumes.
"Des arbres à abattre" (Woodcutters) – Odéon, Paris – from 30 November to 11 December
"Places des héros" (Heldenplatz) – La Colline, Paris – from 9 to 15 December
"Déjeuner chez WIttgenstein" (Wittgenstein’s Nephew) – Théâtre de la ville, Paris – from 13 to 18 December
The Krystian Lupa retrospective is part of the programme at one of the biggest French theatre festivals – the Festival d'Automne in Paris. It lasts from the beginning of September through the end of December, and it is therefore unsurprising that three whole shows by the Polish maestro were squeezed in: "Des arbres à abattre,” “Place des héros," and "Déjeuner chez Wittgenstein." They are not in order of age – "Déjeuner" was created twenty years ago. French playbills breathlessly explain that in Poland, there are repertory theatres with constant acting troupes, and thus the play is performed as long as it can be, explaining its "old age.” Instead they are listed by their dates of performance in Paris. You can delve in as follows: stroll among the trees, walk out onto the Place des héros, and set off for lunch at the Wittgensteins’. Even better - everything takes place in Vienna.
The writer, poet, and dramaturg of the second half of the 20th century Bernhard didn’t look far for his inspiration, preferring instead to describe Austrian postwar society. His description came out so critical and mean-spirited that he was accused, more or less, of insulting the Austrian people in his own homeland several times; he was summoned to court, and his books were pulled from presses. The publication of “Woodcutters” in 1984 so upset Bernhard’s famous contemporary, composer Gerhard Lampersberg – who recognized himself in one of the main characters – accused the writer of libel. In 1988, when “Heldenplatz” was released, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, those offended had grown in number: one of the characters in the play assured that in present-day Vienna there were more Nazis than in 1938, and that its residents were and always will be anti-Semites. The overall atmosphere of his books was described by the author himself in the second title for “Woodcutters” – “An Irritation.”
The choice by the Polish director of texts written by a caustic Austrian author, who ridiculed hypocrisy and falsehood of his countrymen, should not come as a surprise. In Lupa’s homeland, recently-elected nationalists have stopped active efforts and proposed banning abortion, and in one of the country’s oldest theatres – the Teatr Polski in Wroclaw, where Lupa worked – a managing director sympathetic to the new regime was put into place. In short, it’s more or less understandable why a person would choose a play where the setting – Vienna’s Heldenplatz, Heroes’ Square – is the same place where the Viennese welcomed Hitler after the announcement of Anschluss; or why he would join together with Bernhard and decisively cut down “dead trees” – the representatives of Viennese aristocracy in the 1980s. More interesting is how Krystian Lupa stages these texts. To imagine how a play could possibly be made out of 200 pages of internal monologue, written without division into chapters or paragraphs, in Bernhard’s characteristic incantation-like style, consisting of repetitions of the same exact phrases (“I sat and thought in my deep, deep chair,” repeats the protagonist of “Woodcutters” at least a million times) is already a fine exercise for the imagination. These parts don’t bother Krystian Lupa, it seems: he already has at least ten productions based on the choleric Austrian under his belt. Moreover, it is inspiring – how else can you say it? – that the Polish maestro has an inclination for long shows (“Heldenplatz” clocks in at four hours, and “Woodcutters” at four and a half). Lupa himself traditionally designs the lighting for his shows and comes up with the scenery. A huge window, from which a professor plans to throw himself onto the square after returning from abroad, unable to handle the weight of the past; a long table, across which the Wittgenstein family trade hateful barbs; cold leather chairs on which the guests of a social function are seated, having gathered after the funeral of a suicidal actress. This could be Vienna, or Paris, or even Moscow – nothing fixes the geography of these shows in place. There are no special effects to speak of. People in costumes speak the text, either in incomprehensible Polish or, in the case of “Heldenplatz,” Lithuanian. But they speak it such that French newspapers call the Lithuanian show the masterpiece of the 70th Festival. How does it happen, when classical dramatic theatre already seems to be unnecessary? In order to understand, you have to see it.
3. Dance and So On
A one-act ballet by one of the main choreographers of the 20th century, Jiří Kylián; possibly the last major group of followers of the Indian dance tradition of Akram Khan; and great defector Mikhail Baryshnikov in the role of Vaslav Nijinsky. Everything you could ask for, except for tutus.
Three Ballets by Jiří Kylián – Opéra Bastille, Paris – from 29 November through 31 December. (Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uApjnD2iZ5k)
Until the Lions, Akram Khan (United Kingdom) – Théâtre de la ville, Paris – from 5 through 17 December (Trailer: https://vimeo.com/152153308)
Letter to a Man, Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov (USA) – Théâtre de la ville, Paris – from 15 December through 21 January
Jiří Kylián: a choreography retrospective
Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián stands together with the greatest figures in contemporary ballet – Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe. Each makes their list in their own way – Pina Bausch or Mats Ek, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Trisha Brown – but the backbone of the first three names most likely won’t change. For more than twenty years, Kylián led the troupe of the Nederlands Dans Theater, and made it famous the world over. He came up with the idea to organize a “seniors group,” inviting dancers past the “critical age” for ballet – “between 40 and dead” as he himself said. It is said that Nuriev, inspired by Kylián’s ability to “see” music, once said that he has the “most golden ears.” Today the choreographer, who is just turning seventy and has already staged more than a hundred ballets, continues to work on several continents, from the US to Georgia and Uruguay. In the Opéra Bastille’s programme are three of Kylián’s short ballets, created at various points in the last fifty years of his creative career and originally for his native Dutch troupe: “Tar and Feathers,” first staged in 2006; “Bella Figure,” which premiered in 1995; and “Symphonie de psaumes,” created in 1978. To describe how they dance is silly – for everyone sees the show uniquely – and therefore let’s leave it at this: whether an enormous chorus of bodies or a duet; in classic shirts and dresses or topless with flowing crimson skirt-dresses; to the accompaniment of Stravinsky’s swells or improvisation on a piano teetering over the dancers on spider legs…you will see the whole evolution of the Czech maestro’s creativity in one evening.
Akram Khan: in the name of the ladies
The Indian-born London choreographer Akram Khan announced that from 2018 onward, he will no longer appear in his own shows, only occasionally allowing himself minor dancing roles. This may be the last chance to see his new ballet, “Until the Lions,” onstage.
Born in a family of immigrants from Bangladesh, Khan studied traditional Indian kathak dance from childhood – elements of which he would later use in his shows, turning them into a unique trait of his personal style. At the end of the 1980s, he landed a role in Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata,’ based on a traditional Indian poem, as a teenager and toured the world over for two years. Over several decades from the moment of his “trial by fire,” Khan found himself with his own troupe and almost twenty shows – among which are duets with ballet star Sylvia Guillem and actress Juliette Binoche, when she tried on the mantle of a dancer for the first time ever. Today, the choreographer is returning to the familiar text of the Mahabharata in order to focus on depictions of women. An African saying goes: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Khan’s lions are, of course, women. At the core of his ballet is a fable about a princess who was kidnapped on her wedding day. Robbed of her dignity, she kills herself in order to return to the world after death as the goddess of war and get revenge on her assailant. Khan will tell this confusing tragic story, as is traditional, through contemporary ballet with the addition of kathak, with the help of two female dancers and four musicians. The premiere of “Until the Lions” took place in January in London. At the end of this year and the beginning of the next, the show will tour France, and you must hurry: while it, and the lions, and Akram Khan are here…
Mikhail Baryshnikov: in the world of Bob Wilson
The show “Letter to a Man” is a veritable grab bag of big names. Anyone who doesn’t get excited at the sight of the famous Russian dancer, American emigrant, and friend of Brodsky’s will perk up at the sight of the most famous director in America, Bob Wilson, in the description. Stunning lighting (Wilson, as is well-known, works on it for hours without pity for his team), actors in whiteface, movements in one plane – anyone who saw his Moscow production of “Pushkin’s Fairy Tales / Skazki Pushkina” will understand what we’re talking about immediately.
This is already Wilson and Baryshnikov’s third collaboration: before this, there was the “Video Portraits” project, where Baryshnikov wound up in the company of Johnny Depp, Lady Gaga, and other American celebrities transformed by the director, and in “The Old Woman” (based on Kharms). Now the two aging maestros have taken on Vaslav Nijinsky's diaries – the text that “Letter to a Man” is based on. Notes made by Nijinsky in 1919, when he was already in a psychiatric clinic, addressed to Sergey Diaghilev. The dancer and impresario are connected by romantic relations, and their severance likely served as the impulse for the development of Nijinsky's illness. Baryshnikov is alone onstage, explaining the unusually short runtime for Wilson – for a little more than an hour, Baryshnikov dances, grimaces, and freezes in poses. In the background fragments of Nijinsky's text are played in both Russian and English. In short, it has a certain formalism, as Wilson likes. And if anything is hard to understand, not to worry – for as the American director says, searching is the whole point of art.