Friday, December 12, 2014

Performed in Paris

Macbeth: Nirupama Nityanandan and Serge Nicolaï
I've been in Paris for a couple of days, thanks to Vincent Mangado and Dominique Jambert, two actors from the Théâtre du Soleil who I met on a panel in Cambridge a couple of months ago.  Panels seem to be rather good networking spots - we also owed our time with Zoukak in Beirut to a panel.  I guess you actually get to talk about your artistic ideas if you meet in a public forum...  it cuts the need for small talk!

The current Soleil production is Macbeth.  It's clear to see why Ariane Mnouchkine wanted to tell this particular story at this moment in French history.  It's a very contemporary reading, with TV crews and automated weaponry.  In the English scene, the London Eye rotates in the background, having clearly displaced Big Ben as a symbol of the City.  The Macbeths are a "power couple", surrounded by luxury, clearly wealthy beyond belief, and yet somehow still ambitious for more, to the point of self-destruction.  It's the world of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni - politics as glamour.  Lady Macbeth is first seen supervising the gardeners on their estate.  The intense exchanges after the murder of Duncan take place in a stable, with (very realistic) horses tossing their tails and snorting at every exclamation and every knock.  The murder is discovered as the court prepares for breakfast around a banquet table, complete with self-service bars for the cooked items.

What this achieves really well is an atmosphere of sick opulence coupled with universal suspicion.  The Lady Macduff scene is particularly strong: an entire household of servants assembles to hear the Messenger's warning, and set about burning important papers, dressing the children and packing cases before the murderers arrive.  It's actually very realistic for a Mnouchkine production, continuing a trajectory that she's been on since Le Dernier Caravasérail, which at times it resembles, especially in its regimented scene-changes.  The action is accompanied by an almost constant live musical score - but if anything, this actually serves to make the production feel even more in the mode we tend to accept as realistic, since it brings it closer to the language of film.

There's something unsatisfying in this.  This political world, presented so realistically, sits uneasily with the military background of the play.  The opening war, with the political figures on the battlefield, seems untrue to the contemporary setting.  In the later scenes of the thanes rebelling against Macbeth, there are buried cachés of rifles, torches and bicycles - recalling Ariane's longstanding desire to create a piece about the French Resistance.  Again, it seems to belong to a different world from the contemporary political aggression.  Nor do the supernatural elements of the play fit well with the contemporary realism.  It was difficult to understand who or what the witches were supposed to be, the nature of ghosts and visions in a world that screamed of "rationality".  Only the sleepwalking scene, superbly performed by Nirupama Nityanandan, seemed able to cross the barrier between the suburban and the supernatural.

As ever, it was wonderful to be at the Cartoucherie.  The ritual of eating before the show - cheaply and very well at communal tables - and the extraordinary warmth of the open spaces make attending a performance there a special, holy, public event in a way from which we all should learn.

Exhibit B
I also - at last - got to see Brett Bailey's Exhibit B.  I had thought, after it was closed due to protests in London, that I had missed the chance.  For a time it seemed as if I might miss it again - there were more protests in Paris, and an attempt to close the show through the legal system.  As we approached the performance space, there were gendarmes with guns and crash barriers, checking names every few yards.  This was every bit as intense as the situation had been in London, except that the French authorities had upheld the tradition of Liberté, and supported the performances.  This meant that the debate could be informed by people actually seeing the show, although the protestors refused to do so.  In one particularly striking development, Lilian Thuram, a black footballer from the triumphant 1998 French World Cup team, announced that he would be going a second time, and taking his children.

And this points towards something that, in the midst of the racism row, is very surprising.  Exhibit B is a very tender, compassionate, and deeply moving piece of work.  It is an act of mourning and commemoration.  It serves to educate and to warn, but not to accuse.  It is, I would dare to say, an act of healing.  

The performance begins with the spectators seated, waiting for their individual number to be called, which allows them to enter the exhibition space.  The process has the effect of separating you from friends and companions.  It also feels very tense (something added to by the police presence outside).  This is how asylum seekers must feel at ports: cut off and dehumanised.  Reduced to a number.

You walk past a series of tableaux, each of which features one or two black performers, who are motionless apart from their eyes, with which they deliberately return your gaze.  Each tableau has a caption that contextualises it - and these constantly underline that "onlookers" are part of the exhibit.  You are a part of this.  There are tableaux drawn from the history of "human zoos", evoking the practice of displaying "savage" people from Africa as curiosities, including the display of body parts after their deaths (in some cases until very recently).  There are others that confront the way in which colonialism in Africa assaulted the body - the cutting off of the hands of rubber workers judged to be lax in the Belgian Congo; African women in a concentration camp in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) boiling and scraping their compatriots' skulls clean to send to Germany for pseudoscientific examination.  There is a "coloured" woman from apartheid South Africa, who because of her racial designation could not even sit in a park with her "white" mother.  There are refugees from Somalia and Congo, recently arrived, their lives summarised in a bald list of facts beside them.  There is a a contemporary Somali man strapped in a row of airline seats, his mouth taped shut: in front of him are listed 14 asylum seekers who have died during their forced returns from Europe since the 90s.

It sounds rather simple, rather factual, rather documentary.  But the presence of the living performers makes this drama, theatre.  As Dominique says, they incarnate the people who are remembered here, bringing them into your consciousness as you become aware that you are also in theirs.  This does not have the effect of making you feel accused - but rather allows you to commune directly with the performers, and to sense through them the tragedy of history.  They enable this through their extraordinary stillness and deep, calm concentration: Brett tells me afterwards that the only rehearsal he undertakes with them is a training in meditation.  As you pass by each person, and share time with them, you do honour to those they embody.  It becomes very difficult to move on: you only do so when you are ready, usually with some small physical signal of farewell and of homage.

All this is embraced by beautiful vocal music, emanating from the final tableau, in which four singing heads emerge from plinths, harmonising.  Above them are three photographs: the severed heads of three Namibians.  One of them is a child.

You emerge devastated, but also purged.  There is time to sit quietly, to talk if you need to.  There are people there from the Ligue des droits d l'homme.  There is a space to write your feelings down, if you wish.  I took time to process.  I am attempting to do it now.  But, of course, the whole point is that this intense exchange between bodies and souls in space is beyond mere words.  

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