If festival and theatre sprung from the same collective source of human togetherness, then the Avignon Festival is a grand, noisy, colorful testament to this truth. For here, in the medieval town of Avignon, not far from the Mediterranean, it is the atmosphere which is most arresting, and most contagious–joyous, spontaneous, a little bit droll, and unrelenting in the way in which it gathers around it actors and directors and musicians and tourists; children and their parents, and the parents of the parents; pedestrians and passers by and locals and vendors; outsiders and hobos and well-groomed professionals and clowns and dracula look-alikes.
The whole world is here, and the whole world here wants to have a good old time watching performances and street artists, drinking and eating, walking up and down Rue de la République, selling its goods, displaying its colorful costumes, or simply sitting in some corner of the Place de L’Horloge watching the carousel go round.
For the more energetic, there are more than a dozen historical sites to see–from the Palais des Papes to the Pont de Avignon to a nice, meandering walk around the walls of Avignon or along the Rhone. For like other walled cities, Avignon too manages to squeeze us all in, to force togetherness on us, and so it is really an ideal town for theater, for the magic of theater.
What makes this magic so light, so utterly of the moment is that Avignon is an authentic community event–a celebration of togetherness on a grand scale, where art and life mix, where performance pervades every street corner and hole in the wall, where gardens and churches and basements and shops and industrial spaces are turned into spaces of performance, where poetry (and there’s a lot of poetry here) and music and photography and art and drama and politics–always politics, from a play on the Algerian War of Independence to a multi-media presentation of poems by Darwish to a dramatisation of Primo Levi’s “Who is Man?”– cohabit a common, communal space.
There is something ancient in all this, something that goes back to the early days of the theatre–a space, and an actor and someone who watches what transpires. And many of the performances of Off Avignon are just that–a small space, often uncomfortable seats, and a handful of actors. The more established venues are for the more classical presentations, sometimes with mixed results as is the case with the problematic “Miss Julie” featuring Juliette Binoche. Along with its ancient roots, Avignon Festival presents a diverse, and at times arresting,offering of scores of works, old and new and re-interpreted. In fact, reading the catalogue (and making a choice as to what to see) is itself an act of pure pleasure (and some frustration). Drawn from the four corners of the world, these offerings are simply mind-boggling.
Nothing self-conscious about Avignon, nothing of pretense. The material may be uneven, the venues may be stuffy and crammed, but here, at Avignon, it is all about the possibilities of togetherness–of entering this city one kind of person and leaving it utterly transformed. Which is what theatre was, at the beginning, they say, here, close to the Mediterranean.
Our first love, our first sense of human contact, solidarity, and transcendance.