War sweet war, by Jean Lambert-wild. – Mon amoreux noeux pommier, directed by Jean Lambert-wild. – Outreciel, by Joël Jouanneau. – Les invisibles, written and directed by Njasser Djemaï. – All performances seen in Caen, France, February 2013.
The relationship between a capital and the regions of a country reflects political ambitions, historical development, logistics and many other circumstances and conditions. France, often called the ”sweet country of the arts and savoir-vivre,” has had a strict centralistic structure for centuries. And it remains centralised even though the authorities, in the late 20th century, tried to find ways to guarantee a high quality for the arts all over the nation. Consequently, the nationally financed regional theatre, Centre National Dramatique, located in major French cities, reflects a more contemporary attitude of decentralisation and quality-mindedness.
The regional theatre of Caen in Normandy, Centre dramatique national de Normandie and its Théâtre Comédie de Caen, has been opening up its doors to the international theatrical community in different ways following inititatives taken by its dynamic artistic director, Jean Lambert-wild. One of them, among many others, is to create an international event, inviting both foreign and French theatre critics for a week of theatre and an exchange of views. For the second time, I had the privilege of visiting Caen on such an invitation. Four productions were presented and I was invited with my international colleagues to participate in ”critique en direct,” an ”instant review” discussion right after a performance. In a seminar, I also had the opportunity to present today’s theatre of my own country, Sweden.
Two of the four productions in the program were directed by Lambert-wild; War sweet war and Mon amoruex noueux pommier (My beloved old gnarled apple tree), the latter for young audiences. War sweet war has nothing to do with the British play from the 1960s, Oh, what a lovely war, and does not depict a war in the political or international sense, but the everyday struggle between the individuals that make up couples and families. I experienced a performance strong on images, and the high technical quality staging of two well-structured flats in two floors. One man and one woman live on each floor. It looks as if the second-floor family is a bit more well-off and lucky enough to have a child, never seen by the audience.
The too-neat surfaces, the shining looks of happiness and the hysterical levels of consumption in the Western world are obviously the target for Lambert-wild. He deconstructs the picture piece by piece, and gradually a coal black, oily mass creeps into the flats, slowly pouring from the ceiling and walls.
It is brutal and highly effective symbolism. The black ”thing” can be seen as a symbol of the uneasiness in life, for guilt or pay-back for ”sins”; as a visual image, it is powerful. Gradually, the neater couple takes the place of the other, and by and by the two men and women prove to be replaceable and interchangeable. The two floors on stage and the flats, seen as if the house were cut through, also refers to the irony and sharpness of comic-strips, even being underlined by the ink-black lines created by the seeping black liquid. The four persons are also stylized the way cartoon figures are, not realistic in the sense of being close-to-real-life, but surrealistically exaggerated. BD, Bandes Dessinées, comic-strips, are in France a much more common and for-all-ages artform with a rich variety ranging from political satire to self-referential, ironic criticism of Western civilisation.
War sweet war takes up formal tendencies from contemporary German theatre but also from conceptual dance’s landscape when using ”materials” as a strong element on stage. Oil and liquid colours, dirt, mud or feathers, wool and furs have frequently been used these last decades within the performing arts, expressive without words but with dream-like, imagination-like references. No exact meaning could be interpreted from the dirt or feathers; the viewer will be handed over to her or his own feelings, memories, impressions. Lambert-wild himself labels the performance as ”dance-theatre,” and the four actors on stage are dancers without text but with full capability of bodily expression. The production proves to be a co-creation of four persons: in addition to Lambert-wild, also Juha Marsalo, choreography; Jean-Luc Therminarias, music/sound; and Stéphane Blanquet, dramaturgy. As a viewer, I can see that the final result on stage is a seamless composition, a true Gesamtkunstwerk where the scenograpy, directed by Lambert-wild, is a strong element and holds together the piece.
Well done and well performed, rich in powerful images, War sweet war still puzzles me. How, as a critic, should I evaluate my impression of an example of a performing art in the mainstream, which has already been seen in European theatre for the last decade. Artistic independence and originality are, after all, important criteria for serious creativity. On the other hand, an artist must be free to use and reuse images, ideas and themes from other artists. In fact, the statement ”no image without another image” has for centuries proved to correctly describe the development of art history. But, the more an artist get inspired and pushed forward by other artists, the more demanding becomes the need for precision and originality.
The argument that the regional audience of Caen would be less familiar with contemporary dance-theatre and thus brought up to date by a production like War sweet war should be refused. This theatre shows their own productions in parallel at a venue for other, most interesting representatives of today’s performing arts. Recently, Carolyn Carlson was invited to stage a production, and Lambert-wild is invited to other European theatres to work from time to time—for example, to the National Theatre of Hungary in Budapest in the spring of 2013. The final production of outgoing artistic director, Róbert Alföldi, on the painful situation of the Roma people in Hungary, will be directed by Lambert-wild.
More originality and a truly personal stamp seemed apparent in the production for young audiences, Mon amoreux noueux pommier. It is a fairy tale by Lambert-wild, staged with one actress in a mix with projected images as the backdrop, but also interacitvity with the actress. The richness in symbols and images is striking; the old apple tree is approaching its final days, but thanks to the seeds of the fruit it is possible to take responsibility for a continuation, a rebirth. It is as beautiful as it is philosophical, and before a public of schoolchildren, some 8 to 10 years old, the approach is both relevant and accessible. Many of these same ingredients are to be found in popular and mass culture, games and cheap television entertainment. Here, they are refined, raised up to the level of beauty and wisdom, modest and without pretentions, an invitation to talk about the essential questions of life, death, growth, decline. The music, a recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four seasons, frames this reflection on existence, and fullfills the dreamlike vision.
During the visit to Caen we were invited to see another performance for young audiences and their grown-ups, from eight years old up— ”tout age,” or all ages, as is often said in France. This reflects a tradition of families going together to the theatre, and of course, schools taking class trips to the theatre as part of the education. The theatre company La Valise (the suitcase) is a relevant example of contemporary puppet theatre, combining classical puppetry techniques with objects, images and live actors.
The production Outreciel (Beyond the sky) consists of three acts played in three different places, two in yurt-like tents outdoors, and one inside a cultural centre named after Jean Vilar, the famous theatre director of the movement of ”Théâtre Populaire” (theatre for everyone) and, equally as important, founder (1947) of the Avignon festival.
Obviously, the company La Valise is not an institution with a large (or even reasonable) budget; rather, it has to rely on the creativity of its members. The story written by Joël Jouanneau pulls together the three parts around the theme of an abandoned child—certainly of interest to every young spectator. Each story is told, with or without words, by an actress who uses a rich variety of costumes, props, masks, objects and almost-puppets. The abilities of the actresses vary, as do the strength of the three variations, but the intimate, round space of the yurt helps the storytelling to come close and touch the spectator. The audience is divided into three groups which move from one part of the play to another; this creates a kind of ”us” within each audience and the strange feeling of travelling together through a landscape of theatrical experiences. The wide range of objects, from shoes to butterflies, brings the theatrical play closer to the ”normal” human play among children and creates curiousity within the audience: well now, what’s going to happen next?
Our fourth and last theatre performance in Caen was in the cultural center, La Renaissance, in the little town of Mondeville, situated on the eastern outskirts of Caen. Les Invisibles (The invisible ones), written and staged by Nasser Djemaï, was played to a packed auditorium. The many questions around French colonialism and the post-colonial situation are of course most relevant and present for the French. The play is rich in perspectives when telling the story of one of many Algerian workers who came to France after WWII and who literally built modern France: the roads, the bridges, the railways and the suburbs, the houses for ordinary people. ”Everyone has heard, close within or more distantly, about this generation who was forced to bow their heads to survive and who hid inside themselves the shame, the humiliation and the hatred,” writes Nasser Djemaï.
Many of these workers were men who left without their families for France and who never had enough money—and by and by, not enough strength and spirit to return. Djemaï’s play tells about a son who looks for his dying father and finds instead a group of single old men, who have formed a modest collective which replaces the missing family.
Djemaï writes not only heart-breakingly but intellectually clearly and without sentimentality. It is regrettable that the production is not on the same level with the quality of the play, which, indeed, deserves to be staged again and, maybe, with more imagination and creativity.The performance is staged and played as if broadcast for the radio, and the actors seem left without instructions, simply sitting in their chairs. There are, however, a few glimpses of images and music which immediately open up to richer perspectives and more liveliness, even if they are too brief and marginal in this production.
In fact, the theme of the text is most present today and could reflect the story of the so- called guest workers in many parts of the world, as well as the attitudes of post-colonialism and racism that, sad to say, remain prevalent. For these we all must share the guilt, the resonsibility and the means for change.
Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud
 Margareta Sörenson is a Swedish theatre and dance critic. She has directed the Seminars for young critics for some time and, recently, at the Congress of the IATC in Yerevan (Armenia), she was appointed Vice-President, as well as Director of Colloquia, of that same Association.