Avignon 2023: The New Beginning in Boulbon Quarry

Ivan Medenica*

Abstract

The first part of this article presents the artistic concept of Tiago Rodrigues, the new Portuguese director of the Avignon Festival, the first in its history who is not French. In the second part, the article focuses on the play The Garden of Delights by the French director Philippe Quesne and the significance of space (the Boulbon Quarry) and visual dramaturgy. Developing intertextual connections, the article concludes that the play is “a landscape after the end of the world.”

Keywords: Avignon festival, Tiago Rodrigeus, Boulbon Quarry, Philippe Quesne, The Garden of Delights, Hieronymus Bosch

The 77th edition of the Avignon Festival, one of the oldest and most noteworthy performing arts events in Europe, was eagerly anticipated by both French and international theatre audiences, partly because it was the first edition under the new director, the well-known Portuguese theatre director Tiago Rodrígues.

The concept and programme of each new director of the Avignon Festival has always attracted great attention, not only because it is one of the most important institutions of French and world theatre culture, but also because it has always lived up to its tradition, always engaged in a dynamic dialogue with the original ideas of its founder, the great French director Jean Vilar. The mandate of the new director generated great interest, especially because for the first time in the eighty years of the Avignon Festival’s history, the Festival is being led by a person who is not French.

Rodrigues’s position is delicate in more ways than one: he is in his first year of tenure as Festival director, and he is also the first non-French professional to head an event which has preserved its French origin and tradition along with its international significance.  These factors may explain why Rodrígues has acted so cautiously.

He did not make any changes as radical as, for example, those implemented by Jan Fabre, who created in 2005 one of the most controversial and justifiably criticized editions of the festival, although not as a director but as an artiste associé, co-selector.  While Rodrígues’s global concept is neither offensive nor radical, at the same time it is not particularly inspiring artistically, intellectually, or socially; instead, his vision is realized as an emphasis on a different linguistic culture every year.

Similar to the practice adopted in book fairs, each edition of the Avignon Festival will honor a host country.  However, Rodrígues has made a controversial choice to start this new trend of internationalization (as if Avignon was not already a first-rate international festival), with a focus on the English language, seen by many as the main language through which colonialism and globalization have been enacted.

As many as eight plays in the main programme were performed in English, and several plays were inspired by texts originally written in English. Such an innovation could seem provocative when implemented in France, due to the perceived rivalry between the English and French languages in terms of their international position and degree of importance.  It is likely, however, that such rivalry is felt more deeply by French people, perhaps because the rest of the world recognized long ago that English has achieved precedence over French as a major global language. If his goal was to make a bold statement on the basis of language and culture, Rodrígues might have begun by choosing an ethnolinguistic group of Eastern Europe, which is always at a disadvantage as compared to the West, and specifically with Poland, whose contemporary theatre, from the Second World War through the present, has been artistically very significant.

Rodrígues’s caution was also expressed in the continuation of the festival’s Villar tradition, which recognizes the festival as a place of gathering, sharing, exchange, dialogue, and polemic. Such deference to tradition is both an expression of caution (this view represents my cynicism) as well as a display of respect for one of the main characteristics of the Avignon Festival, one which should distinguish all other festivals as well; in other words, deference to concepts of exchange, dialogue and polemic should be the so-called definitia specifica of international theatre festivals.

Rodrígues also maintained a balance between the work of old acquaintances of the Avignon Festival and that of new participants, while emphasizing that as many as 75% of the performances were included in the latter category. That claim, however, is only partially true. I did not do math, but I will take his word for it that 75% are new names, but exclusively for the Avignon Festival, not in a wider context. For those of us who regularly visit world festivals, Suzanne Kennedy and Trajal Harrell cannot be sold as new names. When you add the names of Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker, Milo Rau, Philippe Quesne, Alexander Zeldin, Tim Etchells, Krystian Lupa (his play was selected but then cancelled), Stefan Kaegi, Marta Górnicka, Mathilde Monnier, Julien Gosselin, Tim Crouch and, finally, Rodrígues himself, then surely the scale is realigned in favor of world-famous authors.  So, for me, the main feature of the first year of Rodrígues’s mandate is intelligent caution.

At this point I will also add a bit of self-criticism. My idea of playing it safe was much broader than Rodrigues’s, because I chose to attend only performances of well-known artists, and that choice also turned out to be an expression of male chauvinism, although I would like to assert that it was accidental. So, at this Avignon festival, I saw performances by Rodrígues, Trajal Harrell, Milo Rau, Alexander Zeldin and Philippe Quesne, and I will describe the new work of the last on the list.

Papal Palace, Avignon. Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons 3.0

What the ancient theatres of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens, and Epidaurus are to the Athens/Epidaurus Festival, the Ceremonial Courtyard of the Papal Palace is of equal significance to the Avignon Festival. It was from there that Vilar started the project of creating this great festival. However, for decades, the Avignon Festival had another mythical space not far from the city, the Boulbon Quarry. Many plays, great in all senses of the word, have been staged in this space; however, the locale is resplendent with the halo of myth due to the performance of the famous and controversial play Mahabharata directed by Peter Brook in 1985, based on the Sanskrit epic of the same name.

Boulbon Quarry. Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons 3.0

After several years of non-use, Boulbon was opened again in the first year of the new festival director’s term. The quarry played in The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices) by the French director of the middle generation Philippe Quesne, a play that had its world premiere right there. After this performance, it was played in some attractive indoor and outdoor venues, the most spectacular of which is the aforementioned Odeon of Herod Atticus. However, I did not note randomly that the Boulbon Quarry played in this play. The venue was extremely important to that performance, and functioned perhaps as an equal protagonist.  As a result, it is difficult to imagine this performance in any other space than this one, shaped by high, vertical and bare stone cliffs.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights [Le Jardin des délices]  (c. 1490–1510). Triptych, oil on oak panels, 205.5 cm × 384.9 cm (81 in × 152 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Photo: Web/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

We might ask why this is so; in order to address this question, we shift our attention to the era a few centuries ago when Hieronymus Bosch was alive and thriving. The name of the performance, which is not arbitrary, is taken from the famous painting by Bosch of the late XV or early XVI century. The triptych displayed in the Prado Museum in Madrid, depicts Paradise, the Pre-Flood World and Hell. When the triptych is closed, the outer doors display the Creation of the World that is shown as a transparent egg with a floating island in the middle. As much as all these individual components differ from each other in terms of depicted motifs and artistic properties, an undefined quality unites them; such unity can be discerned by all viewers who have studied the images of this work, including the distinctive stylistic features that arise from these motifs: surreal, bizarre, nightmarish, orgiastic, bestial, morbid, grotesque, macabre.

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, at Boulbon Quarry, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

At the same time, however, motifs with these meanings and projections appear not only where we would expect them, for example, in the depictions of the Pre-Flood World and Hell, but also, quite unexpectedly, in depictions of Paradise and the Creation of the World. These effects arise from hysterically overcrowded compositions in which naked human bodies of both sexes are depicted in various erotic combinations, a bestiary composed of realistic animals and nightmarish monsters, giant animal skulls and severed human ears, an obvious inspiration for Salvador Dali and other 20th-century Surrealist painters, musical and parascientific instruments as instruments of torture, and landscapes with non-existent but naturally appearing shapes, very often egg-like.

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

The link to Quesne’s play, the reason why I argue that it is difficult to imagine the play outside of a space like Boulbon Quarry, is the natural world. In the work of Bosch, nature is lush, wild, bestial, and morbid, whereas with Quesne it is bare, inaccessible and cruel. Although these two visions of nature seem fundamentally different, they also share similarities: in both cases nature is unrealistic, perhaps even surreal, with nothing lovely, pleasant, colorful, or pastoral to offer.  Ultimately, this image creates an effect of discomfort and danger.

We have seen that this sensation of the uncomfortable, bizarre, grotesque and macabre in Bosch’s painting emerges not only from the depictions of phantasmagoric landscapes and flora, but also of fauna, with fictional and actual animal species, including the most dangerous species, that of man. There is a similar effect in Quesne’s performance, although no animals appear in his work. The question then arises of how people are depicted in Quesne’s The Garden of Delights.

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

From the very beginning, they seem like an unusual, bizarre, and very comical group of people, based on both their appearance and behavior. We meet them when they enter the quarry along with a life-size bus; they are not inside, but are pushing it instead, and subsequently place it in the middle. Due primarily to Karine Marquez Ferreira’s brilliantly comical costumes, their appearances evoke the decade of the seventies of the 20th century, with flared trousers, bell-bottom jeans, ties and leather jackets from that era, but also with prominent elements of country culture, such as cowboy boots, fringe jackets and cowboy hats. Of course, what they are doing also contributes to the comical but absurd effect. Once they push the bus in position, rather than travelling inside it, they scatter around the quarry, examine the ground, illuminate it with the bus headlights, as it is slowly getting dark in this an open-air production, and dig at it with picks and shovels. At the end of that opening scene, they push in a giant egg and then, as if in some kind of bizarre ritual, they surround it, play with it, kiss it, touch it and throw dust at it.

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, at Boulbon Quarry, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

From all the aforementioned, it can be inferred that the play does not project a clear storyline with an obvious meaning, neither in terms of dramaturgy nor iconography.  This is clearly not a goal of the play; it does not belong to the type of theatre which we will designate as dramatic theatre. On the contrary, the play has many aesthetic properties that are determined in contemporary theatre practice and theory in the context of the post-dramatic paradigm of Hans-Thies Lehmann.

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

Since this analysis emphasizes the function of space in the play The Garden of Delights, we can single out the concept that Lehmann defines as theatre on location. In fact, the play is an instance of site specific theatre, according to the following description: “The space is presented. It becomes a teammate without being tied to any specific significance. It is not disguised, but made visible” (Lehmann 225). The German theoretician separates two subtypes of site specific theatre: one in which the space is taken as it is, and one in which the play intervenes in the space. The Garden of Delights can be said to instantiate both types, as the quarry is omnipresent, unchanging, spatially and visually absolutely dominant, but nevertheless, a bus and an egg are brought into it, and it is also infused with spectacular projections of the play’s title over the entire wall of the quarry, flying skeletons and other esoteric-macabre motifs which are extremely close to Bosch’s poetics.

Although dominant and spectacular, the space frames only the numerous, heterogeneous stage actions that take occur within it. The text is varied, including ordinary conversations, songs and several types of literature read aloud, but there is no narrative logic of traditional theatre. For the dramaturgy of The Garden of Delights, another concept can be used, which Lemann subsumes under post-dramatic. “The place of dramaturgy regulated by the text is often replaced by visual dramaturgy […] At the same time, visual dramaturgy does not mean dramaturgy that is exclusively visually organized, but one that is not subordinated to the text and can freely develop its own logic” (120).

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

However, it is extremely difficult to break through one’s “own free logic” in the performance The Garden of Delights. After the aforementioned prologue with the bus, examining and digging at the soil, placing the egg and the ritual around it, another series of actions follows: gathering in the bus, putting on oxygen masks, playing music, making arrangements for filming, preparing for an expedition, getting out of the bus, placing chairs in various positions, forming an oval table around which all kinds of topics are discussed, with music, bizarre choreography, simulated tightrope walking, getting back on the bus, choral singing, falling into a trance, taking the bus apart and making a stage out of it, a revue programme like in the circus or on TV, with magic tricks and bizarre dances, a thunderstorm, and a crazy group chase in the rain under a large nylon covering

However, whatever that dramaturgy conveyed, and it could and should have been easily shortened and condensed, it certainly was not arbitrary. One element of the play can be experienced and understood as a hub, as an integration point,[1] a focus in the associative sequence/principle by which Quesne’s The Garden of Delights functions. It is the egg and everything that happens with it.

We have seen that it is a significant and frequent motif in the eponymous painting by Bosch, so it certainly functions as an intertextual link between the work of the Flemish master and Quesne’s play. The motif of the egg does not have an intertextual character, transmedial[2] in this particular respect, just because it combines a famous image with a performance. It is like that also because he is auto-poetic, which connects Quesne’s The Garden of Delights with the earlier works of this director. In one of his most famous and most frequently staged performances in the world, Farm Fatale, eggs also appear at the end, more of them, but smaller and colorful. Such an ending is open, because it can hint at a new life after the so-called ecological revolution that we have witnessed up to that point, but also an ironic comment on its failure.

In The Garden of Delights, and through the aforementioned and other actions that the actors perform with the giant egg, one also gets the impression that it is a significant, even ritual and sacred object. Considering the natural environment, a space with no exit due to the vertical cliffs, and the fact that the egg, when turned, is hollow on one side, and that everyone is trying to get into that hole, it can be understood as a secret passage, a way out, a way to freedom, a link with another world.

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

But, similar to Farm Fatale, the emphasized irony of these scenes hardly offers any exhilarated or optimistic ending. It should be added that one of the last images of the play is an unsuccessful attempt to get out of the quarry by climbing ladders supported by a rock cliff incomparably higher than they are.

The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices), Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio, 2023. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

Bearing all this in mind, we can interpret the free associative sequence as a grotesque, absurd and childishly naive attempt to restore life in a world devastated by an ecological disaster. If we continue with such associations, which the play invites us to do, then we can go back to the beginning. Bosch’s painting shows a pre-apocalyptic nightmare, and Quesne’s play a landscape after the end of the world. Our current, tired and dying civilization can provide nothing but dystopias, albeit endlessly entertaining ones.

Note: Some of the photos of The Garden of Delights (Le Jardins des délices) are from different indoor venues. Courtesy of Philippe Quesne.


Endnotes

[1] An expression used by Volker Klotz to stress those scenes of a play which are not the focal point of its story, but rather the focal point of the thematic associations it provokes. See Volker Klotz, Geschlossene und offene Form im Drama.

[2] Referring to the works by Marie-Laure Ryan and Henry Jenkins, the authors of the Preface to the book of Šekspir i transmedijalnost (Nevena Daković, Ivan Medenica,and  Ksenija Radulović) conclude: “Transmediality – or more accurately formulated as transmedial storytelling – embraces a serial of innovative narrativisations of different, classical, well-known and used themes, by their transfer to different or new media platforms”  (10).

Bibliography

Daković, Nevena, Ivan Medenica, and Ksenija Radulović. “Uvod.” Šekspir i transmedijalnost. Fakultet dramskih umetnosti, 2017.

Klotz, Volker. Geschlossene und offene Form im Drama. Cerl Henser Verlag, 1972.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramsko kazalište. CDU, TkH, 2004. 


*Ivan Medenica (Belgrade, Serbia), works at the FDA as Professor, teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre. He was the artistic director of Sterijino Pozorje in Novi Sad, the leading national theatre festival in Serbia (2003–2007), to which he brought some important structural changes, especially in the domain of internationalization. For the period between 2015  to 2023, he served as the artistic director of Bitef Festival (Belgrade). From 2001 to 2012, Medenica was one of the main editors of the prestigious journal Teatron. He is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Executive Committee. He is also a member of the editorial board of Critical Stages, the journal of the Association.

Copyright © 2023 Ivan Medenica
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