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Tragedy tops Avignon Festival bill ... but where's Shakespeare?

Thyestes by Seneca, translation into French Florence Dupont, director Thomas Jolly
Thyestes by Seneca, translation into French Florence Dupont, director Thomas Jolly hristophe Raynaud de Lage/Hans Lucas

A Latin adaptation of a gory Greek tragedy, translated into French, opens the 72nd international festival of performing arts in the southern French city of Avignon on Friday night, following the usual grand show in the very grand and mediaeval Palais des Papes. Three weeks of theatre and dance will follow with challenges to all sorts of limits, barriers and borders in today's society.


Tonight's première of Thyestes, written by Seneca in the first century CE, is directed by 38-year-old Thomas Jolly who put on an 18-hour production of Shakespeare's Henry VI four years ago at Avignon.

The play is based on Greek mythology. Thyestes is the son of Pelops. His brother Atreus tricks him into eating his own children. In so doing, Atreus avenges his sibling's attempt to cheat him out of the throne.

It's just one of the tragedies in this year's Avignon Festival programme.

"I think tragedy is not only despair," festival director Olivier Py says. "It's more than this. It could give hope in a way. The strength of speech is there. We might find some tools for hope ... You have 100,000 people gathering in Avignon, we have the hope that it's worth it, that we can do something."

Py himself has written and is directing a play called Pur Présent (Pure Present), constructed out of three Greek tragedies. He is also directing a version of Sophocles's Antigone at the Avignon Le Pontet prison.

Chloé Daubert, meanwhile, is recreating Jean Racine's version of Iphigenia.

Where's William?

However, this year one great master of tragedy is missing. William Shakespeare.

The Avignon Festival can hardly be accused of shunning classics. "It's the first time it's ever happened", exclaims Py, adding after a burst of cheeky laughter. "And it wasn't by design."

The festival will survive. Molière's Tartuffe gets dusted down by Lithuanian director Oskaras Korsunovas as Tartiufas.

Childhood and gender are two of the other main themes at this year's festival.

However, the plays and dance pieces are multilayered and go deep, using the sanctuary that is theatre.

Migration and breaking barriers

"It's full of joy to have 100,000 people gathering in Avignon, to see shows, but not only: to have a better relationship with the present and the violence of the world," Py says. "Maybe to try to do something. Maybe to being a new way of commitment. Maybe, maybe not. We have the sense that it's worth it.

"We have a sense of duty towards migrants, to future generations, to poor people."

Among some of the burning issues is migration, as in Ines Barahona and Miguel Fragata's Beyond the Forest, the World, which is about an Afghan boy's long quest for Europe.

On Friday a group of about 40 primary school children will take part in a dance show mirroring the works of Los Angeles-based French artist, Claire Tabouret, which are on display at the contemporary art museum in Avignon, the Collection Lambert.

Tabouret's lifesize painting, Le Grand Camisole is the Festival's poster this year. It looks like a lifesize children's choir staring penetratingly at the viewer, and caught in Tabouret's clever rendition of the children's flowing and interlinked garments in shades of mad moonscape grey.

Beyond Europe, the 72nd Avignon Festival programme includes directors from Iran, such as Amir Reza Koohestani with Summerless at Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, whose play is directly about breaking barriers. A women's group from Egypt, Bnt Al Masarwa, founded by three young Cairene women, perform Daughter of Egyptian Men and Women, sing away preconceived ideas, the burdens of old customs and oppression.

In François Chaignaud and Nino Laisné's dance and music pieces, Uncertain Identities, A Different Orlando, the artists question, as did Virginia Woolf in her 1928 novel Orlando, gender appearance. Transexuality and metamorphosis enjoy the freedom the stage, and of the Avignon festival in particular, allow some 40 shows.


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