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Report: Avignon festival

Words, words, words at the Avignon Festival

French actress Emmanuelle Béart in "Par les villages" by Stanislas Nordey
French actress Emmanuelle Béart in "Par les villages" by Stanislas Nordey © Christophe Raynault de Lage/Festival d'Avignon

If the first night at the Pope’s Palace in Avignon sets a tone for the Festival, then the accent is on the word. Stanislas Nordey, one of two associate artists this year with Dieudonné Niangouna, stages Walk about the Villages (Par les Villages in French), based on a dramatic poem by Austrian writer Peter Handke. 


The play is very dense in ideas, as well as in words.

It’s a play about upheaval - and attachment - to the family, to land, and to death.

It takes place in a rural world in decline where the successful brother returns to meet his siblings. The sister hoping her urbanised brother will help her change her life is played by French film star Emmanuelle Béart. The returning brother (Laurent Sauvage) is confronted with the life, so different from his own, of the brother who has stayed in his native valley. The actors rarely touch, and on the yawning stage in the Palace courtyard, they appear, as they are, isolated, addressing the audience more directly than their partners.

Dossier: Festival d'Avignon 2011

The play lasts for almost three hours and the spectator is required to concentrate on a succession of monologues. However, the beauty of the language, with the force and skill which the actors deploy to deliver their speeches, along with their sincerity (and that of Handke’s autobiographical work of 1981) was at times entrancing.

Nordey, who himself plays one of the main characters -  the worker brother who’s about to lose his job - drew more applause after one of his speeches than he’d noticeably drawn breath.

Youth and future generations is another one of the themes at the festival in Avignon.

Playing at the Benoit Twelfth theatre in the Avignon Festival is the spiritual Qaddish, written and performed by Qudus Onikeku who hails from Lagos in Nigeria, and by Emil Abossolo Mbo from Cameroon.

Qaddish, the name of the Jewish prayer for the dead and for the consolation of mourners, is the third part of a triology by Onikeku called Solitude, Tragedy and Memory.

With opera singing (Valentian Coladonata), cello and electric guitar (Charles Amblard and Umberto Clerici), Qaddish is the quest, in a trance, of a young man, searching for his identity, and danced by Onikeku.

Emil Abossolo Mbo, in Yoruba traditional costume, plays the elder who transmits tradition, wisdom and knowledge, which helps him on his quest. Onikekuy says: “I am searching for my own identity and want to know where in my body is; my grandfather, where is my great-grandfather.” As part of his own quest, Onikeku went back to his father’s home, Abeokuta in south-west Nigeria, to do his own research for Qaddish.

Then there’s the wheelchair which, with the help of a remote control, is personified and performs its own ritual, interacting with the two men on stage. “A chair is a chair, and art object, but that’s not all. It’s a vehicle of transmission. When the artisan has finished his work, he gives it to someone who will be able to breathe an energy into it, to make it a vehicle of transmission.”

Whether in the staging, the music, the song, the choreography, the philosophy, or in the prayer itself, Qaddish is a song for life. As Onikeku says: “it’s a cool chant. It sounds like the Lord’s Prayer or the Muslim Fatiha. It’s also a play on my name Qudus, and they both mean holisitic.”

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