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"Structure": Avignon Festival opens with a grim tale for Europe

Jacques Weber plays the brutal and caring patriarch, father of Denis (Podalydès) (R) and father-in-law of Audrey (Bonnet) (C) in Pascal Rambert's 'Structure', which opened the Avignon Festival, July 4, 2019
Jacques Weber plays the brutal and caring patriarch, father of Denis (Podalydès) (R) and father-in-law of Audrey (Bonnet) (C) in Pascal Rambert's 'Structure', which opened the Avignon Festival, July 4, 2019 Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Festival d'Avignon

French director Pascal Rambert's new play Structure, performed in the open-air courtyard in Avignon's Palais des Papes, was greeted with muted appreciation. It tells the tragic story of an Austrian family 100 years ago. "It's seldom we have a living writer in the Cour d'Honneur for the Festival opening. It's a risk, I knew that he would write a powerful play for the courtyard. And that's what he did," said Olivier Py, the Avignon Festival's artistic director.

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Rambert's turbulent family of nine artists is incarnated by some leading French actors. Portly Jaques Weber plays the patriarch, a renowned architect. This domineering, cruel and loving father has made a stuttering nervous wreck of his hyper-intelligent son, played by Denis Podalydès. He is married to the off-kilter Audrey (Audrey Bonnet). Their occupation is manufacturing music out of recorded, seemingly meaningless sounds.

A wake-up call to Europeans

Weber has traumatised his other, this time eloquent, son Stan (Stanislas Nordey), into secrecy and resentment. Stan's sisters, Emmanuelle (Emmanuelle Béart) and Anne (Anne Brochet) are married to unsuitable men. One is an army officer who used to be a musician (Arthur Nauzyciel) the other is a jingoistic journalist (Laurent Poitrenaux). Both of them browbeat their frustrated wives.

The family tears itself and the individual members apart in a metaphor of European disunion.

All together now. Humdrum personal issues tear a family apart in Pascal Rambert's 'Structure', Avignon Festival opening play, 4 July 2019
All together now. Humdrum personal issues tear a family apart in Pascal Rambert's 'Structure', Avignon Festival opening play, 4 July 2019 Christophe de Raynaud de Lage/Avignon Festival

Russian playwright Chekov seems to to hover over the Pope's Palace between the brightness of the old stone and the dark night sky.

Sitting uncomfortably

The creamy whites of the early 20th century become more colourful, less romantic and then darker, as the three-and-a-half-hour production moves across some 30 years towards the time of the annexation of Austria by Adolf Hitler. Changes in furniture styles, from pre-Art Nouveau to Bauhaus metal tube chairs, mark the passage of time, as do historical references like the infantile recounting of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 which sparked WW1,and which pushes Anne over the edge.

Rambert says he is worried about the future for Europe, given the rise in populism and nationalism in some EU members countries. It's infact a worldwide concern, he adds.

"I work from Beijing to Taipei to Tokyo to New York and so on, and I see that everywhere. Really my question is where are we going? I see the desire for strong powers everywhere. I don’t get it. Because I live all over the planet, I’m not closing my borders. When I see what’s happening in England I think it’s so sad about what the world is going towards. Then I see this moment way back in history. It's worrying."

The war poppy

For the festival's artistic director it is a strong political opening heralding the several productions based on Greek philosophy and theatre and myth, "Europe began with Culture and we now have this huge problem of what we want to do with the European Union, we have to go back to culture."

Where does one find the beauty Py strives for in all his endeavours in this utterly destructive Structure? In Rambert's use of language, both contemporary and poetical, in the loving and creative relationship between Denis and Audrey and in the Edwardian costumes and furniture design.

New technology

Rambert drew wry titters from the audience with laptops replacing dinner plates at the conversation/meal table, which are so smart they can even connect the living and the dead.

At the same time, new tech is being tested at the Avignon Festival to accomodate international visitors who may not master the stylish French in many of the plays.

This year, no straining the neck to watch what’s happening on stage while reading surtitles on a big screen above the stage, or at the sides. First impressions from wearers of the special equipment, are that watching such a language-intensive play, and reading in the same path of vision, the specs create slight dizziness.

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