Avignon Festival 2012

France’s biggest and best theatre-fest is nearly upon us. For three weeks in July, those who work in theatre, those who love theatre, and journalists, converge on the usually sleepy medieval town of Avignon and turn it in to a buzzing extravaganza of the dramatic arts. What is particularly special about the 2012 Avignon Festival is that this year its Associate Artist – the person who is solely responsible for hand-picking the twenty or so productions that make up the festival’s programme – is not French but English.


This year Simon McBurney, renowned theatre director, founder of the troupe Complicité and a man described by his brother as “constitutionally disobedient”, is running the show. (I assume this remark was made when both were adults, rather than as children, in which case Simon’s brother would have had a very precocious vocabulary for his age). McBurney’s links with France go back to the early ‘80s when on graduating from Cambridge he moved to Paris to study at the École Jacques LeCoq. His training under this renowned Master of Mime still strongly influences McBurney’s productions thirty years on, and he affirms that “All theatre is physical. I believe, very simply, that what you do on a stage is as important as what you say.” 



Complicité’s work has not only relegated text to a supporting role, thus allowing physical theatre to take centre stage, but their shows are also steeped in the surreal, the comic and the unexpected. And McBurney seems to epitomise these qualities himself: one evening during his student years in Paris, after having sat through a dire production of a Verdi opera at the Chatelet, McBurney was further dismayed by the audience’s rapturous applause for the show. Ducking down in to his bag, he came up wearing a red clown’s nose and proceeded to join in the applause with gusto, nodding at the audience members and yelling “Bravo! Bravo!” at the top of his voice. I don’t know about you, but I personally believe that a theatre director who always carries a red clown’s nose around with him thoroughly deserves to be in charge of the Avignon Festival on this basis alone, and I for one can’t wait to see what treats McBurney has in store for us.


After his studies in Paris McBurney founded Complicité, and within two years the company had won the Perrier Award at Edinburgh for their show More Bigger Snacks Now. Shows such as Street of Crocodiles, The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol and A Disappearing Number followed, and received swathes of accolades and awards. McBurney’s influence on British and European theatre has been immense, and far from the directorship of the Avignon Theatre Festival only now coming to him, McBurney was in fact offered the role eight times before he accepted it.



This year’s festival features shows from the Schaubuhne Berlin, Eric Vigner, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, and the Schauspiele Koln. The programme is rich in English language productions, with shows from Katie Mitchell, Forced Entertainment, 1927 and William Kentridge. McBurney’s own offering is The Master and Margarita, a play inspired by the Bulgakov novel in which the Devil visits Stalinist Moscow along with his vodka-swigging cat and a gang of henchmen, which includes one with a death-inflicting stare (I want one of those). The plot also features a disillusioned novelist who rejects his lover, Margarita, causing her to end up in an asylum, and an additional story around Pontius Pilate is woven in for good measure.


A bit of a challenge to adapt this sprawling novel? Well yes. And one in front of which many greats of stage and screen have foundered, including Fellini, Polanski and er, Lloyd Webber. But previously McBurney succeeded in directing not only a play that took maths as its theme, but also Shun-Kin, a tale of sadomasochistic love from 19th-century Japan featuring a petulant puppet in the title role – so if anyone had the sensitivity and strength to bring this novel to the stage it was going to be McBurney.



Not only is Simon McBurney a colossal and prolific talent in the theatre, but he also has a sense of humour that tickles me. Any director that has Only Fools and Horses’ Trigger chasing rabbits across a stage to kill them with his bare hands, and who is still wryly amused at the recollection of performing the avant-garde More Bigger Snacks Now on Wogan, gets my vote. This is the first time un anglais will be the Associate Artist at Avignon, and I can’t wait to see what this "constiutionally disobedient" man will make of it.


The Avignon Festival 2012

7th-28th July



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