- The Washington Times - Friday, July 22, 2005

AVIGNON, France — This year’s edition of one of Europe’s top summer arts events was described as a preten-tious catastrophe Thursday after angry audiences booed or walked out of a series of performances.

Critics attending the three-week Avignon theater festival in southern France said it had plumbed new depths of intellectual obscurity and warned that a contempt for the mainstream public was placing the future of a prestigious national institution in jeopardy.

“What purgatory!” a headline screamed on the culture pages of the newsmagazine Le Point. “Loyal spectators are sad, disorientated and haggard,” the story said. Similar criticism came from a commentator for the communist newspaper L’Humanite.

But the most searing attack on Europe’s most important drama venue after Edinburgh came from the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, which devoted its daily editorial to “the festival’s worst crisis since 1968.”

“It is chic, it is hip, it is conceptual. And it is totally cut off from the real country,” the French newspaper thundered.

“Prototypes are being launched for the public to test, but the real audience is a tiny in-crowd, drunk on its own pathetic audacity. … Most spectators are not totally new to the world of the arts and can make up their own minds. Every evening they come out revolted.

“Does the festival have the right to survive this artistic and moral disaster?” the editorial asked.

Founded in 1947 by theater director Jean Vilar, the Avignon festival played a huge role in rebuilding France’s cultural self-confidence after World War II and today has a long-established reputation for showcasing drama — both traditional and experimental works — from playwrights throughout Europe. Since 2003, the festival’s artistic team has been led by two young administrators: Hortense Archambault, 35, and Vincent Baudriller, 37, who this year stand accused of deviating into nondramatic performance art and an unhealthy emphasis on violence and nihilism.

On Tuesday, there were shouts of abuse during a show — part dance, part installation — by choreographer Christian Rizzo. “Either the Well Was Deep” — a reference from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” — was accompanied by a cacophony of electronic noise that the audience found unbearable.

A two-part work titled “A Lovely Blonde Child” and “I Apologize,” in which actors draped life-size dolls of young girls in lascivious postures over coffins, also drew boos and was accused of being an incitement to pedophilia.

“You think you’ve reached the last point in mediocrity, pretentiousness and confusion. But no. There is always something worse,” wrote Figaro’s drama critic.

“Needlapb 10,” created by Jan Lauwers and described on the festival program as a “theater-dance-music-video,” prompted another commentator to ask, “Are the gods of theater taking their revenge?” Mr. Lauwers, a Belgian visual artist, said “Needlapb 10” — which ends with a 15-minute film of waves and a solitary man on a beach — is “not a show or a work of creativity but a mental space, an experiment.”

Likewise, the criticism was rampant for “After/Before,” by Pascal Rambert, also described as a piece of “theater-dance-music-video”. Its first 40 minutes are taken up by a film of interviewees answering the question, “If there were a huge catastrophe, a new flood, what would you bring with you from this world to the next?” In the second half, 21 actors reproduce word for word the quotes from the film and then, having disrobed, perform them a third time in song and dance.

On Sunday, much of the audience walked out of the performance, and one frustrated patron was heard shouting, “What have you got against us?” He, too, walked out in exasperation.

Media attacks on the festival have come not just from right-wing papers such as Le Figaro, for which the festival is a “place for official art to offer a little bit of scandal with a lot of subsidies,” but from the left, as well. Le Monde, France’s left-wing standard bearer, described a monologue in which Belgian visual artist Jan Fabre — this year’s guest of honor — ruminates on the fate of a failed clown as “very vague and very pretentious and very lazy.”

“We have seen a lot of feeble and problematic shows in this Avignon festival. But this is sheer imposture, bloated by its own importance and unfathomable tedium,” Le Monde said.

The Avignon festival was canceled in 2003 because of a strike by workers in the entertainment industry, but 2004 was seen as a success. Advance ticket sales for this year’s event — which ends Wednesday — were strong.

In an interview with Le Monde, Mr. Baudriller said he had no regrets about the program.

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