Avignon Festival

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The Independent Culture
Ariane Mnouchkine's Tartuffe stood out head and shoulders above the rest at this year's Avignon Festival. Amazingly, in all the 31 years since she founded her renowned Theatre du Soleil in Paris, this is her first Moliere production. Not so amazingly, she hits the nail right on the head. This Tartuffe is no mere Gallic Pecksniff, but a figure that has become frighteningly familiar in recent years: the religious zealot with his eye on a broader agenda.

Our first sight is of a peddler (Sergio Canto) sashaying along the road, clicking a castanet-like instrument, then returning with a ghetto-blaster blaring out Middle Eastern popular music. Orgon's household flock to buy from him, moving to the music.

Moliere's text begins with the arrival of the devout Mme Pernelle (Myriam Azoncot), Orgon's mother, swathed from head to toe in Islamic fundamentalist black, as are her two attendants. The style is declamatory, formal, yet shot through with humour. Orgon (Brontis Jodorowsky) comes home and is fussed over. He is a slightly ridiculous figure, dropping into a childish tantrum when his daughter Mariane (Renata Ramos Maza) rejects his plan to marry her to his dear friend Tartuffe.

But it is in the second act, when Tartuffe (Sharokh Meshkin Chalam) finally appears, that it becomes clear just how broad Mnouchkine's terms of reference are. With a long black coat, black hat and beard, looking like a strange cross between Islamic fundamentalist, orthodox Jewish and early Puritan, Tartuffe erupts on to the stage with six lookalike henchmen to the sound of a mob chanting off-stage. Fundamentalism as mass manipulation is Mnouchkine's target here, and it is uncanny how easily Moliere's text fits this interpretation.

Much less successful is Mnouchkine's second offering at the festival, Le Ville parjure ou le reveil des Erinyes by the distinguished feminist writer Helene Cixous, a mammoth onslaught (seven hours!) allegedly on the subject of blood and the evils associated with it, from racism to Aids, with a main figure of a mother (Renata Ramos Maza again) who has taken refuge in a cemetery whence she curses the town where her two children were killed by contaminated blood.

All Mnouchkine's magic fails to inject much life into this tediously pious diatribe. The only goodies are women, and Cixous attacks anyone who gets in the way of her sandbag. It's like saying one is against sin. Moliere says it better, and with laughs.

Men also have a bad press in Matthias Langhoff's naffly titled version of Shakespeare's Richard III: Gloucester Time/ Materiau-Shakespeare/ Richard III. For well over four hours we are bombarded with ideas: at the beginning Richard delivers his "Winter of our discontent" speech from a barber's chair, apparently reading it from the European; at the end, Richard staggers on in a bear skin to be stabbed to death with hunting spears by a troop of Amazons. The only bright spot in this tediously overdone production was the young actor Marcial Di Fonzo Bo in the title role.

A fascination with things German was also evident at Avignon this year, most prominently in two Fassbinder productions from the Theatre National de Strassbourg - a compilation of the director's texts set in a bar and a version of his last film, The Year of the 13 Moons, about a suicidal transvestite (finely taken by Charles Berling). Yet, Tartuffe apart, of the 450 productions given over the three weeks, nothing was truly outstanding.