The Broader Picture: Another French revolution

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The Independent Culture
Ariane Mnouchkine, whose production of Les Atrides opens in Bradford on 16 July, is one of the great survivors from the age of radical theatre. Her company, Le Theatre du Soleil, was last here in 1971 with the collective piece that made their name: 1789, a chunk of history from the viewpoint of the Paris crowd, which introduced Roundhouse spectators to promenade performance, and wrapped up both 1789 and 1968 in its slogan: 'La Revolution doit s'arreter a la perfection du bonheur.' But if it ended in a burst of revolutionary hope it also brought down the curtain on a decade of euphoria; and when Mnouchkine proceeded to a sequel, 1793, dealing with the Reign of Terror, the show was only seen by her audience at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes.

This abandoned military cartridge depot on the outskirts of Paris, where these photographs from Les Atrides were taken, has been her base since 1970. Before that, as an Oxford postgraduate, she assembled a group of Sorbonne amateurs to develop an egalitarian collective at the very moment when the French theatre populaire movement was falling apart. The company cut their teeth on Gorky and Wesker, went on to create their own clown show which toured to Avignon and Milan, and then came through with the five stages, multiple casting and stupendous street festivities of 1789, seen by an international audience of more than 280,000 - of which Kenneth Tynan said: 'By having several actors playing Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and abandoning the individual focus, the broad movement of history becomes possible in the theatre for the first time.'

By 1975, though, Mnouchkine had given up the idea of an autonomous collective. The company, she told me, had become so keen to display what they had created that they had sidelined the director. 'The limit in collectivity,' she said, 'is lack of poetry in the text - so it has to be everywhere else instead. At first I accepted that, but now poetry is my priority.' So it was back to one- author texts: her adaptation of Klaus Mann's Mephisto, a four-year immersion in Shakespeare, and her alliance with the feminist writer Helene Cixous, whose Histoire terrible mais inachevee de Norodom Sihanouk, roi de Cambodge (1985), presented a very different picture of the revolutionary millennium to the ecstatic confidence of 1789. Now follows her first encounter with ancient tragedy in the cycle of Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis and Aeschylus' Oresteia.

It sounds like a long retreat from popular committed

theatre into the sanctuary of middle-class art. Ariane

Mnouchkine has experienced her disenchantments: with defecting members of the troupe, with her state patrons, and with the working-class public she once hoped to reach, as well as the closing-up of political horizons. But she insists that the radical foundations of the Theatre du Soleil remain intact: equal salaries for all; moral equality at work; company meetings to decide on new initiatives; profound respect for the public. Back in 1971, challenged by a heckler who said that such things had nothing to do with the public, she replied: 'It is as much your concern to know how a play has been done as it is to know whether or not the sugar you drink in your coffee has been produced by slavery.' That is still her belief.

Les Atrides will run from 16-22 July at Robin Mills, Bradford (0800-555871).