Avignon Festival pushes even an avant-garde audience to the limit

The season of experimental theatre and dance began earlier this month with nude actors urinating on stage. The Avignon audiences hardly turned a hair. The History of Tears by the Belgian shock dramatist Jan Fabre was even loudly applauded.

In recent days, however, a series of bizarre plays and ballets have been booed and jeered off the stage. One, which consisted of a great deal of blood and a series of life-size dolls of little girls, has been attacked as an apology for paedophilia.

A ballet-play, Frère et soeur, by the respected French choreographer Mathilde Monnier, was hissed and booed on Wednesday night. There were cries of "nul" (useless) and "affligeant" (pitiful) as spectators walked out en masse.

The show is a re-telling of the Cain and Abel story that begins with a 15 minute-long representation of a street brawl. This was unfortunate timing, because three of the festival's bouncers - immigrants from Kosovo - had been arrested for the alleged murder of a local man during a street fight earlier this week.

Le Figaro asked: "What other theatre festival needs bouncers anyway?" The newspaper's answer was that they were needed in Avignon because the audiences - although usually tolerant, even appreciative, of the avant-garde - had become increasingly angry in recent days.

The centre-right paper called on the government to reconsider its funding. The co-directors of the 59th Avignon Festival - Vincent Baudriller and Hortense Archambault - have welcomed the protests as a healthy sign of audience participation. M. Baudriller said the Avignon spectators were becoming "spect-acteurs" - not just passive seat-potatoes. This, he suggested, was just what the festival wanted to achieve.

Maybe, but some of the shows, presented in out-door theatres created in the streets and squares of the beautiful town by the Rhône, are playing to half-empty houses. More than 90 per cent of the tickets have been sold but, following the reviews of the opening nights, many ticket-holders have not turned up.

The French press - even newspapers tolerant of avant-garde art such as Le Monde and Libération - have slammed play after play.

Fabienne Darge in Le Monde said there had been a host of "weak or problematic" shows but that the Empereur de la Perte (Emperor of Loss), also by Jan Fabre, was the worst of all. The play consists of a man dressed in black, against a red velvet background, making portentous statements and - magician-like - producing objects from his underpants and hanging them on his head or penis. The Le Monde critic said that the play was an "imposture puffed up with its own importance but absymally tedious".

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