Hollande, Wolfish Bankers, Devil Hang Out in Avignon

Papal Palace in Avignon
The courtyard of the Papal Palace in Avignon where the popes resided from 1309 to 1376. This site will be the main venue of the Festival d'Avignon, which runs from July 7 to July 28, 2012. Photographer: Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Festival d'Avignon via Bloomberg

The financial crisis has finally reached the Festival d’Avignon, the world’s biggest theater jamboree after Edinburgh.

Two of the 52 plays in the official program -- and half a dozen of the more than 1,000 shows in the Festival Off -- deal with the excesses of bankers and traders that pushed the world economy to the brink of disaster.

“The Contracts of the Businessman,” an “economic comedy” by the Austrian Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, is a coproduction of theaters in Hamburg and Cologne.

In the four-hour marathon, which is more a satirical revue than a coherent play, bankers appear disguised as wolves, their victims as sheep, and a chorus of ruined investors bewails the injustice of life.

Subtlety has never been Jelinek’s strong suit, yet the show was a huge success in Germany.

The French writer and director Bruno Meyssat and his actors have interviewed bankers and traders to find out what makes the world of finance tick. “15 Percent,” the title of the show, refers to the profit margin the interviewees told them was necessary to survive in that snake pit.

The festival itself hasn’t been immune to the financial turmoil. Last year, Dexia SA, a long-time sponsor and an early casualty of the European debt crisis, withdrew its support. Fortunately, another bank, Credit Cooperatif, has stepped in.

Hollande Opening

The official opening on July 7 in the courtyard of the Papal Palace, which will be attended by French President Francois Hollande, has been entrusted to the U.K. director Simon McBurney, “associate artist” of this year’s festival.

McBurney and his touring company, Theatre de Complicite, will present a dramatized version of “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1940 novel, in which the Devil appears in Moscow, wreaking havoc on greedy speculators, nosy janitors, dishonest innkeepers and incompetent writers.

In the past, Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, the festival’s outgoing directors, have been accused of indulging in cheap provocations and “post-dramatic” fads. In their last year, they’re obviously trying to restore their reputation.

Chekhov’s ‘Seagull’

So they’ve admitted a number of classics -- Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” directed by Arthur Nauzyciel; Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” directed by Stephane Braunschweig; and Ibsen’s most political play, “An Enemy of the People,” a production of the Schaubuehne Berlin, directed by Thomas Ostermeier.

Still, outsiders and avant-gardists dominate the field.

The Theater Hora from Zurich is a company of 11 mentally handicapped actors, most of them suffering from Down’s syndrome. Their show, performed on a bare stage, “queries the spectator,” we’re told in the festival’s brochure, “on his relationship to otherness.”

The Italian Romeo Castellucci and his Societas Raffaello Sanzio are regulars at the festival.

Last year, their two-hander “The Concept of Christ’s Face” caused a stir when it came to Paris: Catholic fundamentalists protested in and outside the Theatre du Chatelet against what they regarded as blasphemous -- the story of an incontinent old man and his son who, in front of a giant portrait of Christ, cleans up his father’s bowel movements.

“The Four Seasons Restaurant,” Castellucci’s new show, has been inspired by a real event: In 1958, Mark Rothko returned the cash advance and withdrew from a plum commission for which he had already painted more than 30 canvases -- to decorate the posh eatery in New York’s Seagram building.

After accepting the commission, Rothko had written to a friend that he was going to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” It seems that he came to the conclusion that Manhattan’s power brokers couldn’t be intimidated so easily and gave up.

The Festival d’Avignon, supported by Credit Cooperatif, starts on July 7 and runs through July 28. Information: http://www.festival-avignon.com or +33-4-9014-1460.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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