Festival d'Avignon brings theatre to a mediaeval castle in France

People stand in the "Cour d'honneur" of the Popes' Palace (Palais des papes) stage on the first day of this year edition of the Avignon theatre festival in Avignon in 2021
People stand in the "Cour d'honneur" of the Popes' Palace (Palais des papes) stage on the first day of this year edition of the Avignon theatre festival in Avignon in 2021 Copyright AFP
By Jonny Walfisz with AFP
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The Festival d’Avignon has kicked off in France bringing a month long of theatrical festivities to its mediaeval city location.


Set in the beautiful courtyard of the Palais des Papes, the 14th century castle that homed six popes, right in the heart of southern French city Avignon, the theatre festival returns for its 77th edition this year.

The festival opens today and will run to the 25th of July, with new director Tiago Rodrigues promising reinforced security measures following the rioting that has consumed France for the past week.

Riots in France have continued since the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in Nanterre on 27 June. The festival is working with national and municipal police forces to create reinforced mobile force units, security measures in pedestrian areas, random identity checks in public spaces, and pedestrian and mountain bike patrols.

In the air, a jamming system will be deployed to enforce the ban on drone overflights of Avignon, with the possible use of drones to monitor the largest gatherings.

What to expect from the festival?

The festival itself is always a spectacular showcase of theatre pieces in some of the most picturesque settings in France. The Festival d’Avignon has both its “In” festival and “Out” festival. The In festival takes place within the Papal Palace itself, while the Out festival features performances across the city, from theatre schools to the streets of Avignon. This year’s Off festival includes nearly 1,200 companies performing across 140 venues.

NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP or licensors
People stand in the "Cour d'honneur" of the Popes' PalaceNICOLAS TUCAT/AFP or licensors

For Rodriguez’s first time as festival director, he’s chosen to open the event with two performances: ‘Welfare’ and ‘G.R.O.O.V.E.’.

‘G.R.O.O.V.E.’ kicks off the festival with a three-hour dance, music and light show by French hip-hop pioneer Bintou Dembélé.

Later in the evening, ‘Welfare’ is adapted from a 1973 documentary by Oscar-winner Frederick Wiseman by Julie Deliquet, who is the second director to present a play in the Cour d'honneur of the Palais des papes after Ariane Mnouchkine. It follows the lives of a group of homeless, stateless, workless and single mothers to highlight the injustices of the welfare state.

“It's a festival of theatre that's not blind to the injustices of the world”, says Rodrigues, who is inviting a large majority of new faces, some performing for the first time in France.

He has decided to invite one language to each edition and, this year, English is in the spotlight, “in response to Brexit”.

“At a time when ramparts are being built to distance us from our British friends, we need to build bridges. It's a kind of cultural diplomacy,” he says, pointing out that after years of absence, the Edinburgh Festival management will be on hand to discover French creation.

A man hangs play posters in the streets of Avignon on the first day of this year edition of the Avignon theatre festival on July 5, 2021.AFP

The show must go on

Putting on this year’s festival hasn’t been without issues for Rodrigues. The Portuguese director faced the cancellation of one of the bigger shows of the festival a month before opening.

‘Les Emigrants’ by Polish theatre maker Krystian Lupa was cancelled after Lupa was accused of abusive behaviour during confrontations with the technical crew.

Facing a potential financial loss of €300,000 to the festival trying to fill the Opéra Grand Avignon’s 700 seat auditorium, Rodrigues has put a play of his own on in its place.

“I had six sleepless days trying to save the show, but in the end it was impossible,” Rodrigues explains. I couldn't ask artists, especially emerging ones, to replace a show at the last minute at the Opéra Grand Avignon. It would have been a huge risk and very irresponsible.”

The second issue to plague the festival was the return of a beloved venue. The Carrière de Boulbon was used for the first time in 1985 for Peter Brook's ‘Mahabharata’ and for the last time in 2016.

It will return for a performance of ‘Le Jardin des délices’ by Philippe Quesne, inspired by the painting by Jérôme Bosch.

Restoring the location had been budgeted at €250,000, but following last summer’s fires in the region, an additional €350,000 were added to the costs to provide adequate fire-risk provisions.

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