Staging “the Document” at the Avignon Festival

Since its founding by Jean Vilar in 1947, France’s Avignon Festival has always been linked to political engagement. This year, the main focus was on gender, though some of the plays highlighted other issues around the world, like the refugee crisis. It so happens that attention was also given to staging “the document”—where real-life events, people, or documentary material, such as interviews, articles, reports, and correspondences, are used as the basis for storytelling.

Yet the plays presented cannot all be confined to the genre of documentary theatre, or even to its related forms like verbatim theatre, investigative theatre, theatre of witness, and other such titles. Documentary theatre has evolved over the years, and today the genre goes beyond pure documentation: it’s about questioning the meaning and significance of truth and information. How can truth be revealed in an era when the immense flow of information disfigures reality—augmenting it or diminishing it—making accessing a single truth almost an impossible task?

Four productions that played with staging documents were included at the Avignon Festival: Il pourra toujours dire que c’est pour l’amour du prophète (He Can Always Say It Was for the Love of the Prophet) by Gurshad Shaheman, La Méduse (Méduse) by Les Bâtards Dorés collective, Pale Blue Dot by Étienne Gaudillère, and La reprise – Histoire(s) du théâtre (I) (The Repetition: History/ies of Theatre (I)) directed by Milo Rau.

When it comes to categorizing these shows, though, not all of their directors were comfortable with the documentary label. Rau doesn’t see theatre as a “medium for transferring information,” and although most of his plays are based on sociopolitical events and tragedies like the genocide in Rwanda (Hate Radio) and the Jihadi movement (The Civil Wars), he is more interested in the cathartic process of his work rather than focusing on the documentary aspect. Gaudillère, on his end, seemed reluctant about qualifying Pale Blue Dot as “documentary theatre.” He is more interested in using real-life material and sources like newspaper excerpts, TV interviews, and classified reports to make theatre, while at the same time avoiding didacticism, which is typically a crucial component in the genre.

Presenting the “real” as “true” became, in the four plays mentioned, an act of “document performativity” where some realities were communicated to the audience through multiple standpoints and truths. Each of the play’s directors worked with their source document (or “the document”) using different aesthetics and tools—which ranged from transforming the space into darkness where an oratorio of monologues proliferated (Il pourra toujours dire) to using the form of the tribunal as an essential plot device (La Méduse) to combining naturalism with live video projection (La reprise) to inundating the stage with a spectacular flow of information (Pale Blue Dot).

Shaheman’s play, Il pourra toujours dire, focused on the hardships of people who have been exiled, notably artists and those who belong to the LGBT community. After gathering testimonials from the refugee and migrant encampment Calais Jungle in France, the director used the material to write monologues, which were then recited on stage by performers. These artists played the role of “depositaries of the texts,” according to Shaheman, who describes his work as an “oratorio of voices” coming out of the darkness or sparkling through dimly lit spots on the stage.

group of actors posing onstage

Il pourra toujours dire que c’est pour l’amour du prophète (He can always say it was for the love of the prophet) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

What was considered a testimonial document transformed to become a litany of words, inspired by the poetics and eroticism of the Middle Eastern folk tales One Thousand and One Nights. Although different stories from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and other countries were highlighted, Shaheman unified all these voices into one transcendental process of unseen pain, where movement rarely happened on stage. In Shaheman’s work, the document doesn’t have a physical presence or a unique voice; no significance was given to the various nuances of pain. What he intended to achieve was a documentary concert.

Presenting the “real” as “true” became, in the four plays mentioned, an act of “document performativity” where some realities were communicated to the audience through multiple standpoints and truths.

Unlike Shaheman, who opted for minimalism in terms of space and movement, the other three performances were abundant in diverse visual forms and interpretations of their document. In these works, the document or the real-life event appears as a fact to be questioned and sometimes judged. It is sometimes a tool for a ludicrous scene; other times, it is transformed and used in other contexts.

The form of a tribunal, whether concrete or metaphorical, is often used in plays that document real-life events. La Méduse’s structure is built on this. The play is based on an essay about a trial connected to a shipwreck in 1810 that killed over a hundred men. Due to hunger and lack of water, the fourteen survivors—one of whom wrote the essay—started to hallucinate and ended up committing acts of cannibalism. Throughout the show, the survivors’ intentions are questioned, mostly those of Savigny, the doctor in charge of the ship, and Étienne Jacques, one of the soldiers who contested the doctor’s testimonial. Diverse realities and truths about the frigate were raised throughout the play.

performers moving wildly around a bare stage

La Méduse (Méduse) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

The tri-frontal setup of the theatre space was an interesting choice. The audience surrounded the stage from three sides, which meant they saw different angles of the same scene. On top of that, they were metaphorically positioned to different truths or points of views surrounding the incident: some were a few centimeters away from the judge, as if they were the jurors in the jury box; others were seated at the back of the stage where all testimonials of Dr. Savigny took place; the third group was seated in front of it all, watching the trial unfold.

At the end of the performance, the actors engaged the audience members who were sitting in the jury box to give their final decision in court. The play attempted to represent the many layers of facts that were connected with the document, reconstructing and deconstructing the notion of truth itself and questioning ethical issues related to the incident, without imposing any final point of view or judgment.

While La Méduse relied on a modest scenography where the actors’ bodies, words, and movements were the source of every creative act, Gaudillère, with Pale Blue Dot, opted for dazzling scenery. Singing, intermittent music, multiple screens, and party favors were tools to present a huge flow of information about WikiLeaks where facts, speeches, videos, and advertisements were woven together. Gaudillère built the elements of his story from three different axes: he transmitted the WikiLeaks events from an informative news-oriented perspective; he showed Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor, as a public figure who manipulates and who is manipulated by the media; and he presented the private life of Chelsea Manning, the intelligence analyst who was the main person behind releasing of the United States government’s classified information.

performer with US flag painted on their face holding the head of the Statue of Liberty

Pale blue dot © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Except for Manning’s scenes, every fact was represented onstage in an attempt to contextualize the information—i.e. the document—as a tool for achieving pleasurable spectacular scenery. Real-life moments, such as quotes from Hillary Clinton and Assange’s interviews, were shown through a dynamic montage. It was as if Manning was the only one concerned with the purpose and mission of WikiLeaks: “to bring important news and information to the public ... and to publish original source material so readers and historians can see evidence of the truth.” In that sense, the extreme theatricality of the document allowed the audience to feel empathetic towards Manning, who is often not the focus of the WikiLeaks narrative.

As for La reprise, the director, Rau, used the murder of Ihsan Jarfi—a young Muslim homosexual from Belgium who was brutally killed in 2012—to ask questions related to the representation of crime and tragedy on stage. The play retrospectively showcases the events that led to Jarfi’s appalling murder in a highly realistic representation: Jarfi left a pub when a car appeared. The two individuals inside asked Jarfi a question before beating and mutilating him to death. After Jarfi dies, one of the actors pissed on his corpse. Violence, torture, and nudity are displayed onstage in their coldest forms.

Parallel to this reenactment, Rau showed audiences the lead-up to the performance itself, focusing on the recruitment of the three amateur actors who were cast in the play. There was a camera in the middle of the stage that was linked to a huge screen where the audience saw close-ups of the actors’ faces throughout the performance. Audiences gather information about these people: why they chose acting; if Coco, the woman who played the role of Ihsan’s mother, would perform nude; how one of the actors had the same car as one of the murderers and how another, also like one of the murderers, suffered from unemployment. Rau, in a very subtle way, tried to find the meaning behind such a murder by digging into broader social issues, which were possibly present in the personal lives of the actors who represented the real-life characters.

projection of person and person in the shadows

La reprise – Histoire(s) du théâtre (I) (The Repetition: History/ies of Theatre (I)) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

What is significant in Rau’s staging of this very recent and controversial real-life tragedy is the juxtaposition of the two reenactments while offering the audience a triple sense of voyeurism. In addition to the general feeling audience members have while watching any life on stage, the spectator is a voyeur of the life of the actors as well as a voyeur of the very violent scenes. This voyeurism becomes more and more intense through the use of the screen, which offered multiple views of the same action, as well as magnified the intensity with the use of close-ups or medium shots.

After documents are shared, who has ownership over them and who has the legitimacy of offering them representation?

As noted by writer George Rodosthenous, voyeurism in theatre may cause feelings of guilt in the audience “as they become self-aware that they are complicit in the culturally shameful act of watching forbidden pleasures on stage.” This guilty feeling in La reprise becomes more and more controversial when faced with the contemporaneity of the real-life event that is being staged. How can someone stage a murder of a young man, a victim of an unexplained violence, whose parents, friends, and beloved ones are still alive—and who might be in the audience? How can someone represent violence in a very cold way, showcasing it as a theatre exercise?

To challenge the hidden rules and norms of a static theatre, Rau created the Ghent Manifesto, the first rule of which is: “It’s not just about portraying the world anymore. It’s about changing it. The aim is not to depict the real, but to make the representation itself real.” How would an authentic representation of a real-life event on stage change the world? I argue that Rau applies the principles that exist in homeopathy to theatre. In homeopathy, sick people are given very small amounts of a natural substance, which, in healthy people, would produce the same effects as the diseases produce. In Rau’s work, audiences are given particular amounts of violence onstage, which, in reality, would cause real damage. Is his work an attempt to provoke the audience? That might be a possible interpretation.

At the end of the performance, Jarfi stands up. He is the amateur actor now, talking about a passage from a Wajdi Mouawad text, where an actor stands on a chair under a hanging rope, before wrapping it around his neck and pushing the chair with his feet, waiting for someone from the audience to save him. This invites the audience to think about their responsibility as spectators.

In each of the four plays, where authentic documents were staged for the audience, many questions arise. After documents are shared, who has ownership over them and who has the legitimacy of offering them representation? Is it the authentic subjects? The artists who created the work? The audience who is reflecting on what they saw? And, once in the hands of more than one individual, does the document itself remain the same?

I believe a document never remains the same, even if it is owned by one individual: the same person can relate to the same real-life event or document differently with the passage of time. Any document is subject to many transformations, whereby it becomes capable of creating or being part of other realities. Even before reaching the stage and being accessible to the audience, a document has likely already transformed. That means no one has exclusive ownership over the representation of an authentic document. It doesn’t belong to itself anymore, and, as it gets handled by different people, it can produce different meanings.

Instead of asking about the legitimacy of staging a document, or the best way to do so, it might be better to ask more meaningful questions. For example, the way Shaheman presented the LGBT community in the Middle East in Il pourra toujours dire was stereotypical, which is demeaning on both an aesthetic and ethical level. What kind of aesthetic representation is added by transforming testimonials on victimhood into teary-eyed monologues? How does that showcase something different than what has been seen many times before onstage? On an ethical level, when did members of the LGBT community accept to appear as victims? Using another example: in La reprise, how painful would it be for the parents of Ihsan Jarfi to see his murder in every little detail?

This brings us to ask: Is staging a document an ethical process? If so, who is it an ethical process for? Since one of the characteristics of document performativity is that different meanings can be inferred from a text—that there is no single truth—it would be easy to claim staging a document is not an ethical process. However, I don’t believe it’s as simple as that and that, instead, it is a question open for—a worthy of—debate.

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