Josie Daxter returns to the festival d’Avignon and gives us an insider’s view of what it is like to be a performer and then a spectator at this amazing event.
In July 2012, I went to the Avignon Festival for the first time.
I performed in Complicite’s ‘The Master and Margarita’ in the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des papes, directed by the artiste associé for that year, Simon McBurney. It was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience to work there.
One year later, in July 2013, I returned to Avignon, and to the Cour d’Honneur, to experience the festival from the other side, as a spectator.
I walk into the Cour d’Honneur for the first time. It takes my breath away. The sandstone walls of the courtyard soar tall and proud. The evening sun is baking one of them golden yellow and the sky above is soft blue. House martins call overhead and make swooping laps of the courtyard. A vast bank of seating, for 2000 people, fans out and up in front of me. Our wooden floor sits, a little daunted, in the middle of the huge stage, with costume rails, props tables, speakers and lighting towers spilling out on either side. I can’t wait to start work.
During the technical rehearsals we spot constellations in the sky above us. The moon, which we have grown used to seeing projected behind us, looms up for real above the palace wall.
The show takes on an epic scale in that space. We run straight through with no interval, barely leaving the stage for three hours. I set a banana on the props table and eat it during a costume change. There are clusters of named water bottles in each wing. The show picks up momentum; and the audience, renowned for heckling and leaving early, are warm, engaged and give thundering standing ovations at the end of the night.
Towards the end of the run, the mistral arrives. It whips at our costumes and scatters carefully positioned props, blasting through scenes with fabulous irreverence, creating glorious, elemental mayhem (like an accomplice to Bulgakov’s Woland). In its presence, there is a heightening of the silent ‘complicite’ within our ensemble: we work together to keep a hold on the reins of our story. I love it. And for the first time in the tour, thanks to the cool mistral, my costume is not soaked with sweat by the end of the show!
The festival programme, conceived with intelligence, generosity and passion by Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, in collaboration with Simon, features artists from all over Europe and beyond. The work – theatre, dance, music, film, art, performance art – is new, questioning and brave. In courtyards, cloisters and gymnasiums there are ‘dialogues’ and debates – the work is interrogated and contextualised and as such it exists beyond the confines of the stage or the gallery. The streets heave with ‘off’ festival performers parading and singing to drum up trade for their shows, the posters for which festoon the town’s trees, railings, squares, and drainpipes. The sheer volume of ‘culture’ is dizzying and wonderful, and I feel very proud to be part of it. I end up staying for an extra week once our show has finished.
Pink sky and house martins. I stand outside the Cour d’Honneur, having just picked up the keys for my apartment. I have a sudden, strong desire to call everyone from ‘The Master and Margarita’ and share this moment: I am back! It still exists! It is still beautiful.
I spend the next few days retracing my steps from last year – revisiting favourite restaurants and streets, my old apartment, the gardens. I miss my company, but it’s already a new and very different experience. Free from work, I see something from the programme every day – a film, an exhibition, a show. Each one sets my brain whirring. Philipe Ducros’ photography and DeLaVallet Bidiefono’s dancers imprint powerful stories from the Congo in my mind. I see theatre in unique venues, perhaps the most extraordinary being the Carrière de Boulbon, a disused quarry, 15 km outside of Avignon. I discover the shows of festival regulars – Angélica Lidell, Christoph Marthaler, Thomas Ostermeier – and get excited about following their work elsewhere.
And I return to the Cour d’Honneur.
One year on, the experience of performing ‘The Master and Margarita’ in the Cour d’Honneur has taken on a dreamlike, mythical quality in my head. I am a bit worried that returning to see a show there will burst the bubble, or that I might spend the whole time wishing I could turn back time and be up there performing instead of watching.
I see Jérôme Bel’s ‘Cour d’Honneur’ – a documentary style show, in which14 audience members talk about their experiences of seeing plays in the Cour d’Honneur. Some of the plays are brought back to life with excerpts delivered by the original performers. My favourite moment is from Romeo Castellucci’s show ‘Inferno’: a man silently scales the huge palace wall in a pair of black underpants. It is terrifying, life-affirming, both irreverent (he spends a while spread-eagled in the chapel window) and beautiful. We hold our breath and look at nothing but the smooth placing of playful hands and feet on ancient stones.
After the show, the Cour d’Honneur crew and front of house staff greet me warmly. They talk enthusiastically about ‘The Master and Margarita’, and ask after my fellow company members. I meet lots of new people, who upon discovering I was in ‘The Master and Margarita’ are animated and heartfelt in their appreciation. These conversations with fellow spectators, not dissimilar to those we have just witnessed in Jérôme Bel’s show, propel ‘The Master and Margarita’ and the experience of it, into the present moment. The bubble bursts, in a good way.
What are you performing in this year? someone asks. Nothing, I reply, I’m here to watch. And we quickly move on to discuss our favourite discoveries of the festival so far.
Josie Daxter is an actress living in London. In addition to ‘The Master and Margarita’, she has worked with Complicite on two operas: ‘A Dog’s Heart’ which will play in Lyon in January 2014, and ‘The Magic Flute’ which will play in London in November 2013 and Aix-en-Provence in July 2014.
Information about the Festival d’Avignon.