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    Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil Essay

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    The most acclaimed events in the marathon 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival were productions by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil and Giorgio Strehler’s Piccolo Teatro di Milano. Their L.A. performances of Shakespeare and Goldoni were theatrical blockbusters. One was thrilled and envious to experience stage virtuosity that has no counterpart in our own country. For once, legendary reputations and advance hype from abroad were justified.

    Now, as part of Cambridge University Press’s Directors in Perspective series, the first English-language on Mnouchkine and Strehler have appeared. These slim volumes contain well-researched histories, reference materials and excellent chronologies, but the overall effect is passive and often pretentious when it comes to the productions themselves. Both authors indulge in dry academic prose that cannot convey the compelling excitement of their subjects’ best work. As with some other books in this ambitious Cambridge survey of 20th-century theatre, these essays often have the monotonous second-hand feel of lengthy encyclopedia entries.

    Strehler and Mnouchkine represent the creative extremes of large-scale European theatre. Since the mid-1960s, Mnouchkine has commanded a rigorous ensemble devoted to the extended development and performance of about 20 idiosyncratic plays and films. Strehler has created more than 200 productions since he co-founded the Piccolo Teatro in 1947. She recasts Asian-inspired forms of acting into explosive theatrical emotion. He is the unquestioned master of lyric realism, tempering the gestus of Brechtian movement with con brio Italian style. Mnouchkine produces classic dramas as her ensemble’s preparation for new plays on political themes, while Strehler’s career is built upon established dramatic literature. Mnouchkine works exclusively with her own company. Strehler has often staged plays at other theatres, and he has earned a reputation as one of the century’s great directors of opera.

    Despite their fundamental differences, these artists have shared roots. The teachings of Jouvet and Coupeau are common to both, and the legacy of commedia dell’arte is basic to their physical styles. They have achieved wide influence by touring performances across Europe, but their American appearances have been limited to two brief visits by each company – the Piccolo Teatro in 1960 and 1984; the Theatre du Soleil in 1984 and 1992. (Strehler’s work in opera was also seen here during the La Scala and Paris Opera Bicentennial tours in 1976.) As a result Strehler and Mnouchkine are largely unknown in America, making the creative failure of these new Cambridge volumes significant.

    Inspired by Reinhardt 

    The absence of Strehler as a presence in the U.S. is our greatest loss, since he has achieved so much in the familiar form of institutional repertory theatre. Amid the social upheavals of post-war Italy, Strehler (and his co-founder, critic Paolo Grassi) established the Piccolo Teatro in 1947 as a civic theatre for Milan. This was a radical act. Until then, modern Italian theatre was centered upon commercial productions or star-based tours; the institutional approach had been reserved for opera alone. Strehler, who as an adolescent was inspired by Max Reinhardt productions and later staged Pirandello one-acts in prisoner of war camps, soon developed an international following. He became one of the few leading directors of his generation who did not move on to film, remaining with the Piccolo Teatro for all but the 1968-72 seasons.

    The history of the Piccolo Teatro revolves around the long-term leadership of Strehler and Grassi, but they were not the only unifying elements. Important Italian actors based their careers in this company. Tino Carraro, the regal Prospero of La Tempesta in Los Angeles and New York during the 1984 tour, was also (among other roles) Strehler’s King Lear (1972), Coriolanus (1956), and Macheath in the 1956 Threepenny Opera production that Brecht considered superior to his own. (Strehler was asked to take over the Berliner Ensemble after Brecht’s death, but declined the offer.)

    Amid Strehler’s wide-ranging but mostly classical play choices, the Piccolo Teatro also maintains a core repertoire of signature pieces. Between 1947 and 1987 Strehler created six different productions of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, each building upon its predecessor in the Piccolo’s active repertoire. Across all six versions, only two actors ever played the leading role of Arlecchino, further emphasizing the ensemble nature of Strehler’s work on stage.

    David L. Hirst’s essays center on Strehler’s approach to three key playwrights (Brecht, Goldoni and Shakespeare), with additional chapters given to Strehler’s overall production style and philosophy. Strehler’s extended career in opera gets somewhat less attention. Hirst is most effective on the Goldoni productions, writing about Strehler’s commitment to this Venetian master as a social playwright (comparable to Brecht) for whom physical comedy was a means, not an end in itself. In his analysis of Strehler’s famously detailed work, Hirst evokes relatively little about movement or design. The director’s unusual (and often criticized) use of stage lighting for a special chiaroscuro atmosphere is barely mentioned.

    Although Strehler has done contemporary American and English plays, he has not directed in either country because his English is not fluent. (He may have also avoided America for political reasons.) Despite this, as the preeminent European stage director of our time, he has been at the forefront of breaking down nationalistic barriers between theatre communities – particularly since founding the Theatre de l’Europe in 1983 at the Odeon in Paris. There he has presented a series of extraordinary seasons by many visiting companies, and in the process restored Paris as a preeminent city for international theatre.

    The ritual of company lunch 

    The Theatre du Soleil is the great left flank of the Parisian home team. Adrian Kiernander approaches Ariane Mnouchkine and her unique company in a studious, first-hand manner, focusing initially on their two-part Cambodian project of the late 1980s (which he observed in rehearsal and performance), only afterward moving into a chronological production history. The story is told without going much beyond the basics of the company’s artistic achievements, or the unique aspects of Mnouchkine’s career.

    The Oxford-educated daughter of Russian-English parents (her father became a major producer in the French film industry), Mnouchkine emerged in the mid-1960s as the leading artist of her own theatrical collective. Always a politically oriented theatre (and frequently on the edge of economic extinction), the Theatre du Soleil has triumphed in Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, new plays and collective creations about the French Revolution. Its extraordinary home since 1978 has been the Cartoucherie, a once abandoned munitions factory on the outskirts of Paris, now renovated as the largest and most exciting of all “black box” performance spaces.

    Mnouchkine’s theatre is virtuosic, international and lavish. (Referring to Peter Brook’s famous tag line, she believes in an “empty space, but a magnificent one.”) The company has included as many as 60 members from 18 nations. Her highly physical approach to acting, derived from many different Asian techniques, is rigorous and disciplined. Strict rules of behavior apply backstage – punctuality, no smoking during rehearsals, sobriety, two hours of preparation before each performance. In addition, everyone (including the group’s management) shares front-of-house responsibilities and the daily ritual of company lunch (a social event that often embraces daytime business visitors to the theatre). One can find Mnouchkine herself in the box office, or serving food during intermissions. These are not conceits, but a philosophical approach to the entire experience of theatre for both artists and audiences.

    Kiernander is most effective in describing the difficulties of keeping this great theatre alive across so many years. The near-collapses, last-minute government grants, artist resignations and internal crises are given an expansive overview. One sees how artists are pushed to extremes by this demanding operation, but the ultimate artistic impact – which is why so many people care passionately about this compelling director and her company – is conveyed here superficially.

    As with the Strehler volume, essential points are touched upon, but rarely illuminated. Kiernander explores the background of Mnouchkine’s artistic goals and performance style, as well as her feminist concerns. Still, her directorial technique remains vague, and there is very little about how she shaped a unified acting company out of individuals from so many different national and artistic backgrounds. The heaviness of Kiernander’s prose is a poor match not only for Mnouchkine’s productions, but her entirely unpretentious and direct personality. (An awkward Kiernander phrase such as “a theatrical alternative to phallocentric binarism” conveys little about the work of this immediately communicative director.)

    Issues of importance are not addressed. Mnouchkine is an exceptional teacher. She often engages inexperienced actors who grow majestically under her tutelage. How was Georges Bigot – perhaps Mnouchkine’s most famous protege – trained to become an astounding repertory actor who gave performances on successive evenings (as he did in Los Angeles) of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Orsino and Prince Hal? The same question could be asked about Simon Abkarian, the frighteningly passive-violent Orestes in Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides (her production of Aeschylus’ Orestia, which toured to Montreal and Brooklyn last year). How did Abkarian grow during 10 years of intense work (and small roles) with Mnouchkine to emerge triumphant in this massive leading part?

    Paucity of information

    Granted, Mnouchkine is a difficult subject. She is not a theoretician and (unlike Strehler or Brook) has not published essays about her own work. She is not eager to discuss her productions, and Kiernander admits that she was typically hesitant to authorize this book. Even so, much more could have been done. Certainly, for American audiences, this publication will not sufficiently expand impressions of the company’s 1992 tour of Les Atrides, which confirmed the Theatre du Soleil’s essential qualities, but was compromised by serious cast changes, design modifications and acoustic problems.

    Given the paucity of information in English about these artists, one remains grateful for the Cambridge series, which attempts to fill an important need. But to understand the work of Mnouchkine and Strehler (or Germany’s Peter Stein – equally original, unknown in America and also the subject of a Cambridge volume), one must travel abroad. The Piccolo Teatro di Milano toured to 11 cities last year, but once again had no American stop on its itinerary.

    As supplements to these new books, consider the following. The New Yorker of May 4, 1992 contains a more personal casebook on Strehler by musicologist Harvey Sachs. Double Page, a French photo journal available in art bookstores, has three issues (numbers 21, 32 and 49) devoted to Martine Franck’s production shots of Mnouchkine projects, including three Shakespeare plays. This is exceptionally rich theatrical photography that accurately captures the emotion and color of these shows in performance, as well as the company backstage. All three issues are worth the hunt. In the meantime, Mnouchkine’s latest production (a new play by Helene Cixous about the recent French scandal in which HIV-infected blood was knowingly distributed to hospitals) has just opened at the Cartoucherie.

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    Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil Essay. (2017, Nov 07). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/ariane-mnouchkine-theatre-du-soleil-26671/

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