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Onzième, directed by Francois Tanguy. Photo: courtesy of Théâtre du Radeau
Volume 2

Onzième Production by the Théâtre du Radeau

Onzième is a production by the Théâtre du Radeau, directed by François Tanguy. The production was first presented in November 2011; it was presented in many cities in France during 2012, and in Chambery from the tenth to the thirteenth of January 2013. In the month of April, Tanguy, the director of this group, began rehearsals for a new production, Passim.

Onzième is one of the most original productions seen during the season 2012-2013 in France. Its producing organization, the Radeau, was founded in 1978 by Laurence Chable and some other actors. It began its most creative period in 1982, when François Tanguy arrived and took over the group. At the beginning they adapted classic plays, such as Dom Juan by Molière in 1982, and A Midsummer Night´s Dream by Shakespeare in 1985. But from the beginning, the group also created non-realistic productions rejecting most conventions of the theatre. For example, Mystère Bouffe in 1986 was a strange production without a single word, only muttering. In the eighties, they created almost one production per year: L´eden et les cendres (Eden and Ashes) in 1983, Le retable de séraphin (The Seraph Alterpiece) in 1984, Jeu de Faust (Faust Play) in 1987, Woyseck-Büchner-fragments forains (Woyzeck-Büchner: Fairground Fragments) in 1989. During the nineties, however, the productions lasted longer and appeared every two or three years, reaching fifteen productions in thirty years, eight in their last twenty: Chant du Bouc (Goat Song) in 1991, Choral in 1994, Bataille du Tagliamento (The Battle of Tagliamento) in 1996, Orphéon-Bataille-suite lyrique in 1998, Les Cantates in 2001, Coda in 2004, and Ricercar in 2007.

From their first production they were praised for the originality of their work. Now they are getting economic support from a variety of sources, among them the city of Le Mans, the region of Pays de Loire, and the state. Nonetheless, during their early years they succeeded in becoming almost fully economically independent: they toured so much that their benefits paid almost all the expenses of the company. This was also due to the fact that since the beginning they have been deeply concerned about the economic sustainability of the company. Even today they build their scenery themselves, recycling materials already used, use only costumes that have already been used, etc. For many years, they struggled to have their own space, and they built a great part of it themselves, in a former garage of the car manufacturer Renault, called La Fonderie. It is now an outstanding theatrical space in France, able to welcome many other companies as well. The Théâtre du Radeau, however, is unique and cannot be compared to any other company for many reasons. The most important is undoubtedly the originality of their productions and their constant evolution.

For this reason, it is very difficult to summarize their aesthetic. Some aspects that might be mentioned are: the extreme elaboration of all the aspects of the production; their productions are works in progress until the last performance; the desire always to create with very modest and concrete means; the rejection of naturalism, in almost every aspect of the production, from the acting to the scenery; the development of multiple meanings in the productions; the high poetic content; the beauty of the astonishing images; the desire to reflect a plurality of voices and languages; the creation of imaginative worlds open to many interpretations, sometimes almost reaching abstraction, but with very concrete aspects; a highly political concern with what is happening in the world (for example, they got deeply involved with creating a social network to support Bosnians in Sarajevo besieged by Serbian forces during the last Balkan war in the nineties); a major political involvement in the life of the city where most of them live, Le Mans, always seeking concrete expression yet also avoiding explicit political statements.

Onzième. Photo: courtesy of Théâtre du Radeau

Onzième, directed by Francois Tanguy. Photo: courtesy of Théâtre du Radeau

Their earlier production, Ricercar, opened in October of 2007, and ended in fall 2009, with a tour in Korea. Ricercar presented few innovations compared to the previous productions: it used very short fragments of many literary texts as Quer pasticciaccio brutto de Via Merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana) by Carlo Emilio Gadda, Le Testament by François Villon, The Divina Commedia by Dante, and material from authors as varied as Carlo Michelstaedter, Erza Pound, Dino Campana, Lucretius, Robert Walser, Luigi Pirandello, Danielle Collobert, Goethe, Nadejda Mandelstram, Leopardi, Franz Kafka, and Georg Büchner. The production was built in sequences that were intrinsically connected. These sequences were so short and switched so rapidly that the sensation of sequence was constant. Several texts were not heard by the audience, as the music was sometimes very intense. Some of the texts were in French, but others were not. François Tanguy likes to uses different languages, taking advantage of the knowledge and also the origin of the actors of the Théâtre du Radeau: Fosco Corliani is Italian, Fröde Bjornstad is Norwegian, Boris Sirdey was raised in Switzerland and is fluent in German, etc. Music was heard throughout all of the production, composed of a collage of fragments from very diverse musicians: André Boucourechliev, Alban Berg, Luciano Berio, Sergiu Celibidache, Friedrich Cerda, Dohnanyi, Hanns Eisler, Nicolaus A. Huber, Gyôrgy Kurtag, Witold Lutoslawski, Bohuslav Martinu, Giuseppe Verdi, Wolfgang Rihm, Domenico Scarlatti, Dimitri Shostakovitch, Jean Sibelius, Bedřich Smetana, Igor Stravinski, Viktor Ullmann and Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Théâtre du Radeau takes months of rehearsal before public performance, usually six months of intense work. But Onzième proved much more difficult, and the rehearsals lasted twelve months. As with many other productions of this group, it used some elements of the previous productions and others that have never been used by this group. The production is divided into sequences, most of them built into the text. Nevertheless, the scenery changes very often, even during the sequences, until the final three. These changes are never due to the dramatic development of the literary text. They rather reflect a constant adjustment of balance between sequences or between the different rhythms, in a manner that is much more musical than narrative. Each sequence builds a new image without any relation to the previous one, and from the point of view of the spectator, erases it. This is not only because the space has been transformed, but also because the music, text, and actors change constantly. As there is no narrative line, the relation between the episodes seems even weaker. I have never experienced in the theatre such difficulty in remembering what I had previously seen, although the production as a whole shows major coherence and unity.

The production consists of more than twenty-five sequences in a little less than two hours. Each sequence is independent but they maintain close ties between them by having extremely extended and varied kinds of relationships. A recording of the speech by Mussolini declaring war is mimed by Karine Pierre, just before she begins to act a fragment from act 5, scene 5 of Richard II by Shakespeare, where the imprisoned king regrets past actions; thus the statement by Mussolini seems to be related to the fall of the king. The two elements are fused. Some of these sequences are very long, compared to those in Ricercar. For example, one of the last sequences, the feast in the house of Varvara Stavroguine (played by Laurence Chable), lasts more than twenty minutes; this is also a major innovation as the production is not based on short sequences anymore. Another sign of the evolution of the productions of this theatre is that all the texts are understood. Among the texts, only parts of the Strindberg fragment cannot be clearly heard.

But the most striking relation between the sequences, is always the shifting relationship between the soundtrack, the literary texts, the acting, and the lighting. As in Ricercar, their previous production, Onzième uses different literary texts by authors such as Dante, Virgil, Witkiewicz, Strindberg, Kafka, Shakespeare, Artaud, and Kierkegaard. But the main author in Onzième is Dostoyevsky. Five long fragments are drawn from The Brothers Karamazov and The Demons. These clearly affect the perception of the spectator. As in Ricercar, a few fragments are spoken in other languages, such as English, German, or Italian, in a wide polyphony that is also emphasized by the use of different characters. The languages other than French are used in order to produce a distance between the audience and the production, to surprise the audience, to force it to a renewed attention, to remove the expectation of obtaining a full comprehension of the texts, and to allow for a freer imagination, not tied to the words of the texts. All this and the extreme care taken to build all the images are the reasons why the Théâtre du Radeau, unlike many contemporary groups, never uses subtitles. Nevertheless, a booklet with all texts and their references, and with the translation of the texts in other languages than French, is given to the public upon entrance.

The themes of the texts are very different, and the production is based on this variety, without making any of them more important than the others. The themes of death and time are very important ones, but Onzième is also very ironic, and comic in some sequences; for example, the long sequence where Varvara Stavroguine (played by Laurence Chable) receives Captain Lebiadkine (played by Vincent Joly), drawn from The Demons. The entire stage is illuminated. The gravity of the Dostoyevsky novel´s episode is transformed. Captain Lebiadkine appears as ridiculous, almost as a parody of the Dostoyevsky character, but also showing some of his more important features. He moves about constantly, his arms wide open, while he explains his situation with difficulty and in exaggerated diction to Varvara Stavroguine. Stavroguine, played by Laurence Chable, is scandalized by Captain Lebiadkin’s words and attitude and leaves the stage at various times. Captain Lebiadkine then continues to speak alone, on the empty set, as if the person to whom he is addressing his speech were still there. Several times, his only witness is his happy sister who seems to be paying no attention to what he is saying. The rest of the characters are presented almost as puppets, with mechanical gestures. After many sequences where the main theme is suicide and death, the production ends with a lighter, more comic episode.

The texts follow each other without any obvious connections between them and they tend to treat the same themes in different ways.  For example, the second text (a scene drawn from Water Hen by Witkiewicz) and the third fragment (drawn from To Damascus by Strindberg) have the same theme, the relationship between a couple, but treated in a different way. The first sequence presents the end of a relationship, the second apparently seems to show a reconciliation, although in Strindberg’s play this is only a new step in a relationship in continual conflict.

A fragment from The Demons—the discussion between two main characters, Kirilov (played by Karine Pierre) and Stavroguine (played by Jean Rochereau), in which Kirilov exposes his decision to commit suicide and the reasons for it—is followed by a text by Artaud. It is performed by the same actor, who remains seated without making any gestures. The relation between the two texts is not logical, and it is not based on either narrative or psychology. The only connection between the two texts is almost a poetic connection, in the sense that it associates very different situations and thoughts, but once made, the association is striking. Kirilov, Dostoyevsky’s character, decides to commit suicide on both intellectual and religious grounds. Artaud’s text stresses the danger of a person guided only by intelligence without taking into account the body as the origin of his nightmares. What is said in both texts is thus associated, but the relation is not stressed. The audience is free to establish the relation between the decision of Kirilov and Artaud’s criticism, or any of many other possible relations.

This multiplicity of associations is reinforced by the fact that the acting is also non-naturalistic. The actors do present characters, but keep a distinct distance away from them. Their voices never express the feeling of the words in a psychological way, and when they do there is always a distance. And each actor, depending on his personal skills, says the text in a different way, which is quite unusual in the professional French theatre, where there is always a tendency toward coherence and homogeneity between the diction of the actors within a production. Some actors change with each character they represent, but others do not change and use the same diction for all. The Théâtre du Radeau tends to encourage such diversity. In fact, the production is the result of the interaction between the group of actors and the director, in the sense that François Tanguy never chooses an actor thinking of a character, but the production is built with and around the actors that are included at the beginning of the production. In another production, this diversity would appear as incoherence, but it does not create this effect in Onzième, as it is part of the overall movement of the production.

The gestures and movements of the actors on stage are very surprising. Almost none of the movements are figurative, nor are they gestures of a real life situation. The gestures do not have a semiotic explanation. The spectator is immediately invited not to expect the continuity of a scene in a psychological way or the logical development of a story, but rather to perceive the movements and the texts as poetry, in a musical way, depending on the relation between the elements, both in their simultaneity and in their elaboration.

All elements are in constant movement. The scenery is composed of panels of various sizes, tables, and chairs. Their positions on the stage form non-realistic spaces. The actors themselves move the panels and change the space, with every text and also within most of them. In fact there are more than twenty-five different spaces created during the production. The space is also completely transformed by the lighting, created by François Fauvel, the stage manager, and François Tanguy. Most of the lighting is done by video projections. Almost ninety-five percent of the light comes from three video projectors and two slide projectors, so that most is frontal, all the slide and video projectors being situated downstage under the tables that are there. François Tanguy filmed most of the images, among them many images of light (windows illuminated by the sun, illuminated walls and so on). François Fauvel then reworked those images, keeping only the part of the image involving the light, so that no specific object can be recognized. Very often he preserved the movement of the light, like a strange flickering whose limits are blurred, but sometimes the image is fixed and motionless. Thus the spectator sees not only the scenery but also the moving image that illuminates it. The projections produce a very peculiar light that tends to produce huge and very expressionistic shadows of the characters. Nonetheless the actors, or part of their bodies, are very often hidden, because another actor is in front of them, or because another object casts a shadow over them. For instance, in part of a sequence drawn from The Brothers Karamazov, Claudie Douet and Boris Sirdey, who play Lisa Klokakova and Alioucha Karamazov respectively, have only their torsos illuminated while their heads remain in the shadow.

Onzième. Photo: courtesy of Théâtre du Radeau

Onzième, directed by Francois Tanguy. Photo: courtesy of Théâtre du Radeau

Many things in Onzième have not been seen in previous Radeau productions. Besides the images used as light, there are, for the first time, video images projected on the panels that form the set. These images are always in movement. Through these images, François Tanguy pays homage to his friend, the German director Klaus-Michael Grüber, who died in 2008, though this homage is not explicitly stated anywhere. As with the other aspects of the production, all these images can be interpreted in many ways. The audience members who do not know the story of the production will not know about this aspect. The title “The Eleventh” refers to the Eleventh Symphony by Beethoven that François Tanguy and Klaüs Michaël Grüber heard together in a green clearing whose image appears at the beginning of the production. After a few images of flowers or leaves shaken by the wind, the production ends with an image of the seashore in Belle-Île where the ashes of Grüber have been scattered.

The sound track, created by Eric Goudard and François Tanguy, attains in Onzième a far greater complexity and refinement than in previous productions. There are only a few seconds without sound. During the entire production the spectators hear a succession of fragments from different classical composers, such as Beethoven, Bach, Purcell, or Schubert, or modern ones such as Friedrich Cerha or Luigi Nono. A list of these is included in the program. There is only a single moment where musical fragments are not mixed; the rest of the time all the fragments are mixed by Eric Goudard with other musical fragments or sounds. Very often the musical fragments are partially transformed by Goudard, depending on what is happening on stage at that precise instant. Nonetheless, here again the relation is never a relation of illustration and never creates a mood that could be psychologically interpreted.

The opening sequence provides a good example of the density of the production, and how the elements that define its complexity are combined. The panels are placed in such a way that they seem to form a wall. An image of a green forest is projected on one of the panels while the stage itself remains unlighted. The audience hears first a noise of wind and then a musical sentence by Beat Furrer, repeated several times. The mixture of the sound, always perfectly crafted, gives rise to a feeling of instability. Boris Sirdey crosses the stage and sits in a chair. Over this noise and music the audience hears a recorded reading of the poem Mardola by author Paul Celan himself, in German. At the same time, a fragment of the Second Quartet by Krzysztof Penderecki is added to the sound track. The lighting weakly illuminates the downstage area. One by one all the actors come on stage and form a line in front of the panels so that it seems that they too are forming a wall. They stand motionless.

A few seconds after the Celan poem finishes, Vincent Joly takes a rectangular screen that was folded over the central panels and places it in horizontal position. At the same time, the audience begins to hear a fragment of the First Symphony by Lutoslawski, while the music of Penderecki disappears. A new image, a flower on a blurred background, is projected on the central panels. The actors, one by one, leave the stage. Karine Pierre and Jean Rochereau climb on a chair and then on a table, and begin to dance. The light of the projected image partly illuminates their bodies. Boris Sirdey takes the screen, previously moved by Vincent Joly, off the stage, while the audience hears a fragment of the Fourth Symphony by Tchaikovski, played with great intensity. A new image is projected on all the panels: leaves strongly shaken by the wind, their agitation increased by the camera’s movement. The spectator sees the actors moving and changing the scenery. The feeling of instability of the beginning disappears and a feeling of rapid movement ensues, produced by the image and the music. All the panels that closed the space at the beginning of the production have been removed, and the stage appears totally empty. All this first sequence lasts only about two minutes. The Tchaikovsky music lasts a few seconds more, separating the music from the image.

At the beginning of the first scene of Water Hen by Witkiewicz, the two main characters (played by Murielle Helary and Fosco Corliani) are at the rear of the stage. The actress begins to say the text as she is climbing on a plank that leads to the tables, on which the actress will play almost all the sequence. She walks, with her arms wide open and she speaks slowly. Her companion follows her, his body rigid. On her left, three actors (Vincent Joly, Jean Rochereau, and Boris Sirdey) are sitting motionless. Suddenly Boris Sirdey stands up, takes Murielle Helary in his arms, does a complete whirl and leaves her again on the plank. A few seconds later, Vincent Joly repeats this movement. Their dialogue, spoken slowly, has many long silences. The way the text is presented contradicts the urgency of her request to be killed by her companion. He refuses repeatedly. All the first scene of Water Hen is based on the recurrence of her request and his rejection, until he agrees finally and kills her.

The music is as complex as during the first two minutes, but it allows the audience to hear the text. Many different sounds are mixed together. Some disappear for a moment as other music or noise becomes more important. The spectators hear simultaneously the sound of leaves, a fragment of Scardanelli-Zyklus by Heinz Hollinger, and a succession of high and low-pitched sounds, which are birds’ songs that have been transformed. A repeated fragment of a quartet by Shostakovitch and another by Penderecki are added.

About a minute after the beginning of this sequence, Murielle Hélary and Fosco Corliani move from the rear stage to the front stage. Immediately a panel is moved behind her, enclosing the space; the lighting changes and the scenery is transformed. The audience hears a fragment of Moïse et Aron by Schoenberg repeated simultaneously with a chorus by Schubert. The light is rather cold and grey, except for a touch of colour on a door at the rear of the stage. It is a flickering light, from a video image transformed by François Fauvel, that gives a strange atmosphere to the stage.  The production continues until the end with similar complexity.

François Tanguy is the director, but the technicians of the production, such as Eric Goudard or François Fauvel, are much more than simple craftsmen and create important parts of the production. The density of the relations between the elements is the result of twelve months of intense work between the actors, the director and the technicians. Until the last few minutes the development remains unpredictable. This may be one of the mort important characteristics of the rehearsals of this group. When they begin their work, Tanguy brings some texts, some elements of the set have been selected, and some music, but they do not yet know what they are trying to find. They begin work and gradually find what they were looking for. The final production preserves the apparently haphazard development that never lets one know what is going to happen next. While many other companies tend to build an esthetic that is repeated in every production, each new production of the Théâtre du Radeau is a challenge, as it always involves a new creative direction, different from what they have previously done, and different from what has been done in general. Even today, after more than thirty years, it is still one of the most innovative groups in the European theatre.


Manuel García Martinez is Senior Lecturer in French Literature at the University of Santiago de Compostela. He wrote his Ph.D. in Drama Studies at University Paris 8. His research interests are time and rhythm in theatrical productions/performances and in dramatic texts, the French contemporary theatre ¬ especially the productions of the Theatre du Radeau -, and the Canadian theatre.


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