Wilson, 1914. Photo: Opera de Reims.
Volume 10

War Remembered On Stage As Reims Stages Europe: Festival Report

The following reports back on the 2015 edition of the Reims Scènes d’Europe (literally: Reims Stages Europe) theatre festival, which has grown to become a leading counterpoint to the more established summer gathering at Avignon. The 2015 festival was particularly memorable for two reasons: one, it took place a month after the Charlie Hebdo attacks; and two, it was part of the memorial celebrations for World War I. On the opening night, two contrasting shows were on offer: Ludovic Lagarde’s staging of La Baraque [The Pad], a new play by Aiat Fayez fittingly commissioned as part of the European anti-terrorism cultural initiative; and Luk Perceval’s Front. In one, the audience is invited to consider recent events through the lens of slapstick humour; the other returns to the Western front of 100 years ago. The contrast between the two productions on offer raises an issue that will traverse the whole festival. How might, on the one hand, distance be created in the presentation of recent events, and, on the other, events far-removed in the past be brought closer to contemporary audiences?

Homemade Terrorism

Fayez’s play, La Baraque, tells the classic story of two losers who hit upon a moneymaking scheme. Petit and Grand [“little” and “big”] decide to bomb a shoemaker whom they blame for an accident which has left Petit badly disfigured. Following the success, if one can call it that, of the attack, they are approached by various brokers and intermediaries to make bombs for their clients. Petit and Grand accept, showing little interest in how they will be used (“we don’t do politics”), just as long as children are not involved. Their improvised business takes off, and gradually they recruit more staff as their work grows. By the end of the play, they have moved into the business of making chemical bombs, as well as protective gas masks that are cynically designed to always be one generation behind. Though the moral of the play is somewhat facile – war and capitalism go hand in hand – it does bring home the fact that France is one of the leading exporters of arms, and that mafia and terrorist networks are interconnected.

Aiat Fayez, La Baraque. Photo: Pascal Gely.

Appropriately for a play about a couple of lads who start a bomb factory, the venue chosen to stage La Baraque is the Atelier, a converted workshop. On stage, a wall has been built out of real bricks and mortar but looks surprisingly fake. A door, a window, a fridge and a leather couch: this could almost be the set of Friends or a similar sitcom—though given the theme, Breaking Bad might be a more appropriate reference. This impression is reinforced via music used to fill brutal cuts between scenes. However, unlike in theses television series, the actors in the play wear animal masks; whenever the fridge door is opened, music blasts out; and characters are just as likely to walk through the door of the set as to ignore the conventions set up by the staging and enter from the side. Also, news bulletins about the bombings interrupt the action, bringing home memories of watching cities around the world being bombed on 24-hour news channels. These intrusions act as a reminder that terrorist groups broadcast their messages via the TV screens. In this regard, the production successfully raised questions about relaying news of terrorism in the media. It provided the means to begin to laugh at contemporary events.

Back to Front

In the cold main auditorium of the Comédie de Reims, there are more sober proceedings than in the Atelier. It is like an after party in which Europe has been ripped apart. The actors’ shirts are unbuttoned and they looked unkempt, haggard. Images of soldiers are projected on the wall of what appears to be a dimly-lit hanger. Through the reading of poems and letters of men and women from different sides in the Great War, cross-European suffering comes to the fore. Who are these choral souls on stage? They appear to be creations born out of the suffering inflicted on bodies and minds during the war, and yet it appears that there is nothing more human than these bodies.

Luk Purceval, Front. Photo: Armin Smallovic.

The versatility of the performers is particularly remarkable. The polyphonic nature of this European war comes across very strongly. It is not about a single country’s experience but about suffering across the board. Its performance by a Belgian company serves as a reminder that Belgium is not so far away and that its fields were also torn apart. What doesn’t work is the fact that we have heard these reproaches before about the folly of war, of this war, and thus the performance begins to look like a museum installation. Indeed, coming out of the performance, I am wondering whether it is still possible to speak meaningfully about WWI on stage. Perhaps we need another way of making these events seem closer to us.

Shared Experience

After Front, I retreat from the trenches, only to return a few days later to watch three other shows on offer at the festival. Yael Ronen’s Common Ground brings together performers from diverse backgrounds: five immigrants from the former republic of Yugoslavia, an Israeli, and a German. Together they embark on a journey to find out what happened during the war that tore up the Balkans in the 1990s. Through personal histories and humor, they explore complicated geopolitics and how they intertwine with their own complicated personal histories. The performance begins with a playful monologue by the Israeli performer about how people assume that she is an expert on conflicts because of her nationality. The German performer interrupts and talks about how for once the Germans were not to blame in the war in the Balkans, which he finds a cause for rejoicing. Then follows a sequence where in the manner of a 24-hour TV channel, war reports are juxtaposed with showbiz news and stories about the actors growing up in the 1990s. This brings home the point that the Balkans war received considerable coverage in the news.

Yael Ronen, Common Ground. Photo: Maxim Gorki Theater.

The cast further develop this point when describing how they stayed at the same hotel that journalists stayed in during the war. At the time, journalists reportedly liked the hotel because they could step out into the fighting. When Hans-Thies Lehmann, in his 2006 book Postdramatic Theatre, defined the narration of post-dramatic theatre as focusing on the personal, he might well have been talking about talking about this show: the performers gleefully shout out through megaphones and assemble and disassemble wooden boxes which metaphorically contain their memories. The production explores the idea of taking sides as one of the performers is the daughter of a war criminal and another a daughter of a victim. When the team go to meet a lady who has set up a charity that looks after rape victims, the Serbian member of the cast feels that he is made to carry the burden of all his national crimes, while at the same time wanting to cry out that his own family were also victims. The difference between WWI or WWII and this war is that there were no clearly demarcated sides.

Inglorious Death

We return to WWI with The Rise of Glory, for which director and performer Mikaël Serre delved into his own family history to provide the dramaturgical matter. Serre’s great uncle, a pilot in the Great War, was killed in Alsace while on a reconnaissance mission, a month after the armistice. In some ways, the absurdity of the sacrifice came even more to the fore through this post-war death. Serre delves into correspondence between his great uncle and his grandmother to bring out different experiences of war. The fact that his grandmother stayed at home and went to school while his great uncle was on the battlefield was poignant.

Mikaël Serre, The Rise of Glory. Photo: Ute Lang.

What really works is how Serre helps the audience relate to the heroics of the generation that fought during WWI. The performance begins with the film of a young boy playing a video game at the airport—a reminder that military engineering brought about developments in the realms of civil aviation. Later, a video game sequence with a fighter plane of the same model as the one flown by Serre’s great uncle is projected. This is how people today relate to fighting. I also think that in the age of cyber-warfare, if ever conscription were to occur again, a certain percentage of people would be recruited to pilot drones and other machines in this way. Serre looks for a gas mask on Ebay and has exchanges with various people on forums devoted to WWI. However, perhaps the most enlightening moment is when he visits the battlefields at Verdun, “the town of peace,”and with clownish delight runs up and down the grass-covered craters. Serre’s piece works by establishing a personal connection with events that occurred so long ago that the emotional connection has been lost for many people.

The Fart of War

The last show of the festival, 1914, Robert Wilson’s adaptation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, was arguably the most eagerly awaited. 1914 is a sort of expressionist cabaret that is partially indebted to burlesque and partially to American forms of entertainment. In the opening sequence, before the fairy-lit curtain depicting the theatre in Prague where the play premiered, the actors run across stage in to line up, bump into each other, and make fart jokes. A conductor leads the dance and an elderly photographer brings proceedings to a halt. A lady resembling a pantomime witch appears from a trap at the front of the stage to gleefully deliver bad news in German, such as the rising body count. Wilson takes us to a nightmarish set-up where everything is in two dimensions. The set is geometrical, black and white lines draw windows and other shapes as the characters move from a brothel to an officers’ mess.

Robert Wilson, 1914. Photo: Opera de Reims.

The military review, the parade of the circus actors, the fart jokes of war: this is what Wilson’s production is about. Most notable is a sequence in which conscripts attempt to fail the medical, but just as in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, there appears that there is no way out. The more they complain they are not fit for service, the more they are deemed fit. The different bodies of the actors were also brought into focus and the older members of the cast brought a touch of senility to proceedings. It brought home ideas about how the war was directed by old fools back home. There are “classic” references to the hospital and to the insanity of war, but they are treated with distance and humor. Perhaps this is the most Brechtian and Marxist of the performances: when history repeats itself, it is a farce.

Estrangement Effect

Driving back to Paris and crossing the battlefields again one last time, I’m thinking that the most effective shows were those in which humor was used as a weapon to challenge our relationship with the past, even the very recent past. Indeed, the rituals of remembrance are best left to the speeches of politicians and museums. The theatre, on the other hand, can be the space in which we question this heritage through other means and hopefully shift our perception of these events. In 2017, it is worth remembering that theatre can help reconsider history and current events, especially at a time when France’s state-subsidized theatre system seems to be disregarded, despised even, by the President and the government.

Dominic Glynn is Lecturer in French Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London,  His book (Re)telling Old Stories discusses the work of Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine.

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European Stages, vol. 10, no. 1 (Fall 2017)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Kalina Stefanova, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Taylor Culbert, Managing Editor

Nick Benacerraf, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams
Christopher Balme
Maria Delgado
Allen Kuharsky
Bryce Lease
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
Magda Romańska
Laurence Senelick
Daniele Vianello
Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. The 2017 Avignon Festival: July 6 – 26, Witnessing Loss, Displacement, and Tears by Philippa Wehle
  2. A Reminder About Catharsis: Oedipus Rex by Rimas Tuminas, A Co-Production of the Vakhtangov Theatre and the National Theatre of Greece by Dmitry Trubochkin
  3. The Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2017 in Brussels by Manuel Garcia Martinez
  4. A Female Psychodrama as Kitchen Sink Drama: Long Live Regina! in Budapest by Gabriella Schuller
  5. Madrid’s Theatre Takes Inspiration from the Greeks by Maria Delgado
  6. A (Self)Ironic Portrait of the Artist as a Present-Day Man by Maria Zărnescu
  7. Throw The Baby Away With the Bath Water?: Lila, The Child Monster of The B*easts by Shastri Akella
  8. Report from Switzerland by Marvin Carlson
  9. A Cruel Theatricality: An Essay on Kjersti Horn’s Staging of the Kaos er Nabo Til Gud (Chaos is the Neighbour of God) by Eylem Ejder
  10. Szabolcs Hajdu & the Theatre of Midlife Crisis: Self-Ironic Auto-Bio Aesthetics on Hungarian Stages by Herczog Noémi
  11. Love Will Tear Us Apart (Again): Katie Mitchell Directs Genet’s Maids by Tom Cornford
  12. 24th Edition of Sibiu International Theatre Festival: Spectacular and Memorable by Emiliya Ilieva
  13. Almagro International Theatre Festival: Blending the Local, the National and the International by Maria Delgado
  14. Jess Thom’s Not I & the Accessibility of Silence by Zoe Rose Kriegler-Wenk
  15. Theatertreffen 2017: Days of Loops and Fog by Lily Kelting
  16. War Remembered Onstage at Reims Stages Europe: Festival Report by Dominic Glynn



Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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