Journey to the Centre of the Sun

This article was originally published on London Theatre Blog on March 10 2010. An archive of that blog is available here.

18:30 – We’re standing outside the Centre Pompidou taking in the cool night air. We’ve spent three hours pouring over provocative imagery from influential female artists of the 20th century. Spirits are high and we’ve got an hour to get there. “Let’s go”, we say.

18:35 – We step into a side street bakery . The warm smell of yeast and dough takes reign of our senses. “Une tarte provençale s’il vous plait”. “Et avec ceci monsieur?” “Une bouteille d’Évian aussi”. Victuals are called for. The night, we sense, will be long.

18:45 – We pass through the man-sized gates of Metro station Châtelet Les Halles. Line number 1 , direction: Château de Vincennes.

19:00 – Message on the overhead PA system: “Pour des raisons techniques ce service terminera à Nation. Tous les voyageurs sont priés de descendre du train”. A technical fault on the train ahead. Is Paris the new London? We pile out at Nation. Only four stops away! At street level we decide to flag a taxi. “There’s still plenty of time, we’ll make it”.

19:05 – Still at Nation, hurling our arms in the air at anything resembling a cab.

19:10 – A taxi pulls up. The driver greets us with a wry remark: we’re one person over the legal carriage limit. Our collective will defeats his steely guard. “La Cartoucherie de Vincennes s’il vous plait”. “Il va falloir que vous me guidiez, parce que moi je connais pas uh…” Great, he’s never been to the Cartoucherie before. Neither have we. The car is full of silence and stares. Then my brother remembers the directions from the publicity flyer and off into the night we go!

19:20 – Stuck in traffic. An impenetrable sea of red lights and smoking exhaust pipes. The driver is talking to a colleague on his mobile phone, irritated by an unkept deal. A cultural debate rattles on the radio. The commentators dissect Tony Gatlif’s new film Liberté and its portrayal of Roma communities in Nazi-occupied France. I bite my nails. The others remain calm and still.

19:25 – The driver saunters down a boulevard. “Come on monsieur, peddle to the metal!” My thoughts shout out like megaphones. To my right, I see the Château de Vincennes towering over the surrounding woodland in all its medieval glory. “Oh, I think I know where it is”, pipes up the driver. The first positive note of the evening. We drive into the woods. No signs, no time, just keep going. Lights appear in the distance. We head towards the lights. Could this be it? We pass through an archway carved in an outer wall. “Yes! That’s it!”, we say.

19:30 – We race through the courtyard, no time to stop and stare at the extent of this former munitions factory. Above the entrance I catch the words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, and above that, purpose-made for the event: “Au Fol Espoir, Cabaret populaire, Salle de Théâtre, Concert et Cinématographe.” Here’s to mad hope? Indeed, indeed.

19:35 – We enter the legendary space. It’s a special moment for me. The sort of sentiment you’d expect on a pilgrimage. The front of house is vast. A long, sleek bar lies to the left, and there’s a dining area at centre. The space has been cleverly transformed to mirror the main locale of the play; a ginguette dressed in rich terracotta earth tones, fit for Jules Verne himself. My tarte provençale suddenly feels far less incongruous.

19:45 – Passing through the throng of punters, we make it to our seats. The auditorium is equally as vast as the front of house, more so with its steeply raked seating. The audience is ablaze, and no sooner have we settled in than Ariane Mnouchkine makes an appearance front of stage, unmistakable with that wild, wiry grey hair. Steadfast like a ship’s captain, she reassures the crowd that despite the delay, proceedings will commence in a few minutes time. Typical isn’t it? You move heaven and earth when you’re late for a show, and when you finally get there, it has been delayed.

19:50 – So this is it, 12 years after David Bradby uttered the words “Théâtre du Soleil” in his indelible French Theatre course, I’m finally here. The house lights dim, throats clear, rustles subside and so do all common notions of time…

Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir is a four-hour epic drama loosely based on Les Naufragés du Jonathan by the 19th century French author, Jules Verne. It marks the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between co-author Hélène Cixous, musician Jean-Jacques Lemêtre, and the 40-strong Soleil collective, led by its industrious artistic director, Ariane Mnouchkine.

Riding on the wave of post-1968 left-wing political fervour, Mnouchkine arrived at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, former munitions factory turned theatre village, in July 1970 and shortly after produced the company’s celebrated reworking of the French Revolution, 1789Théâtre du Soleil has lived and worked in this large-scale complex ever since; practicing a much-noted communal repartition of tasks, roles and livelihood. Traces of 1789’s anarchic-revolutionary theme appear in Verne’s novel and are brought to the fore once more in Fol Espoir through a series of ingenious and reverberant framing devices.

The play opens in early 1914 at the dawn of Europe’s descent into autocratic turmoil. Félix, the proud owner of a Parisian ‘guingette’ called “Le Fol Espoir”, harbours a breakaway film crew in the bar’s dusty attic. Led by director Jean la Palette, the socialist splinter group – formerly workers in a national film company – put the new refuge straight to use. Jean rallies bar staff and crew alike to work on a film (silent of course) that chronicles the voyage of European migrants as they set sail from Cardiff in 1895 in search of new utopian beginnings.

The company has gone to painstaking lengths to recreate the atmosphere of early film making. This largely experimental process provides an apt canvas for the ensemble to bring its own rehearsal methodology into play as sets are wheeled in and out, ’special effects’ including fan-powered gale force winds and an arctic blizzard devised through a system of ropes and pullies are worked out in real time, and mistakes and retakes are brought to bear. Mnouchkine’s mastery of space and mise-en-scène, drawing on Franco-Italian slapstick and declamatory traditions, maintains buoyancy and cadence of action, keeping actors and audience focused throughout.

We follow the Cardiff expedition on its voyage across treacherous seas until its demise at Cape Horn, shipwrecked near the Tierra Del Fuego. Onboard is a rag-tag party of passengers, a panoply of political caricatures from staunch mercantilists to utopian Marxists, colonialists, philantropists, univeralists, a Sicilian family out for a fresh start and young lovers romance-bound. Their dialogue streams across a digital read-out creating a reflexive though sometimes tiresome rift in audience proximity to movement, gesture and written language; and the whole is played out against Lemêtre’s spirited musical score.

Present day (1914) interludes fill the gaps between film takes and drive a foreboding (spoken) narrative as the drums of an imminent all-out war begin to beat. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo sends shockwaves through Le Fol Espoir as does the death of Jean Jaurès. Gradually the sense of uninhibited human potential begins to wane in both time frames and one begins to question who these shipwrecked souls really are – these naufragés of mad hope – if not ourselves, holed up in asylums of the mind, forever making and breaking, forever searching for a way out. Perhaps in a rare moment of self-critique, Mnouchkine comments here on the challenge of reconciling a particular socio-political stance; erecting a barrage in the face of a spectacular landscape, as Guy Debord would have it, in which the ‘central question’ – ‘Capitalism or Socialism?’ – ‘can no longer be posed “honestly and openly.”‘ Would Ségolène Royal really have made that much difference?

Despondency is never an endnote for the Théâtre du Soleil, because like the ancient sun whence the company derives its name, this is a theatre that celebrates the vitality of life in all aspects of its work. So as four hours of unforgettable drama bowed to the sound of rapturous applause and a standing ovation, the ensemble could be found, as is customary at the Cartoucherie, already tending to house affairs, already preparing for the next step.

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