Avignon festival: the biggest theatre in the world

Flyers which take up miles of wall space for the Avignon Festival.
Flyers which take up miles of wall space for the Avignon Festival.

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With a programme nicknamed ‘The Bible’ consisting of 396 pages, the town of Avignon welcomes approximately 3500 performers, sells over 120,000 tickets, and dedicates 13.3 million euros, for one of the largest performing arts festivals in the whole of Europe, if not the world. This year, the former home to the Pope continues to present some of the finest displays of theatrical excellence in all its forms. From the traditional depictions of Shakespeare and Molière to contemporary imaginings by the new and the edgy, Avignon provides the public with a completely all-encompassing experience of the dramatic world.

When I arrived in the town the first thing I noticed were the walls, buildings, bicycles and trees, which were covered in placards advertising every imaginable kind of show. The colour and vibrancy of the family friendly pantomime flyers in stark contrast with the dark, blood-smattered poster for Macbeth, revealed the breadth of performing styles instantly.

Walking down to my first theatre of choice I was inundated with publicity. The people weren’t just handing out paper; they would explain their performance, passionately. This passion never subsided, as I explored the town and the festival’s offerings from ten in the morning until seven in the evening. Not once did these soldiers of the stage falter in their dedication to their offering. The day went on and I began to attend more performances, from the officially ticketed to the unofficial ‘spectacles de la rue’.  I became more and more determined to see as much as I could.

I saw my favourite performance of the day by chance: King Lear Fragments performed by the Collectif Mains d’Œuvre. Adapted into a show of one hour and 15 minutes, Frédéric Fialon’s Shakespearean creation was performed with outrageous tragedy and subtle humour by himself and Jérôme Kocaoglu. The physically and vocally demanding performance utterly surrounded the audience, leaving every set of eyes transfixed on the stage.

While some performances were inhibited by the challenges of travelling theatre, the simple staging, music and lighting only added to the intense atmosphere that the actor’s expressive and acrobatic tones created, producing a work of simple genius. Although many translated works suffer from a loss of flow and sentiment, the bard’s work was handled delicately and maintained the intensity of the play.

A mime artist and other street performers partake in street entertainment for Avignon festival.
A mime artist and other street performers partake in street entertainment for the Avignon festival.

The true success of Avignon lies in the unbridled and unashamed love that all those involved hold for theatre. Performers attend from all over the world, many to perform free of charge in the street. Mime artists, ballerinas and a can-canning string orchestra laced the streets and entertained the expecting public.

The true success of Avignon lies in the unbridled and unashamed love that all those involved hold for theatre

This year marks the 50th anniversary of ‘Le Off’, the accompanying fringe festival to the original Avignon festival, which optimises this enduring devotion to the arts. There are 3000 innovative, budding performers who attend in conjunction with the festival and unveil their works in a further 100 venues, having self-funded their way to Avignon. Yet another sign that Avignon is a thriving symbol of theatre.

This is simply my own opinion of the festival. The community spirit enveloping the festival and all its attendees, performers and spectators alike, did not make it difficult to find out a more universal view of the experience, as it truly was an experience. I asked, in fumbled French, the old, the young, the costumed and the sunburnt what Avignon symbolised for them. Why did they think it was so important? It was a French actor, riding on his bicycle and publicising his ‘Off’ performance Au bout du comptoir, la mer! that embodied what everyone was saying. He said that is was ‘L’imagination. C’est l’imagination de tout le monde ici ma Chérie.” (Imagination. It is the imagination of everyone here my sweet). So utterly French and so utterly true.

The Avignon festival is all-encompassing. You enter a place completely dedicated to the theatrical arts. Before I arrived in Avignon it had been likened to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. High praise, but not high enough. It goes further and, in my eyes, reaches a higher standard of performing arts. It is not just for the passionate theatre lover, it welcomes everybody and provides a show of excellence for every individual. It creates intimacy in its enormity and remains an emblem of theatrical happiness.

The Avignon Festival is on until 25 July, whilst ‘Le Off’ is on until 26 July. 

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