At Théâtre du Soleil the cast and crew all earn the same modest wage and plays are forged over months of painstaking rehearsal. Now France’s most
radical theatre company is coming to Edinburgh
Juliana Carneiro da Cunha is having her hair done; a pigtail lies prone on the dressing table in front of her. There are bowls of hairclips and safety pins, tufts of cotton wool and assorted make-up brushes. Postcards are tucked into the mirror, strings of beads are slung over its corners. At the dressing table to Carneiro da Cunha’s right - one of perhaps 30 in this huge, vaulted space lined with racks of clothes and dotted with polystyrene heads modelling wigs of every colour and shape - a woman sticks large, fuzzy sideburns to her face.
Carneiro da Cuhna, who is getting ready to play Madame Gabrielle, her role in Théâtre du Soleil’s Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores), in English, The Castaways of the Mad Hope (Sunrises) is telling me the story of the first time she entered this building in La Cartoucherie, once a munitions factory nestled in the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern side of Paris, “invaded” in 1970 by Ariane Mnouchkine founder of the legendary Théâtre du Soleil. It was 1976, Carneiro da Cuhna was studying dance in Brussels. She’d heard of Mnouchkine’s company and her style of experimental theatre so she came to see it for herself.
“I saw L’Age d’Or,” she says as the pigtail is pinned in place. “It was a play in which they were wearing the masks of commedia dell’arte. The stage was not a stage it was dunes of sand. The audience was up on top of the dunes and then down and the actors were up on top of the dunes and then down. It was really something. At the end the sun started to rise and I was transported utterly. I felt as though a night had passed, that it really was morning.” She grips her arm and shows me the goosebumps and smiles.
“I said someday I’m going to be part of this company, I’m going to belong to this place. It was very, very strong.” Fourteen years later, Carneiro da Cunha went back to La Cartoucherie to participate in a workshop and some months later was called to audition for Théâtre du Soleil’s production of Clytemnestra. She was 40. That was 22 years ago.
“It’s a dream come true,” she says, turning to face me. “It really is.”
Less than an hour before Carneiro da Cunha told me this story I was standing on a Paris street, outside a metro station in spitting summer rain. The distance to La Cartoucherie was five short minutes in a car along the wide roads of the Bois de Vincennes, but the journey felt more significant. La Cartoucherie is special. It is more than a raggle taggle collection of buildings, workshops and rehearsal spaces, kitchens and offices. It’s more than an artistic community, with people from all over the world, including several young Afghan families, one with a baby that gets passed around and dandled on various knees during the communal meals that are eaten in a beautiful space filled with trestle tables and benches. Renowned writer and theorist Hélène Cixous, a towering figure in French intellectual life and along time friend and collaborator of Mnouchkine’s describes Théâtre du Soleil as being “like a country, like a state or a nation, a tribe”. She’s right, that is how it feels - as though it is its own entity, slightly apart from everything around it, a place where something impossible happens.
And yet, to suggest that Théâtre du Soleil is isolated, or dislocated from the rest of the world, isn’t right. For nearly five decades - they will celebrate their 50th anniversary on 29 May, 2014 - through their epic theatrical productions, which blend Eastern and Western traditions, reimagine Shakespeare and Homer and Aeschylus, Théâtre du Soleil has somehow remained committed to the utopian notion of theatre as an embodiment of political and ethical concerns. It’s a commitment that is evident in their performances, but it’s also an indelible part of how they work.
Each production that Théâtre du Soleil undertakes is expedition, with its cargo of mercantilists and Marxists, colonialists, philanthropists and young lovers to its demise at Cape Horn, as the ship is wrecked in the treacherous waters near the Tierra Del Fuego. The play is a story of hope and thwarted idealism, the excitement of an age of technical innovation cast against the impending destruction of world war. It is the culmination of a collaboration between Cixous, musician Jean-Jacques Lemêtre, and the 40-strong Soleil collective, led by Mnouchkine. The idea came when Mnouchkine and Carneiro da Cunha were in Oxford.
“Ariane bought a little book in a market,” she says. “She loves to read. And she was taken by this little book, it was by Jules Verne. She called Hélène Cixous and they started talking. The book came to Ariane’s hands, she didn’t look for it.” a process that involves all members of the company. Mnouchkine may have the first idea, which she then discusses with Cixous, who begins to write the script, but it is in the often year-long rehearsal period during which the members of the company try out various parts to find which ones suit them, then improvise and create their characters, researching the world in which they live, building the sets they will inhabit and making the costumes which they’ll wear that the work really comes into being.
“Little by little things come,” says Carneiro da Cunha. “We make propositions, Ariane gives back another, we give back another. That’s how it works. We have to be very creative, we have to use much imagination. We have to be quite brave because we have to try, we have to propose things even if they’re not going to work. We have to propose without any vanity.”
There are more than 70 members of Théâtre du Soleil. They each earn the same salary: the actors, the technicians, the composer-musicians and Mnouchkine. The salary is modest and from time to time, some company members claim unemployment benefit to see them through. Cixous describes this as “a sacrifice”, tolerable only because they perceive themselves to be something other than workers. According to her they are, “dreamers who have a profession. Professional dreamers”.
Later this month, the company is bringing to edinburgh, Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir, a four-hour epic drama based on Les Naufragés du Jonathan, a novel by the 19th-century French author Jules Verne, which was published after his death. The play opens in early 1914 as the belle époque draws to a close and the dawn of Europe’s descent into war looms like storm clouds. Félix, the owner of a Parisian “guingette”, Le Fol Espoir, harbours a film crew in the bar’s attic from where director Jean La Palette, requisitions bar staff and crew to work on a silent film chronicling the voyage of European migrants as they set sail from Cardiff in 1895 in search of new utopian beginnings.
The play follows the expedition, with its cargo of mercantilists and Marxists, colonialists, philanthropists and young lovers to its demise at Cape Horn, as the ship is wrecked in the treacherous waters near the Tierra Del Fuego.
The play is a story of hope and thwarted idealism, the excitement of an age of technical innovation cast against the impending destruction of world war. It is the culmination of a collaboration between Cixous, musician Jean-Jacques Lemêtre, and the 40-strong Soleil collective, led by Mnouchkine. The idea came when Mnouchkine and Carneiro da Cunha were in Oxford.
“Ariane bought a little book in a market,” she says. “She loves to read. And she was taken by this little book, it was by Jules Verne. She called Hélène Cixous and they started talking. The book came to Ariane’s hands, she didn’t look for it.”
In an elegant flat some way across Paris, with a balcony full of flowers in bloom and a cat sleeping soundly in a puddle of sun, Hélène Cixous is preparing coffee. A renowned writer, playwright, theorist and critic, Cixous has published major theoretical works as well as more than 30 works of fiction. A participant in the events of 1968, Cixous collaborated with luminaries such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. She has been working with Théâtre du Soleil for 40 years.
As she pours the coffee, I ask if reworking a Jules Verne novel was what she had imagined for her next project with Mnouchkine?
“It wasn’t at all,” she says, “it was the usual way - Ariane calls me and says we’re going to do a play and as usual it was very political but we had to find a metaphor.” Cixous worked for three months and was in the middle of finding her way to the metaphor, when her phone rang again. It was Mnouchkine asking her to read the Jules Verne novel.
“I said no, I can’t. I have no time. I’m in the middle of writing a scene. So she gave up. And then a few days later she asked again if I’d looked at it and I said no but I started to wonder why she was being so insistent. You know, it always turns out this way, we start left and suddenly we’re going right.”
Cixous read the book and realised immediately how rich it could be. For some months, Cixous worked with Mnouchkine who was on tour in Brazil, discussing on skype what they imagined they might do with the story.
“We invented one or two hundred characters,” she says .”Then the boat sinks and only 40 survive.”
The company began working on Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir on February 8, 2009. By March of that year they were rehearsing and 11 months later they were ready to unveil what they had created. Duccio Bellugi Vannuccini plays Monsier Tomaso, an actor in the film who plays an array of other characters, not least Charles Darwin. Beluggi Vannuccini arrived at La Cartoucherie 25 years ago. Before that he had trained with Pina Bausch and studied mime with Marcel Marceau. He did workshops twice before he got into the company.
“When you see a show here you are totally impregnated with all of this,” he wafts his hand around him, a make-up sponge gripped in his fingers, half his nose white like plaster, the other half unpainted. “It’s not just a show; it’s a whole life.”
He explains that being a member of Théâtre du Soleil is demanding because of the levels of involvement required to make the work in the way they do, working over many months to discover the story they want to tell. I wonder how it is that they keep their sense of where they are headed during this period of time and if it is the presence of Mnouchkine, the belief that she is guiding them, that keeps them going?
“We have total faith in Ariane, she doesn’t hide anything from us,” he says. “She will say ‘I don’t know. Let’s search in this direction or that direction.’ We are in the same situation. It’s not that we don’t know or do know, it’s that we feel or we don’t feel anything. And if we don’t feel anything then we have to calm down and listen and receive as much as possible. The images come back and the road becomes clearer.”
Listening is perhaps the pre-eminent skill in Théâtre du Soleil it seems.
“I think it should be important in life in general. In politics in particular.” He laughs wryly. “But for theatre it is absolutely essential; to listen and believe who the other person is and what they are doing or saying.”
Olivia Corsini joined the company ten years ago. Like the others she came first to do a workshop. From that, through a process that took three months, during which 80 people were whittled down to 12, she became a member. In Les Naufragés she plays Mademoiselle Marguerite, who plays several other roles in the film. For Corsini, it’s not only the way that Mnouchkine encourages the actors to create their own characters which works, but the company’s relationship with its devoted audience.
“We have a very beautiful relationship with the public,” Corsini says. “In the middle of the creation [the rehearsal period] we have a party, a dinner, that is open to the public and we speak about what we’re trying to do. It’s so touching because every two or three years we see the same people who come here to find out what we’re doing. You have the sensation that they come with a lot of respect, they’re looking for the house of the magician. Expectations are very big. That’s very touching.”
Cixous, too, recognises the uniqueness of Théâtre du Soleil and what it does. I ask how she would describe what it has given her?
“I can’t sum it up. It belongs to the rivers of my life. First of all, it was unexpected. I hated the theatre as it existed, not the place but the way theatre was produced. It’s only because of Ariane that I thought I could do something in that field. And then, of course, it has become part of my life. So, what it’s given me is a blessing because the Théâtre du Soleil has what a writer can never expect, especially a writer of texts such as mine which are very exacting, that is a direct connection to a living audience which immediately reacts. That is extraordinary.”
It has also, she says, allowed her to be even more demanding in her other work. “I can write books and texts that are receivable only by the happy few as Stendhal says, that is those who are learned, who are not afraid of reading a difficult text. Since I have been working the Théâtre du Soleil for 40 years, I don’t know what would’ve become of me if I had not had this part of my writing. Maybe I would’ve compromised. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.
“I think it’s a piece of luck that we’ve found one another. It means giving up part of the privileges of being a writer - the writer usually is sovereign and of course here it is the contrary.” She laughs.
Outside La Cartoucherie clusters of actors sit at picnic tables drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Olivia Corsini is amongst them. Maybe it’s because I’m leaving that I ask her if she can imagine a time when she will?
“Ten years here changes your life,” she says, “changes the way you see you can make theatre.” She pauses and laughs. “I think it’s a hard question. Of course we wonder about the future. We are actors so want to work with other people and try other experiences. But I think that it can be very hard to leave here, to leave this little paradise.”
• Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores) is at Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, 23-28 August (not 26), 6pm, for tickets, £30-£35, tel: 0131-473 2000, www.eif.co.uk
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West