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Contemporary theatre comes to Basel

A scene from "Tambours sur la Digue" by the French director, Ariane Mnouchkine. Theatre Festival Basel

Organisers of the Theatre Festival Basel, which begins on Thursday, are proud of the fact that their event is not the largest in Switzerland. They say it is an indication that quality, not quantity, is what counts.

This content was published on August 22, 2000 - 10:45

That assessment appears to be borne out by the fact that many productions have already been sold out for weeks.

Among them is the festival's opening play, "Tambours sur la Digue" by the renowned French director, Ariane Mnouchkine. For the past 36 years, Mnouchkine and her "Théatre du Soleil" have been blazing a new trail in French theatre.

"Tambours sur la Digue" is their latest production and is being presented outside Paris for the first time. Set in ancient China, it tells the story of two leaders so entrenched in their rivalry that they fail to heed warnings about a dam bursting, with the result that thousands of people die.

The influential French dancer and choreographer, Josef Nadj, is also attracting widespread interest. He is present in Basel with two productions, "Les Veilleurs" and "Le Temps du Repli".

The French are well represented at this year's Theatre Festival Basel, but it is a truly international event with productions from South Africa, Argentina, Bulgaria, Belgium, Germany, Britain and, of course, Switzerland.

"The idea is to give the audience here a chance to see what is going on in contemporary theatre in other countries, in other languages and in other cultures," says festival director, Christoph Stratenwerth. "We want to show audiences that there's a lot of interesting work going on that they wouldn't have a chance to see without a festival like this."

Nevertheless, the Swiss productions are still among the most popular. Tickets have been selling fast, and one of the final performances of the festival, "Bildbeschreibung/Hyperion" by the "Théatre Vidy" in Lausanne, is sold out, as are some of the performances of "Phaidros Rave" by local director, Stephan Müller.

Stratenwerth knows all the productions being presented at the two-week festival. He says he would never book a company without first seeing their work. "I have to see the stuff, otherwise I can't sell it," he told swissinfo.

"Sometimes I observe companies for years before I decide to invite them - and I invite them only when I'm sure that the company is going to survive the experience."

Stratenwerth says many festivals invite companies whose performances do not come up to audience's high expectations.

"They expect to be deeply touched emotionally. They expect to understand the piece and they expect to be invited to see the world in a way they have never done before."

Stratenwerth is happy for the Theatre Festival Basel to remain number two in size behind the Zurich theatre festival. This year's event, the fifth since it began in 1991, features 12 groups, 13 productions and 58 performances over 18 days. For Stratenwerth, that's enough.

"If we became bigger we would lose the personal touch the festival still has. It would change the character of the festival and make it too much like what big cities have. Twelve to 14,000 spectators is fine for a city like Basel."

swissinfo with agencies

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