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Mnouchkine delights festival audience with new acting method

A scene from "Tambours sur la Digue". Michèle Laurent

French director Ariane Mnouchkine's "Tambours sur la Digue" has been one of the hits at the Basel Theatre Festival. The spectacular production blends a simple story, an innovative method of acting, a rigid setting, and an intriguing musical performance.

In her 35-year career as one of the world’s most innovative theatre producers and directors, Ariane Mnouchkine has often worked with modern texts that are nonetheless faithful to the classic genre of the tragedy. In “Tambours sur la Digue” (Drummers on the Dyke) her Paris-based Théatre du Soleil stages a text by Hélène Cisoux, a feminist author and theorist who has collaborated with Mnouchkine before.

Cisoux’ story, set in ancient China, centres on humans who suffer under what they see as a trial by the Gods, and who have to make stark moral decisions.

A river flood, the worst in the century, threatens the kingdom, but by cutting through the dyke at an appropriate point the capital city can be saved – at the expense of tens of thousands of peasants. The crisis brings to light conflicts between commercial and humanitarian interests, and between the powerful city and the peasantry.

However, this simple story is only one of many elements that have made “Tambours sur la Digue” a triumphant success with critics and the public alike since it opened in Paris last year. What moves the audience is the combination of story, a highly stylised method of acting, a unique musical experience that underlies the whole performance, and the stage setting.

In staging “Tambours sur la Digue” at the Basel Theatre Festival, the Théatre du Soleil were performing the play outside their own Parisian venue for the first time and as one of only two international performances. The ensemble of more than 30 actors brought their whole original set including the seating for an audience of more than 500 with them to the Reithalle space of the Kaserne arts centre, housed in what used to be a nineteenth century military barracks by the Rhine.

The set is simple and needs almost no technical gadgets. Gangplanks that correspond with the wooden ramps for the audience structure the stage. Built into the formidable Reithalle setting, it allows spectators to feel part of the performance – an idea central to Mnouchkine’s theatrical concept. The backdrop to the stage is made of silk drapes painted in Oriental style.

“Tambours sur la Digue” draws from the art of Japanese Nô theatre, whose actors lend voice and movement to human-size puppets. However, Mnouchkine replaces the puppets with real actors.

Like the puppets in the Nô tradition, which Mnouchkine studied during an intensive tour through East Asia, half the actors, wearing masks and colourful costumes, are moved and sometimes half-carried along stage by their “handlers”, who are uniformly clad in black. This highly effective technique allows the “puppet” actors to walk and turn lightly – in fact, like puppets – and confuses the audience who never know whether the characters are moving or are being moved.

It also allows the actors sometimes to highlight the dramatic moments of the play, and to deliver studies in detail. For instance, actors really fold up like puppets, sometimes painstakingly slowly, when changing from a standing into a sitting position or vice-versa.

A similar perfection is reached with the interplay of on-scene movements with the music of Jean-Jacques Lemêtre coming from a small live band on the edge of the stage which uses 100 different instruments, some of them extremely rare, throughout the three-hour performance.

Since Mnouchkine’s theory of the theatre opposes realism – theatre should not reflect reality but truth, she has said repeatedly – adapting the Nô theatre to a Western tradition allowed her to find a new method to lay a distance between actors and their characters and thus realise her theory on stage.

by Markus Haefliger

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