(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/30; Photograph: Kaori Ito in “The Damask Drum” during the abbreviated “A Week of Art in Avignon.” Credit…Christophe Raynaud de Lage; via Pam Green.)
Delayed from the summer, France’s biggest stage celebration was further curtailed as restrictions again hit the country. That made the moments of grace that were possible all the more powerful.
AVIGNON, France — Festivalgoers who cross the medieval ramparts of Avignon are used to being greeted with a riot of activity. Every July, thousands of posters cover the city’s walls to advertise stage productions as the official Avignon Festival and its Fringe compete for attention. Seemingly every street corner brings hopeful performers ready to pitch their work to passers-by, day and night.
Not this year. Like so many other events, France’s biggest theater celebration was canceled because of the pandemic, leaving the city and local businesses with a major revenue shortfall. As some consolation, the director of the festival, Olivier Py, rescheduled seven of the productions originally planned for the 2020 edition over a week in late October.
The name he picked for this surrogate festival had historical resonance: “A Week of Art in Avignon” was the event’s original moniker upon its inception in 1947. At the time, its founder, Jean Vilar, staged just three productions around the city. While many of this year’s attendees could be heard complaining about the dullness of Avignon in the fall, the low-key atmosphere was certainly much closer to Vilar’s vision than the juggernaut — over 1,500 Fringe productions were presented last year — that usually overwhelms locals.
Still, looking back, Py and his team are likely to curse their timing. With confirmed Covid-19 cases surging again in France, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was announced in the region of Avignon the day before the Week of Art was to start. Like most theaters in Paris and other major cities, the festival opted to work around the regulations. All start times were simply moved forward by three hours, to allow audience members time to get home before curfew started.
It wasn’t enough for some shows. First, one production, Yngvild Aspeli’s “Moby Dick,” was canceled when a case of coronavirus was confirmed in the creative team. Then, midway through the week, the French government announced a new nationwide lockdown, meaning that the festival was cut short.
Yet some live shows did happen, across multiple venues in Avignon. Perhaps any review should include a mention of the herculean amount of planning, precautions and uncertainty that getting to the stage currently involves. Critics would be remiss to ignore the wider theater landscape: When an industry is fighting for survival, the aesthetic shortcomings of a lighting choice start to seem less consequential.