Springtime for comedians is back! After two years of pandemic, a cancellation in 2020 and a reduced-wing edition in 2021, the Montpellier festival is regaining its cruising speed. And it is a pleasure to find the sumptuously wooded park of the Domaine d’O, and the sweetness of the evenings under the pine forest which serves as a base camp in Printemps. As always since Jean Varela took over the management in 2011, the festival offers, until June 25, a clever cocktail of sure values and discoveries, in a rich and eclectic program, driven by the conviction that the theater of art can be shared by all.
The festival opened on May 25 and 26, in a very beautiful way, with the simply masterful Michael Kohlhaas directed by Simon McBurney and Annabel Arden, and Œdipe roi seen by Eric Lacascade. Placed side by side, the two shows placed Printemps under the seal of a fascinating reflection on justice, fault and power. The first unfortunately only played three evenings – before being most certainly programmed by a large Parisian scene -, the second is still visible from June 3 to 5.
By tackling Michael Kohlhaas, a masterpiece by Heinrich von Kleist, the great British director Simon McBurney, who co-signed the show with one of his early collaborators, Annabel Arden, delivers a stunning lesson in theater . Everything here is exciting, stimulating to the highest degree, starting with the choice of this text written by Kleist in 1808, but which sends back strong resonances with our time.
The fable, which is inspired by a true 16th-century news item, tells the story of Michael Kohlhaas, an uneventful horse-dealer from Brandenburg. Having left to sell horses at the Dresden fair, he was arrested at the border with Saxony by the henchmen of the local squire, who abusively demanded a passport to enter the state, and retained two of his most beautiful horses in pledge.
Returning from Dresden, Kohlhaas finds his horses half dead, as well as his valet, who has been badly beaten. He takes the case to court, but not only does none of his requests succeed, but he also loses his wife, abused by the prince’s police in Berlin, where she went to ask for an audience. The impossibility of obtaining justice against the local kinglet will transform Michael Kohlhaas, who undertakes to take justice into his own hands, into an exterminating angel, setting the country on fire and blood and raising excited crowds behind him.
The fable can refer to a number of contemporary situations but, as always with Kleist, master of mystery and the inexpressible, it is not only a political principle that is expressed here, but also a much more existential and anthropological dimension of questioning justice and violence. Kafka, moreover, was not mistaken, of which Michael Kohlhaas was the favorite book.
From this non-theatrical material, McBurney and Arden draw a total and virtuoso spectacle, which immerses the spectator in the fable and in the psyche of Kohlhaas. Far from the classic incarnation, what they offer is rather a superlatively performative reading. The actors are installed in front of desks, and tell. And everything comes to life, in front of you, everything comes alive, thanks to a staging that uses images – live video, photographs or archive films –, sound, music or puppets, to engage the viewer’s imagination.
What could look quite formal, thus laid down on paper, is on the contrary powerfully organic, thanks to the actors of the Schaubühne in Berlin, where the show was created, and who are once again dazzling, passing in the blink of an eye from story to incarnation, from one character to another, with a mad ease and presence. Among them is Renato Schuch who takes on the character of Kohlhaas: he has a little Joaquin Phoenix side, and he is impressively intense.
Who really pulls the strings of justice in this world? We will long remember the face of this extraordinary old gypsy, projected by McBurney and Arden into the black cage of the theatre, a face that they make exist like an archaic and magical principle.
The ancestral laws, the magic of the gods and the diviners, confronted with the construction of a principle of rational justice by men, this is also what is at the heart of Oedipus King, in the refined and limpid staging by Eric Lacascade. Contrary to McBurney and Arden, the director, whom we are happy to find again after an eclipse of a few years, remains faithful to a bare theatre. He stripped the tragedy of Sophocles from the layers of interpretation, in particular psychoanalytic ones, which cover it, to come back as close as possible to what it brings into play, here too, justice as a work of truth, of lucidity.
How did Oedipus, master of truth when he solved the enigma of the sphinx, become this stranger to himself, blind to his origins as well as to those that undermine his city? Whoever does not want, cannot see the original fault from which his city suffers, can he still govern without vitiating the whole social body? Unfathomable questions, here too, which Eric Lacascade inscribes with beautiful simplicity in the setting of the Agora Theater, outdoors in a Montpellier night that could be that of a Greece from the depths of time. The decor and costumes, discreet, both modern and antique, leave plenty of room for the unfolding of the tragedy.
We find with this Oedipus king the deep humanity, the raw, true side of Eric Lacascade’s theater, carried by a feeling of existence that has become rare today. In this theater too, everything rests on the actors, and they are all excellent, whether they are the old companions of the director or the young recruits of the troupe. Christophe Grégoire chooses an Oedipus who never forces the line, sober and inhabited, a man crossed by issues that exceed him. Agnès Sourdillon carries with the poetic force of her game the absolute tragedy which is that of Jocasta, while Jérôme Bidaux easily endorses the power and political intelligence (Machiavellianism?) of a Creon who will soon become the master of the city. .
Finally, it is indeed justice as a sacred principle that burns like a living flame through these two evenings: that of the sacrifice, perhaps, to be made for justice to happen.