Two events that mark the French summer festival season each July take place in cities within 80 miles of each other. The Avignon Festival is a bustling, packed-out festival of theatre. Another Aix-en-Provence festival offers a more sophisticated line-up of operas.
Wealthy audiences flocked to the openings of both festivals this week. Instead of an opera singer, Aix unusually hired an actor from France’s oldest theater company, the Comédie Française. The Threepenny Opera directed by Thomas Ostermeierin Avignon, the theater group In Vitro has some new faces. “Welfare” by Julie Derike.
Both works touched on the subject of poverty, which is difficult for wealthy people to deal with.
With the cost of living rising rapidly in France over the past year, this may have felt like a fitting response to the times. But nothing is more difficult than asking an actor (a profession with few representatives of the working class) to perform ‘poor’ on stage.
At the event, the Comédie-Française fared better than the Derrike actors, simply because Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s 1928 “Threepenny Opera” was a raucous satire. The amoral criminals and beggars are over-the-top creations, and most of the enjoyment of Ostermeyer’s visually restrained direction lies in playing to the brilliance of the cast.
“Welfare” is another matter. The film is a faithful adaptation of a 1975 documentary by Frederick Wiseman, who brought his camera into a New York welfare center to witness applicants struggling to cope with the rigid system. Wiseman himself had long wished for the work to be translated on stage, so Saint He of France took the idea to Gérard Dérique, director of his Philippe Theater in Denis.
But the dance piece Bintou Dembele’s Groove and Avignon’s shared opening honor, Welfare, look as silly on stage as they do on screen. No one involved seems to be aware of this insurmountable problem. Recreating the hardships of real people with actors turns them into characters and their stories lose their authenticity. Developing the same empathy requires more effort, but here Mr. Derike seems reluctant to intervene.
Black-and-white cinematography, unaffected by Weisman’s film, is replaced here by a Technicolor recreation of the school’s gymnasium, including the bright blue-green floor that spans the vast outdoor stage of Avignon’s Théâtre Cour d’Honneur. It can’t be helped. The most impressive performance venue. It’s as if the sitcom That ’70s Show chose to take on the benefits, complete with well-cut, decidedly new outfits. (Nothing says “my kids are starving” like a well-placed red beret.)
The story told in Wiseman’s film is loosely reframed as a day in the daily life of a welfare center, as caseworkers tend to one after another of enraged applicants. A man lost his house in a fire. Several recovering addicts are trying to get their lives back on track. A heavily pregnant woman is asked for medical proof of her health as an elderly woman’s husband withholds her check.
There are some comedic moments in the film, but in Derike’s stage version, it involuntarily feels like a farce. The cast’s energetic performances may be due to the need to project in a cavernous space that can accommodate approximately 2,000 spectators. Rather than simply exemplify the institution, as Wiseman’s subject effectively did, the actors playing the plaintiffs use moments in the spotlight to highlight the injustice of the institution.
“Welfare” means good, and it’s easy to see why Tiago Rodríguez, the new director of the Avignon Festival, chose to put this project in a place of honor. The film marks a change after the sluggish tenure of her predecessor, Olivier Py, and makes Dérique the second person to win the Cours d’Honneur slot in the Avignon Film Festival’s 76-year history. become a female director.
Derike deserves it. She is one of France’s top theater producers and has enjoyed numerous successes. But in “Welfare” she respects Wiseman’s original too much. While some directors have found the right tone in recent years to grapple with a life of disadvantage, like Alexander Zeldin of the Disparity trilogy, Welfare looks like it’s struggling with poverty.
In Aix, The Threepenny Opera may not be an unconditional victory for German director Ostermeier, but at least the show’s roll call is lavishly cast with low-level misfits and Alexandre Patou’s sharp With the help of the new French translation, it gives the impression that Perhaps it was meant to be sarcastic, charismatic and brilliantly individual.
Christian Heck and Veronique Bella play the feisty and eccentric Peachums as they try to crack down on notorious criminal Macheath, who has eloped with their daughter Polly. Not all actors are equally good singers, so Vera’s powerful voice is a weapon here. So did the vocal talents of Marie Oppert, the latest addition to the Comédie-Française troupe, a singer under her training, who turned “The Pirate Jenny” into a phenomenal number as Polly.
A well-crafted scene is rich and fast in the first half, but the energy wanes in the second half. It’s almost as if Ostermeyer’s first directing in an operatic context didn’t lead to real success. The design of the set is minimal. Below the stage are his four microphones, behind the actor is a black pedestal, on top of which are several screens that display repetitive Russian Constructivist-inspired collages. On the main stage of the Comédie Française in Paris, where production will move in the fall, the company could simply reuse a very similar set from Ivo van Hove’s 2022 Tartuffe.
Maxime Pascal conducts his ensemble “Le Balcon” and plays the actors well. At one point, a musician caught a microphone that Benjamin Lavernehe accidentally dropped into a hole. It was a quirky highlight as corrupt cop Tiger Brown. Pascal’s re-arrangement with electronic instruments lends an interesting edge to the stinging momentum of Weyl’s score.
As in Avignon, the work was performed on the historically significant open-air stage in the courtyard of the Palace of Archevéchet, where the festival was born in 1948. Modest in size compared to the Cour d’Honneur, it’s a prestigious venue, with audiences paying up to $180 for the privilege of seeing the “Threepenny Opera.”
As with Welfare, it is whiplash to see poor characters in such rare company. But that is the reality of today’s prestigious theater.