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Identity, Sexuality, Language and Power

Nationalist temptations; the return to a reactionary morale; the refugee crisis; the crumbling of solitary bonds… the topics tackled at the Reims Scènes d’Europe festival show the bleakness of our times, but also give a voice to those who defend another vision of Europe, another possible version of Europe. At the backdrop of the emergency state and Brexit, the most European festival in France, taking place in Reims, gambles once again this year on the opening, the party and the debating of ideas—a veritable breath of fresh air.

Gorky-Theater “SMALL TOWN BOY”, a project by Falk Richter © Thomas Aurin

Since 2009, the city of Reims—better known within France for its champagne rather than its European spirit—has become, for ten days, the point of convergence for a crowd of people who’ve come from all over Europe. Artists, theatre professionals, spectators; you can’t count the number of nationalities there; even Parisians will now be rushing to Reims to attend this commotion of cultures, languages and ideas.

For this eighth edition of the festival, the artists have come from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Cameroon, the Congo, Greece, Iceland, Iran, the Netherlands, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland and Syria. Amongst them: Sanja Mitrović, Louis Vanhaverbeke, Antoine Defoort, Argyro Chioti, Myriam Marzouki, Massimo Furlan, but also great European figures, such as Peter Brook, Falk Richter, Fabrice Murgia… A programme that is jointly carried out by seven cultural structures of Reims, one of which the Comédie de Reims, member of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe.

And this year, more than in the years before, diversity is mirrored in the programme: “conceived in the spirit of the Maxim-Gorki Theater in Berlin”, the programme of the festival intends to “present works that question our European identity by drawing attention to its diversity (origins, religions, sexual preferences or even through multiculturalism).”

Light-years away from any sort of chauvinism, the festival indeed paid tribute to the work of Shermin Langhoff, director of the famous Maxim-Gorki Theater. Figurehead of the “postmigratory theatre” (a cliché term today, considering its wild use), the latter described her theatre’s project as an attempt to “think of the city in its entirety, with everyone who has gotten there in the past few decades, whether they are refugees, exiles, immigrants, or simply those who grew up in Berlin.” The actors of the company are the spitting image of the great cultural melting pot that is the German capital: they are from Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Serbia… Their journey fits the, oftentimes violent, history of the migratory influx that continues to shape Europe today. They constitute the very subject matter of the shows of the Maxim-Gorki Theater, which relate stories from elsewhere as anchor points to tell our common history differently.

Emblematically, Falk Richter’s show Small Town Boy, produced by the Maxim-Gorki Theater, is the highlight of the Reims Scènes d’Europe festival. The show’s title is taken from a song of the Bronski Beat that talks about the “the escape of a young homosexual boy from a narrow and oppressive world to a freer and more distant city.” In his way, mercilessly, disenchanted, cruelly funny too, Falk Richter questions the promises of liberty that embody the city: the possibility to invent oneself outside of traditional norms, to love differently, to reverse dominating relationships, to live ones identity without fear or shame. In a stroboscopic flood of scenes with pop impulses, the show emits a harrowing energy, fury, and melancholy.

Identity, sexuality, language and power are also at the heart of the questions of I Am Not Ashamed Of My Communist Past, directed by Sanja Mitrović and Vladimir Aleksić. Written in the tradition of performative and political theatre, the show mixes personal and collective history for crossing the Socialist past of Ex-Yugoslavia; that country that no longer exists and that Sanja Mitrović and Vladimir Aleksić grew up in. Some childhood souvenirs and images from the Golden Age of Yugoslavian cinema tell the end of the Socialist utopia, and the dislocation of a nation united in its ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. War, the rise of nationalism, the explosion of unemployment, and neo-liberal misdemeanours; the issues addressed here also remind us of the crisis in Europe today. It’s in this context of ruined ideals that the questioning of identities of these two adolescents divided between two possible compromises resound: the stopgap of European integration or the illusion of returning to their countries of origin.

Equally in gear with current events, Elfriede Jelinek’s The Suppliants is presented in the form of a lecture directed by Ludovic Lagarde and Ferdinand Barbet. In this text, written in 2013, Elfriede Jelinek directly echoes the tragedy of the shipwrecked migrants in Lampedusa, and the violent repression that lead to the interruption of a hunger strike started by 60 refugees in a church in Vienna. In a flow of language enamelled with mythological stories, philosophical quotes, and administrative and political language, a voice raises up—sour, brutal—that of the foreigner. Suppliant, menacing, furious, this voice takes the spectator to the task, sends him back to his actual responsibility and denounces the indifference of society and the contempt of the asylum politics of our countries; a chilling text of fearsome necessity.

If the violence of our century infiltrates and tinges some of the productions presented in the context of this festival, it is not a permanent feature of the contemporary creation. Without losing relevance, other artists prefer humour and poetry to express our times, including its most conflicting aspects.

That’s the case with Multiverse by the young Belgian artist Louis Vanhaverbeke. A hybrid performance, Multiverse convenes the phantoms of our collective memory and takes the spectator into the cosmogonic whirlwind of a fragmentary history of humanity, subjective and steadfastly pop. From Elton John to Johann Strauss, passing quotes from the Genesis and with a wink at Baywatch, Louis Vanhaverbeke composes a patchwork universe put together from founding texts, music hits, and mythical objects. At the same time poet, slammer, dancer, tightrope walker, musician and DJ, the artist makes cross-breeding and assembling his preferred mode of expression: music pieces are melted together, periods of time knocked together and objects are clustered, piled, motorised, forming strange constructions under our eyes that resemble the chimeras of ancient times. A production of enchanting poetry, where the simplicity of expression carries a rich and complex thought.

Another singular subject of the festival, Un Faible degrée d’originalité by Antoine Defoort is a journey through the history of copyright, from the Renaissance to the era 2.0. A priori nothing too exciting and yet… Between historical reconstruction, concept materialization, proof by contradiction, infantile jokes, scholarly content, popular references, suspense and dramatic turns of events, the lecture quickly turns into a show, and lets us dive into the mashes of the narrative that is as captivating as it is instructive.

While the festival is still in full swing, I have to interrupt this brief and yet incomplete inventory of the most remarkable shows that I’ve been fortunate enough to see during my visit to Reims. But a final image has come to my mind and I feel that it’s with this image that I want to conclude this article: that of a group of young people who have come from all over Europe to take part in this festival. Invited every year in the context of Reims Scènes d’Europe, they are part of a network of young European spectators, the “Young Performing Art Lovers”, financed by the Comédie de Reims and the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe, in the context of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. They are 70 this year, gathered together to watch the shows, produce texts, organise meet-ups, discussions, and workshops. In the entrance hall of the Comédie de Reims, in the bar, or on the tiers, one can hear the hubbub of a joyful ‘globish’ with contrasting accents. They laughed openly during the performance of Multiverse; they applauded with fervour to the slick comicality of Antoine Defoort—the actors of Small Town Boy had to come back on stage six times… The ensemble of the festival is soaked with their youth, their energy, their many languages. The enthusiasm is infectious—only in Reims do we surprise ourselves by dreaming of Europe again!



Published on 14 February 2017 (Article originally written in French)