After the preceding season, which was abruptly cut short, the two regional flagship theatres are playing it safe (but not boring)
Imagine you’re the director of a major theatre, responsible for its artistic reputation and financial health. Your running season approaches its zenith. And then, out of nowhere, a devastating event like a global pandemic stops you cold in your tracks. You don’t know whether or not the public comes back anytime soon. You don’t know how the situation develops in the long run. You might perhaps not even know if you still have a physical theater to play in, or when you can kick off again. What would you plan for the coming season? Create a spectacular firework of shows to defy the somber, uncertain mood, or tone things down just a bit to see how it goes?
The directors of the two regional flagship theatres, Daniel Benoin at Anthéa in Antibes and Muriel Mayette-Holtz at Théâtre National de Nice, opted for the golden mean. In both Houses, the new programmes are not exactly déjà vu but they don’t drip with novelty either. Reprogramming, revisiting, and reworking are the red thread through this peculiar new season where everyone needs to adjust and find new bearings. But that does not mean there are no exciting surprises in store…
Théâtre Anthéa, Antibes
In the seventh year after its April 2013 inauguration, Anthéa now counts as the second most important theatre in France after the venerable Comédie Française in Paris, a feat that director Daniel Benoin can be rightfully proud of. Those who know him, his experience, his connections, and his business sense, saw it coming all along. If there is one word that sums up his reign, it’s “quality”. Year after year, Parisian and international headliners happily heed his call to come (back) to Antibes. And he is deeply loyal to the regional emerging stars that he has groomed since their theatrical infancy, providing them with generous production support and ample show slots.
This mutual loyalty between host and entertainers speaks volumes about the theatre’s leadership and audience. But just when you want to double-check if you are looking at the current programme or that of a preceding season, these very same artists surprise you with a whole new show. The one big overarching theme this season is the amalgamation of different styles of artistic expression to defy genres, borders, and stereotypes.
Due to the sanitary crisis, the season will officially only start on November 3rd, 2020 although there may be September and October shows if conditions permit so (check the Anthéa website or follow them on Facebook).
The honour of formally opening the season goes to Gérard Depardieu, who already guested here two years ago and now presents a reworked version of his musical tribute to the legendary French singer Barbara. Music is generally big this season, with a colourful variety of acts from Helene Noguerra to Alain Souchon.
As every year, Daniel Benoin also tackles two personal projects, sure to be crowd pleasers: Disgraced (Disgrâce), the contemporary play written by Ayad Akhtar, examines social, racial, and religious tensions in today’s America departing from a view point just after 9/11. And Macbeth, Verdi’s opera based on Shakespeare’s drama, takes the spectator to an industrial Scottish town right after World War I. Neither of these works are easy fare but the maestro’s light and elegant touch takes out the heaviness while leaving the substance.
Our personal favourites
Of course, quite apart from the limitations of space here, any personal coup de cœur is always biased, and that is why we encourage you to study the full Anthéa programme. But we think the shows we have chosen truly reflect this season’s diversity, originality, and message of inclusion and artistic cross-pollination:
Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book gets quite the makeover. The American musical group CocoRosie, founded by sisters Bianca “Coco” and Sierra “Rosie” Casady, takes you on a wild musical journey from “freak folk” to “New Weird America”, incorporating pop, blues, opera, electronic, and hip hop. Under the direction of Robert Wilson and his legendary artistic touch, this adaptation is the perfect family entertainment show that’s accessible enough for kids and smart enough for adults, and with plenty of surprises beyond the well-known story.
La Fontaine’s fables are well-known but what made the writer tick? In this eponymous musical fable Clément Althaus, one of the best local musicians, and the StART 361° company explore the colourful life of the famous French storyteller for whom language served as his instrument, and poetry as his music.
Later in the season, Anthéa extends a hearty Welcome Back to the amazing, the great, the inimitable Imany. The French singer of Comorian descent is another one who already tread the Anthéa planks previously, leaving an indelible imprint on them. With eight cellists in tow, she revisits classic contemporary hits from Nina Simone to Radiohead, Cat Stevens, Donna Summer, Hozier, t.A.t.u, Bob Marley and others) from a uniquely feminine angle.
When it comes to the Thespian art, once again, Anthéa spoils you for choice and breaks out some high octane Parisian glamour, not least with Guillaume Gallienne’s “François le Saint Jongleur” by Dario Fo (a Comédie Française production) and Pierre Richard’s “Monsieur X”, which just recently earned the legendary actor a Molière distinction for Best Solo. Harold Pinter plays have become somewhat of a tradition – and there are actually two this year: La Collection, a comedy laced with typically “Pinteresque” ambiguity, and Trahisons (Betrayal), considered as one of the English playwright’s major dramatic works. (NOTE: both plays are French adaptations of the English originals!)
But never mind the Parisian star power, few shows are as ardently awaited as those by two local companies, both of whom by now are household names all over France:
Collectif 8 can finally, at long last, resume its newest brainchild 1984. Its phenomenal, brainy, sharp-as-a-tack adaptation of the George Orwell novel was just hitting its stride last season when it got cut dramatically short by Covid. In its superb “cinéâtre” version at the nexus of theatre and video, this much-adapted play finds new depths, literally and figuratively, putting recent and current world events in an even stranger context.
In May 2021 we will also finally see the re-run of another Collectif 8 jewel, La Réligieuse. Their Diderot adaptation is one of the company’s most sumptuous and sophisticated plays to date, carried by the sublime Gaëlle Boghossian and the no less spectacular Noëmie Blanc on stage, and Paulo Correia’s stunning signature video work.
And last but definitely not least, a big hand also to Félicien Chauveau and his Collectif La Machine. The rising star among young French artistic directors seems to have developed a taste for British literature, putting his twist on “Dr. Jeckyll Et le Mystère Hyde”. The play travels back and forth between the author’s biographical story and its characters’ fictional version thereof, always wondering which one appeals to the other. Suspense, drama, and humour guaranteed!
One of the highlights of the 2020/21 season in the “performing arts” section is doubtlessly Folia. Mourad Merzouki (yes, yes, another regular in these venerable halls) created a dance show reminiscent of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s phantasmagorical works. Merzouki warps eras, styles, and minds when Italian tarantellas blend with baroque and electronic music, and ballet dancers metamorphose into hip-hop artists…
Another one of this season’s defining hybrids is Fanny Soriano’s and Compagnie Libertivore’s poetic new piece Ether at the crossroads of dance and circus. The title refers both to mythology and physics, providing in equal measure the symbolic framework in which the two dancer-acrobats interact. The meeting of two lunar worlds, inhabited by living entities – one suspended, the other anchored by ropes… a philosophical metaphor for today’s world which is closer and yet further apart than ever.
“Our dream was interrupted last March, but we won’t allow it to take away having realized it for seven years, seven beautiful and rich years, and nothing will stop us from pursuing it. The day will come when the dream machine will start again. We are waiting for you.”
Théâtre National de Nice (TNN)
What a 2019/20 season the TNN has had! The first of three landmark events: Incoming director Muriel Mayette-Holtz took over from Irina Brook in September 2019. Instead of bringing a programme with her, she first wanted to observe and find her bearings but declared that she would change things noticeably: Make the theatre – both as a building and as an institution – accessible to the public at large both inside and outside the TNN, work with local artists, mentor a young, enthusiastic company from scratch, and use the medium of theatre to highlight certain social causes like a healthy lifestyle. Well, wait… wasn’t that exactly what her predecessor had done for the six years of her tenure, only to find that people in Nice are quite change-resistant?
But in fact, there is something that Mme. Mayette-Holtz (pictured below)will be doing very differently. Out with Irina Brook’s fanciful adaptations of international authors, and in with the new director’s personal favourites, those sacred French classics. In addition to that, the former administrator of the Comédie Française in Paris counted on her connections in the French capital to bring some of the glamour to Nice… something that Daniel Benoin as the erstwhile TNN director before Irina Brook had already done, and that the “British parenthesis” Irina Brook neglected, at least in the traditional public’s eye.
Muriel Mayette-Holtz was still mulling over the 2020/21 season – the first one developed and signed by her, and intended as a roadmap for the years to come – when the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, made a bombshell announcement in January, declaring he would have the building that is home to the TNN torn down. He projected to transfer its activities to the 13th century Franciscan Chapel in Old Town Nice which is just being renovated, while a brand new theatre was going to be built in the West of Nice, a stone’s throw from the airport. Bye bye, 1,300 seat theatre, hello new premises with some 400 seats! A hotly disputed decision, to say the least, and one that the population was not consulted over.
And just as MMH, as she is affectionately known, had come to terms with that new reality, Covid-19 struck and wiped out the rest of the season.
But she valiantly rose to the challenge(s), and improvised as best she could. Her second season, and the first one bearing her signature, includes pop-up theatre in the Coulée Verte by the newly renovated and rebranded TNN kiosk, field expeditions by herself and her artistic entourage, and texts. Lots of texts. And then some more text. Yes, this new director loves text theatre, notably by French authors, there is no denying it. Those who worship France’s sacred literature and are enamored with the French language in all its Cartesian complexity are well served. There are also good intentions to build connections with the Mediterranean riparian states, notably Italy, Spain, and Greece.
But for those who loved the eclectic, dreamy, exhilarating, multicultural, multilingual fare of the Brook years, there is slim pickings for the foreseeable future. Overall, everything is toned down, less imbued with the previous playful exuberance, from the shows to the new muted graphic design – as if mirroring the typical sparse French scenography which seeks not to detract from the text. Or maybe to project the perceived dignity of a theatre with the coveted “National” label. Regrettably, theatre-loving non-French speakers are relegated to music, dance, and circus… anything but theatre. A lost opportunity at best, considering the large international community and the vast number of visitors in the Nice area each year. Apart from that, none of the many talented local artists whom Irina Brook nurtured and cultivated has found their place in this year’s programme. Still, for Francophiles and Francophones the programme definitely has its charm.
One of the unmissable shows that we picked for this season for their universal appeal, regardless of language, is 20,000 lieues sous les mers. Presented by the Comédie Française – MMH’s old professional home of many years – this adaptation of Jules Verne’s tale takes children and their parents on a poetic and fantastical journey through the depths of the oceans of this world.
Music theatre is universal, especially if the material is well-known in international literature. Here, Alice Au Pays des Merveilles (Alice in Wonderland) has been turned into an opera – well, technically… but it’s really somewhere at the crossroads of music, humour, and poetry, and it pays due homage to the plain absurdity of Lewis Carroll’s original tale.
And finally, there is a William Shakespeare play in the programme after all, even in the disguise of classic dance. La Mégère Apprivoisée (better known in the Anglo-Saxon world as The Taming of the Shrew) is worthy of a first-rate venue: performed by Les Ballets de Monaco, directed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, and set in a stunning scenography created by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, it is sure to thrill the local cultural elite.
Until the season officially starts in November, there are outdoor events, apéros, readings, and impromptu performances. Consult the TNN pre-season and season programme by following the theatre’s announcements on social media or its website.
“Creating a first season is making a promise! It’s dedicating, to the child always present in your heart, a night spent awake. It’s telling you stories by cradling your ear so that the words reach you bigger, stronger. Let us be free, on the road, together… the road to the Mediterranean, our sea, cradle of the great texts of the French, Greek, Italian or Spanish repertoire, which will punctuate the season.”
By now, it has become a matter of indispensable routine to provide a gentle reminder that all precautionary measures to ensure good personal and public health must be respected – wear your mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands frequently, or carry a gel. Other than that, go and enjoy an exciting new season – the artists, so hungry for your applause, simply cannot wait to see you!
Lead image by Mark Thompson on Unsplash; all other photos as credited
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