France restores one of world’s largest theatre festivals – with masks and health restrictions

France restores one of world's largest theatre festivals - with masks and health restrictions
Culture minister Roselyn Bachelot in Avignon's open air theatre. Photo: Nicolas Tucat/AFP
One of the world's biggest theatre festivals gets underway on Monday in the southern French city of Avignon after a year-long hiatus caused by Covid-19, with masks compulsory for audiences but organisers relishing a return to relative normality.

Theatregoers and troupes have expressed excitement at being reunited for the 75th edition of the Avignon theatre festival, which rivals Edinburgh for the title of the world’s biggest showcase of performing arts.

“I feel euphoric, as if this is my first festival,” said festival director Olivier Py, who has run the event since 2013.

Being deprived of last year’s edition had shown both the public and performers alike “how precious it is”, he said.

The festival opens later Monday with a hugely-anticipated production by Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, starring French screen legend Isabelle Huppert and staged at the Papal Palace main festival venue.

Rehearsals of The Cherry Orchard. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

Rodrigues, 44, whose work at Lisbon’s Dona Maria II national theatre has made him one of the most sought after directors in Europe, will take over the running of the festival from its 2023 edition, French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot announced.

The pandemic still looms large over the three-week-long theatre extravaganza.

A South African dance performance by celebrated choreographer Dada Masilo was pulled from the programme on the eve of the opening night after members of the troupe tested positive for the virus or were contact cases.

Avignon, a picturesque walled city which was the seat of Catholic popes in the 14th century, has put in place several measures to try prevent the festival becoming a giant cluster.

Mask-wearing will be obligatory outdoors as well as in for the duration of the festival.

And venues will be ventilated for 40 minutes between each performance.

Audience members will not need to show proof of vaccination or clean Covid tests to be able to take their seats — except for shows at the Papal Palace.

The festival’s outlook brightened further on June 30 when the government
lifted capacity limits on most public spaces, meaning venues were allowed sell all their remaining seats.

For Py the move, which sparked a run on tickets, spelt nothing short of a “renaissance” for the festival, which runs to 50 productions across 21 venues as well as hundreds of other shows in the even bigger “Avignon Off” fringe festival.

The fate of this year’s edition of the Off festival had at one point been uncertain.

With the all-clear only coming in May, this year’s Off offering of street and stage theatre, mime, dance and song comes to just a little over 1,000 shows, down from nearly 1,500 in previous years.

“We don’t know how it is going to go off,” Sebastien Benedetto, head of the association that runs the Off festival, admitted to AFP.

He cited the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in France as a threat to the festival.

“But we’re happy to be back in Avignon, which is where the whole French theatre world meets up,” he said.


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