Friday, July 20, 2007

The latest summer storm is crashing outside. The air's grey with rain, the gutters can't contain the water, nor the drains. It's the last day of term and this morning the schools will be steamy with wet kids.

I've been back from Avignon for three days after a week in the sun, although when I arrived the Mistral was blowing and there was a chill in the evenings. The Mistral leaves you feeling like you've been in a sandstorm, your skin gritty, your hair sticky. It was my third year at the festival as a guest of CEMEA, which takes over schools in the town for the duration, running workshops and taking groups to events. I was there with Brighton based artist Jane Fordham and the two of us worked each morning - her drawing, me writing - then visited exhibitions and shows in the afternoons and evenings.

Jane introduced me to the work of photographer and filmmaker Agnes Varda who has an installation at La Miroiterie just outside the Avignon city walls. It's a celebration of the people who sheltered Jews during the second world war - photos and films. Varda's given this subject added power by speculating on who might risk their life in the same way now. What would it take at this point in the 21st century?

Political action and engagement was the over-arching theme of the festival and this year the focus was on words. The featured director, Frederick Fisbach, chose poet Rene Char's Feuillets d'Hypnos as the basis of his key piece at the Palais des Papes. This year is the 100th anniversary of Char's birth.

It was a brave choice and the experiment wasn't entirely successful. The Feuillets are a mixture of narratives about Char's experiences in the maquis, aphorisms and reflections on the nature of poetry. He dedicated the work to Camus and wouldn't publish until the second world war was over. His language and imagery can be dense and difficult so Fisbach had an challenging task. A company of actors read the Feuillets one after another from start to finish. The staging was difficult to understand, the role of the actors very unclear at times.

Jane and I talked and talked after the two hour show about what we thought Fisbach was trying to do. We concluded that he was attempting to question the relevance and place of poetry in a society that has lost all sense of engagement. We wondered if he wanted to show how hard it was for people to read poetry.

But there was a turning point in the piece, which was highlighted for us before we saw it by Natalie, a French woman staying at the same CEMEA centre. It was a story about a young man being beaten up by the SS and the villagers' response. Char's imagery is of the sea and water. As this narrative was being read, one by one people left the audience and took their places on stage. These were the 100 plus extras - local people - Fisbach had been working with to make another statement about political engagement.

Dressed in greys, blue, green, they gave the narrative an astonishing power and their presence suddenly focussed the readings, which were shared between them and the actors.

Fisbach allegedly admitted the task of staging Char had given him enormous problems. They weren't resolved, clearly, but regardless of the confusion, bits that didn't work, it was heartening to witness poetry being presented so raw in the most prestigious venue of the festival, to hundreds of people over three nights. At least Fisbach didn't resort to dance, video or music (well not much) to try and distract from the words. He was, in my mind, pretty uncompromising.

It's heartening, too, to see experiment and big risks when the arts in England at least seem so safe and self-conscious. The other one of Fisbach's pieces we saw was Genet's Les Paravents. Apparently regarded as unstageable. Well Fisbach made a brilliant stab at it - it was four hours long, a mixture of actors and puppets, with video and two narrators who also became actors.

The questions and images that arose during the week in Provence should sustain me at least through the summer, but probably longer. This year they were questions I feel particularly close to - how does poetry find its place, how much should a writer risk, what happens when you experiment with narrative, what happens when you experiment and fail?