The 2009 International Ibsen Award was given to the French director Ariane Mnouchkine. Mnouchkine gathers people around her in order to tell stories of the great crises of civilisation, of long-ago battles and the persecution and desperation of refugees in our own time. Out of these tales of crisis and tragedy grows a strong, many would say utopian, community of experience between actors and audience, challenging our comfortable illusions.
Ariane Mnouchkine is a director. She has directed plays by the Ancient Greek tragedians and Shakespeare, by Molière and Arnold Wesker. Yet the term “director” is inadequate to describe what she does. Ever since her productions together with fellow students at the Sorbonne in the early sixties, she has maintained that theatre is a collaborative and socialist art that must involve all participants – on stage, backstage and in the audience itself.
Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil is the embodiment of this ideal. She founded it in 1964, and it was not long before the troupe of young actors made history. After putting on Wesker’s La Cuisine (The Kitchen) (1967) and the collective improvisation Les Clowns (1969), the company moved to its present location at the Cartoucherie. The opening production was the revolutionary epic 1789, which illustrated the wide range of Mnouchkine’s vision and was seen by almost 300 000 people.
Mnouchkine’s theatre realised many of the dreams of the radical 1960s generation: her work combined social criticism with artistic revolution. 1789 not only deals with an event that has profoundly influenced the French people’s idea of their historical significance, it also involves the audience as a creative force in a way that set a new standard for European theatre. While some of the audience sat on bleachers, others mixed freely with the actors throughout the theatre space and moved about between the platforms where the different episodes took place. Everything is shown from several different angles – social criticism, history, mummery, a ritual celebration of the theatre’s age-old ability to break with everyday patterns and, through its collective force, generate new knowledge.
During this early phase of the Théâtre du Soleil’s existence, Mnouchkine’s approach was more actively political than it later became, but all her work is based on solidarity with the oppressed. She is suspicious of all forms of propaganda and simplistic representations of reality. The next phase in her search for “total theatre” was represented by the three Shakespeare plays Richard II, La Nuit des Rois (Twelfth Night) and Henry IV, Part 1 (1981–1984). Here she made brilliant use of Asiatic theatre traditions such as Noh, Kabuki and Balinese dance. The power struggle in Richard II is portrayed in sweeping choreographic movements, saga-like costumes and evocative masks against a backdrop of floating drapes in magically changing colours.
Together with the French writer Hélène Cixous, who has written a number of texts for Théâtre du Soleil productions, Mnouchkine has continued to build bridges between cultures and create syntheses between western and Asiatic theatre traditions. Her themes include the historical, as in L’Indiade (1987), which deals with India’s liberation from colonialism, and contemporary disasters, as in Le Dernier Caravansérail (2006), which in a series of kaleidoscopic tableaus portrays the myriads of people in flight from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and other war zones in Central Asia. Ready to fight but at the same time open-minded, Mnouchkine has always taken an active part in political debate. An example of her forceful defence of human rights and liberty is the workshop she held in Afghanistan in 2007. And yet she never subordinates theatre to politics.