- La Cartoucherie, Paris
In an ideal world, all theatres would be like Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soliel. Mnouchkine has been staging work that makes the hair stand on end for nearly 40 years now, way out in the Bois de Vincennes on Paris’s eastern fringe. Admittedly, these are not experiences for the faint of heart, or thin of buttock. Mnouchkine shows last between four and 10 hours, each the product of a minimum of two years’ work by a small army of actors and musicians, all drawing the same meagre wage – from Mnouchkine herself to the lady who sweeps the floor.
One hell of a voyage … Seear Kohi in Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir. Photograph: Charles-Henri Bradier
- Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir
- La Cartoucherie,
Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Survivors of the Mad Hope) may only be a flighty little thing of three hours and 50 minutes, but when Mnouchkine won the Ibsen prize late last year, she sank the money straight into the project so it could have 10 full months of rehearsal, her longest gestation period ever.
Simply getting to the theatre is something of an expedition: an old bus takes you into the woods where so many Algerians were lynched in the 1960s, past Romanian prostitutes in camper vans, to the gates of the Cartoucherie, the arsenal where the shells fired at Verdun were slipped into their brass jackets.
The play begins in the spring before the first world war, with the Cartoucherie spectacularly transformed into a dance hall by the Marne, where a socialist visionary is shooting a silent film adapted from a Jules Verne adventure, using the cooks and waiters as his cast. In a neat twist, Mnouchkine has her actors serve the audience dinner before the Mad Hope’s long voyage down into the low latitudes begins. Long before the ship runs aground on Cape Horn, high idealism and base motives are vying for the souls of all on board. There’s a gold rush, genocidal Indian hunters foiled by commando nuns, a runaway revolutionary Austro-Hungarian archduke, and Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria playing imperial monopoly at Windsor Castle.
The hours fly by like a skiff in the Roaring Forties, carried along on a gale of pure theatrical genius: DW Griffith meets Cecil B DeMille, Delacroix meets Géricault. And all the time, the lights are going down over Europe.
And yet despite all its verve, the Mad Hope is holed beneath the water line. The story is never quite as complex or as satisfying as its staging, and no amount of invention nor silent-film hokum can make up for that. Somewhere in the southern ocean, the script, such that it was, went overboard. Still, that doesn’t stop it being one hell of a voyage.