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Review: Ariane Mnouchkine @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Ariane Mnouchkine has led an industrious, innovative, inspirational life in theatre. It has been a life of ups and downs, successes and failures, and it all began on the stage of the Oxford Playhouse over 50 years ago. In an intimate conversation with Professor Oliver Taplin on that very stage, Mnouchkine re-treads that journey, taking a rapt audience with her through nearly six decades of theatre-making.

From nostalgic recollections of her days as a student in Oxford – where, having joined the still-thriving dramatic society (OUDS), she realised she wanted to devote her life to theatre – to passionate exaltation of Théâtre Du Soleil – the renowned avant-garde theatre company she founded in Paris in 1964 – Mnouchkine is an engaging speaker.

Perched next to Taplin on the edge of the stage, sleeves rolled up and spectacles hanging around her neck, she is the very picture of an artist. One can imagine the energy and creativity that she inspires in the rehearsal room. And, despite the adoring attention of a clearly devoted audience, there is no arrogance or false modesty in her voice.

Mnouchkine’s anecdotes and stories are packed full of poignant reflections and life lessons. Speaking of the first, faltering footsteps of Théâtre Du Soleil – now famous worldwide – she is unashamedly open about her ignorance. “At the beginning, we did not know anything”, she confesses, “Sometimes, you have to be strong enough to be naïve”.

Yet it is her thoughts on the medium that most are present to hear. Mnouchkine and Théâtre Du Soleil have broken new theatrical ground over the last half-century. Their prolonged, collaborative approach to physical theatre has inspired many and the work they produce is notable for just how visually arresting it can be.

“The body is such an indispensable tool and sometimes actors can forget they have one,” she explains. “Théâtre Du Soleil try to escape that moment of psychological realism in which we can get stuck. And that takes time. We never open until we are ready, until we like the show.”

Professor Taplin is an intelligent, articulate conversationalist, and his questions artfully lead Mnouchkine onwards, but one wishes that at times he would question her with more vigour, more aggression. He allows Mnouchkine to flutter her wings like a butterfly on a long leash when a more stimulating approach might be to play a ruthless devil’s advocate.

What exactly, Taplin should ask, is Mnouchkine’s qualm with less adventurous theatre? Why must collectivity be worshipped but individuality scorned as “mercenary” and “commercial”? Why must tried and tested formulae be rubbished as bourgeois tradition? And why, crucially, if her work is so universally beautiful, is her audience made up of white, middle-class, middle-aged admirers?

Despite the pungent sycophancy in the room, Mnouchkine’s talk is both enlightening and engaging. Her charming story is inspiring and the elucidation of her opinions on theatre are more than interesting. Above all else though, it is a pertinent reminder of how theatrical innovation can spring forth from anywhere.

4/5

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