Bobigny is at the end of a Paris Métro line in what a few parents at my children’s school said was a potentially dangerous banlieu. I went there in order to find MC93 Bobigny, a beautiful theatre with a season that pulls its artists and its productions from a variety of European stages. The theatre is proud of its reputation transgressif, in the internationalism of its artistry and the diversity of its audiences. That reputation also seems to test the limits of l’exception culturelle française precisely because of the instability of what qualifies as française. MC93 is européen to some and, to others, a reminder of la vie banlieue that has a more equivocal relationship to the français label.
A certain anxiety over the breadth of cultural exceptionalism might well have underpinned a public tussle this fall when La Comédie-Française, the long-revered house of Molière that never has to defend its cultural standing, announced a plan to open a second “salle” in Bobigny in a kind of a partnership with MC93. The plan had the approval, not only of Bobigny’s maire, but of France’s Ministre of Culture, Christine Albanel. MC93’s artistic director, Patrick Sommier, seemed not to have been consulted; he protested, along with many others, calling it “un OPA hostile.” Many of the most famed theatres (Odéon, Théâtre de la Ville, etc) in Paris have a “deuxieme salle” in an outer arrondissement, but MC93—who has a different idea of the center– did not feel like playing periphery to the Comédie-Française. [Read more: http://culture.france3.fr/scene/actu/48620674-fr.php%5D
In the midst of this public controversy (and before the plan was eventually withdrawn), I saw Saint Jeanne des Abbatoirs, a play about an American site (the Chicago Stockyards) by a Germain playwright (Bertolt Brecht) staged at MC93 by a French director (Bernard Sobel). The large lobby was positively packed with bodies waiting to get in to matinée showings of St. Jean and of Platz Mangel, a Zurich-derived production by Christoph Mathaler that projects into a vaguely fascist future of optimized health care that cares only for the healthy. With excited audiences waiting together, we were a mass at risk of stampeding when the doors opened. Meanwhile, many around and outside of the lobby held up signs looking for a ticket. Hmm, when was the last time I had the opportunity to scalp a ticket for a Brecht matinée? Bernard Sobel is a journeyman French theatre director who has headed important theatre and important theatre productions for over 40 years. Saint Joan, Brecht’s transmutation of the persecution tale to the unregulated inequities of Chicago stockyards, was also a vehicle for Sobel and MC93 to make a declaration or three about the unregulated state of a global marketplace, la crise, and the unsocializing of the French social state. Along with Theatre de la Commune, MC93 supported a number of entretiens with local artists to think together about the state of a cultural susidy in France. Again, a U.S. citizen can find herself asking what they are complaining about when compared to a country where most artists do not have health insurance—“a lot,” they seem to answer back compared to what they had. Actors, directors, and technicians of the theatre were the groups lawmakers had in mind when they first began providing la chomage to les intermittents, that is, security provisions to artists whose work is by definition project-based and hence, intermittent, rather than salaried. Now that unemployment benefits are being steadily withdrawn, this social model’s support of a French cultural model is brought into higher relief.
With this background discussion percolating, Sobel’s St. Jeanne was—whether despite or because of the percolating social message—a complete thrill. The production had a large cast of incredibly strong actors, almost none of whom seemed much over 30. The playing space was in the middle of stadium-seating. The audience was poised on backless risers with no leg room for 3 hours and no intermission; no one seemed to care. Every time you watched a scene of confrontation between Joan and a stockyard manager or a sarcharine intervention between laborers and Salvation Army missionaries, you saw the focused eyes of fellow audience members across from you as a kind of urgent background. The ambivalent story of Joan and the many ambivalent characters that surrounded you unfolded with a kind of relentless momentum, careening and sure-footed at once. In a truly choral staging of the work, each member of the cast took turns playing different characters, and part of the energy came from watching someone play a Salvation Army general who had just played a worn-out mother before. The turn-taking seemed to suggest that any one could find themselves installed in any of this assymetrical social roles. But it also seemed to both to collectivize and individuate each of the actors at once, glorying, for instance, in each female actor’s capacity to offer a different angle on a Joan that was, with each turn, confused, revolutionary, naïve, melodramatic, prophetic, wasted, and resurrected. In a play that broaches the idea of economic distribution, Sobel seemed to make sure that artistry was distributed as well. The production may have become a little too literal when the actor playing a Chicago newspaper boy handed out copies of La Liberation whose front page read: “La Crise! Notre Saveur,” and it definitely did when it analogized Joan to Ségolène Royale. But those moments aside, one of the most poignant things about this production came when one imagined the community its making made, especially imagining an senior theatre director who had benefitted from an older social model worrying about the future of the young people in his cast, each of whom waited, intermittently, to play their next role.