Vincent Macaigne’s vision of Shakespeare at MC93 (Maison de la culture de Seine-Saint-Denis à Bobigny)
Yann Messager reports from Paris
19 October 2023
MC93 is an astute and intriguing theatre on the outskirts of Paris in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis. Arriving at the Pablo-Picasso-Bobigny station from Line 5, one is immediately able to eavesdrop on the conversations of theatre and film enthusiasts from the station and down a barren modernist road to a glass-paned theatre whose light penetrates the night.
Inside, we are greeted by display screens that seem to have overtaken the reception and bar area. Angry characters yell at us but we are too focused on the conversations of those around us to give them any attention. It is a sign of what is to come, as we are minutes away from Vincent Macaigne’s loosely inspired Shakespeare play Avant la Terreur where seventeenth-century England meets a climate apocalypse, the neo-liberal rampage of the world and AI. No small feat. The piece has stereotypically divided a right-leaning press for whom it is too loud, and the other side for whom it is nothing short of a cathartic and divine revelation.
Macaigne’s take on Richard III is certainly ambitious. Indeed, coming out of its three-hour running time can feel like emerging from a pit of excruciatingly hyper-stimulating despair. The standard speaking tone seems to be yelling to the point of vocal exhaustion. A prodigious quantity of brown liquid (we come to recognize it as oil) is recurrently spewed around, drenching the scene in a petroleum swamp. Our sense of smell is reminded of this throughout the play. Screens abound as well as on-stage cameras directly transmitting to the screens, rendering the more macabre scenes even more gruesome. And in this respect, the play must be said to be captivating throughout.
It is desconstructivist in an impressive way. Recurrent and truly hilarious jokes are made at the expense of some of the more arcane and mystical references in Shakespeare’s work. A case in point would be Richard III’s henchman speaking about the ill omen that a three-headed creature found in a swamp is supposed to represent. The monologue is tedious in terms of its comedic content but excellent in revealing the pathetic nature of the power of mythology in political history. Richard III’s avowal of love to Lady Anne is a powerful and truthful feminist interpretation of the burden of male courtship often hidden under the glaze of romanticism. And in this sense, the way that Macaigne adopts the more chivalrous and romantic references in Shakespeare while also subjecting them to meta criticism is one of the more rewarding and effective themes of the play.
Macaigne astutely uses his sarcasm as a means of beginning to weave his commentary on power. He argues (I believe) that on a base level, power finds itself (often absurdly) in the hands of the most randomly selected individuals. In addition to this, the bearers of power and their ancestors often committed the original sin of political violence simply to retain power. This idea grows even more unbearable to the spectator as it is made clear to us that in Macaigne’s universe, the House of York is wielding this power to speed the destruction of civilization through climate change.
Macaigne tries to boldly tell Shakespeare’s harrowing tales of human nakedness and brutality by making the stakes of the play’s power struggle ultimately related to the climate crisis and perhaps incongruently, AI! We are not meant to simply feel bad for the murdered nobles as well as perhaps briefly the fate of the people of England, as so many historical narratives succeed in doing. What Macaigne wants to show us is a violent and total conviction that the world is ending.
Screens are omnipresent. I was impressed by a character showing us his Instagram page filled with a harrowing compilation of plane and car crashes the like of which few audience members would have ever seen. The violence of a plane crashing on children playing in a football field is just one example of the footage we are forced to watch. Vague references to the risk of fascism in the West are made when Richard III’s supporters organize a highly entertaining political convention in which they vow to suppress “universal social security”, “open borders” and “abolish fire arms.” Indeed, it is salutary to think that the majority of social media extracts, videos or political examples used in the play’s digital imagery are from an American context. This is no doubt evocative of the drastic worsening of the French and European elites’ perception of American society in terms of security, political violence and libertarian deregulation. But what exactly Macaigne is trying to say about this and how it ties into a French or European context or even into climate change or artificial intelligence is elusive at the very least.
With its very conception of humanity, the play begins to strike seemingly vacant chords. And indeed, a major theme reappears through the following reiterated sentence: “In an age of mass hysteria, no one knows how the people would react to war.” It is this catchy idea that permeates the play, one that strangely seems to collude with the French Right’s idea of “décivilization”, a word that President Macron himself used after the French banlieue riots following the death of Nahel Merzouk.
This idea of societal savagery as the crux of the explanation for the climate crisis and social inequality in the twenty-first century is where the play begins to lack intellectual sophistication not withstanding its strange distancing from the French Left’s perennial celebration of humanism. This idea of all out barbarity as a trait innate to the human condition is expressed through the sensory overload of the play. The stage reeks of who knows what ideas, earplugs are distributed at the entrance (their use is strongly recommended by staff) while screens flash violently. Blood erupts from brutal murders, puffy corpses are discovered and thrown out of dumpsters.
In one sense, this can give rise to an impression along the lines of: “Ah! Yes! This is Richard III done right. A violent exploration of power.” But far beyond that, it seems to be a childish and unfiltered dismay in front of the ugliness of the world. Macaigne seems unable to make something of it, other than that it is ugly. And therefore, we the audience are left with, in addition to unconvincing acting, a medley of the most atrocious footage showing the darkest corners of the web.
Comparing Macaigne and Shakespeare is of no value, but I will nevertheless make the following analogy in light of the fact that Macaigne boldly decided not to adapt but to “make his own text based on Richard III” as well as (he claims) “other texts.” Where Macaigne falls short of the original text, or at the very least fails to be original or entertaining, is in the depiction of the humans at the centre of this stench-filled catastrophe. Macaigne’s “Man” seems to be a screaming, babbling, incestuous, insane imbecile. And all of the play’s characters seem to be mere variations on this sullen but above all monotonous tune.
The true power of Shakespeare has never resided in the brutal exposition of the reality of the world. Macaigne seems obsessed with the idea that the audience needs to be presented with the gravity of our world’s situation. The author-adaptor is obsessed with the idea that we are all trapped in our aesthetic bubbles and that he, Macaigne, has descended from some heavenly height of Leftist lucidity to didactically expunge the masses of their oblivion!
But here again the play stumbles badly with its assumption that all we, the audience, must do is discover or empathize with the realities that Macaigne believes he is the first to have understood. Human life is filled with horrors, and we decide not to look at them because we simply cannot do otherwise. We don’t share Macaigne’s ego trip as a playwright to compensate for the insufferable truth of these realities. Shakespeare’s genius does not lie in exposing us to the bare facts of our species and the cosmos but rather in helping us to understand the truth behind the facts.
Shakespeare tells us that the world is far beyond our reach and that those we believe to be responsible for kingdoms, in reality, shake and quiver under their carapaces. You could be the one killing your regent mother. You could be the one killing your best friend to obtain power. You could be the one betrayed by your scheming bastard son. And if you don’t explore who these people are, then you are not revealing anything. You are not revealing or explaining any “clues” as to why we have arrived at our current destination. Here, Macaigne’s political theory becomes as cloying as the brown liquid the MC93 theatre crew has had to painstakingly clear away while I write these words. And indeed, the absence of the human element here makes for tedious and often cringy monologues.
Some of the speeches, admittedly, begin powerfully and question the origins of original sin, refer to the cosmos and how we are all one with the universe and speak of the absurdity of our treacherous, material condition. Lady Anne’s monologue after the revelation of a brutal murder begins with such flirting with Shakespearean grandeur, but the actor does not seem up to the task or perhaps her monologue was filled with unnecessary pseudo-philosophical ramblings or more probably both. Her delivery is monotonous as her voice appears bogged down and lingers between lines more from fatigue or lack of inspiration than in search for dramatic effect. Richard III’s toying with his nephew, claiming to play devil’s advocate ends up essentially asking lazy questions on the fate of the world which seem painfully unprovocative or at the least not worth the ponderous minutes the encounter takes up.
And this is no doubt the final point on which a comparison of Macaigne with the pure text of the Shakespeare seems to break down. Macaigne undoubtedly attempts to become a pseudo-prophet of the ages. How exactly the looming screens showing us AI-controlled robots connect with the ineptly conveyed environmental theme is puzzling. The introduction of AI as the ultimate revelation of the destruction of mankind rather seems to be the understandable existential dread of an artist scared to death about his own prospects. That he would make this vulnerability a sort of apotheotic cursing of the audience strikes me as cowardly. Across Shakespeare’s plays dealing with many periods of history he at no time attempts any prophecies as to the future of our species. It is rather the great unknown which permeates his work and which gives us the non-answers we actually require.
To end on a positive note, if the AI theme does manage to ring true artistically it is at the very end. This is when many are dead, and Lady Anne brings her little girl in front of the screen where AI robots are being displayed. The girl is left alone before the screen as all the characters recede. Putting aside the ridiculously hollow dialogue being recited in a drone through a microphone, the image of the girl standing in front of the large screen in the dark is perhaps the play’s greatest aesthetic achievement. This is surely because it strips away the play’s pretentiousness and gets to something raw. That our parents and grandparents have created this terrifying world we are living in, and have now left us alone faced with it, with no explanation and no guidelines.
Avant la Terreur (Richard III) will play at the Théâtre National de Bretagne (TNB, National Theater of Brittany) from 22nd to 25th November.