It is one o’clock in the morning and the mistral still zebras the Cour d’honneur on this opening night of the Festival d’Avignon, this July 7th. For nearly three hours in front of 2,000 people and the Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, freedom, submission and madness fought a poetic and relentless fight; as the troop advances for the salutes, stop the war is inscribed in blood red letters on the high wall of the Palace of the Popes. A radical way for the Russian director and filmmaker, Kirill Serebrennikov, finally free after long years of house arrest in Moscow, to bring us back here and now to the war in Ukraine which is getting bogged down.
The fight for freedom is also at the heart of this strange text that he has chosen for his fourth participation in the Festival. The Black Monka short story by Chekhov, unknown in France, the reading of which, he says, made him shiver. Andrei Kovrin, a famous overworked writer, goes to rest with the nurseryman Péssôtski who took him in and brought him up.
The show begins with Kovrin’s ecstasy in front of this magnificent nature and this garden which is his host’s obsession and his life’s work. But in the foliage of the park, Kovrin sees the ghost of a black monk who calls him “to grow freely as a tall stem, rather than just a hardy shrub”. In the show divided into four chapters, Kovrin is played successively by an American actor, a German and a Russian. We will witness the same story seen from the point of view of the nurseryman, then of his daughter Tania whom her father intends for Kovrin, and finally of Kovrin himself.
But this is only the beginning of the adventure, we discover that Kovrin, a recognized and acclaimed writer, carries within him a multitude of frustrations, an aspiration for freedom and an absolute of which the ghost of the black monk is the receptacle. But this freedom constantly hampered by those close to him will lead him to a kind of madness which will justify his being locked up. Obviously we will not say the sequel which still provides surprises, Russian style, so in the dark.
We are struck by the beauty of the scenography which makes the Cour d’honneur vibrate, these worker-gardeners who unfold on the stage intermittently forming a choir of men with poignant singing. Video projections on the high wall multiply the figure of Kovrin as the beginning of his madness. Three huts covered with plastic represent the houses of the summer visitors or the greenhouses of the property. They are moved and recomposed throughout the show. The gusts of wind blowing elements of the decor add to the strength and spectacularity of the paintings. This wind, a surprise guest, seeming to symbolize with a good deal of chance the mental disintegration of Kovrin.
Little by little the black monk, symbol of our doubts and our fears, becomes incarnate and vampirizes the last part. The text disappears and gives way to a ceremony of hallucinatory trance led by a cenacle of monks. An allegory that can destabilize, but their sarabande under the starry sky of this papal high place has something to challenge. Serebrennikov tames and uses with keen intelligence these pitiless and demanding places.
The troupe, made up of actors, dancers and singers, is remarkable. Let us quote the two Tania, Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Gabriela Maria Schmeide, and the fever and the exaltation of the three Kovrin, Filipp Avdeev, Odin Biron and Mirco Kreibich.
Of course, we will see in this tortured story and remarkably led by Serebrennikov, a multitude of allusions to his condition as an outcast and to the dismal developments that his country has experienced in recent years. But black monk first exists as a striking spectacle, even if we found lengths to it, and totally in its place, which has not always been the case in recent years, to open the largest theater festival in the world.
“The Black Monk” by Anton Chekhov,
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov
July 7, 8, 9, 10 / 12, 13, 14, 15, 2022
Courtyard of the Popes’ Palace
Avignon Festival 2022
From March 16 to 19, 2023 City Theater (Paris)