You are a young Canadian director. How did you end up being involved in this African experience?
I set up the company, EnsembleSauvagePublic, with several friends in 1995. It is a company for the rejuvenation of the theatre. Our aim was to create a new stage language for the 21st century, a new way of acting which mixes dance, movement, the body, the text, and the new technologies. We are an international company, and it is our ambition to tour abroad, all over the world, and to put on co-productions with other countries. The Une hyène à jeun project falls into this framework as it is a coproduction between Mali, France, and Canada-Quebec.
What attracted you to the project?
This project was also linked to a whole dynamic around the Festival des Réalities set up by Adama Traoré: to attract foreign artists, to stimulate real artistic encounters… I felt that these objectives corresponded exactly with our company’s. I could identify with them, with this idea of an experimental theatre, a theatre which gets things moving.
Why did you choose to put on a history play?
Christophe Merle and Adama Traoré, who have known one another for 10 years, suggested the play to Patrick Janvier and me. They had worked together on several projects, and had been dreaming of putting on this play for a long time. Things suddenly became more concrete thanks to a series of encounters. Christophe met me in Montreal at the Americas Festival. He had met Patrick Janvier in a street theatre project he was involved in the year before. It was Christophe who managed to coordinate everything and who suggested that we co-directed.
Why were Christophe Merle and Adama Traoré so attached to this play?
This text embodies all the values of traditional Malian society: the respect for keeping one’s word, chivalry, cola nuts, the kora… All the key aspects of Malian oral culture are there: its glorious past, its history… And, with regard to exporting the show to Europe or Canada, it seemed essential to show the true dimension of Malian culture in order to counter the image of Mali which stops at deportations and immigrants without papers.
What made you decide to choose an open-air structure adapted to the street? Was it an imposed constraint?
No, it was a deliberate artistic choice. We got together first of all at the Limoges festival, then met in Mali. We thought about it, went to visit the author’s family. We read other works by Massa Makan Diabaté. Through our discussions, it seemed obvious to us that we couldn’t work in a typical theatre. There are very few theatres in West Africa. Above all, we wanted to go there where the public is. In a country where 90% of the population spends its time outside, street theatre was a real option, as we wanted to reach everybody, the general public, not just an elite.
Beyond the artistic dimension, this show is also about going out to meet the public in the neighbourhoods…
It was extraordinary the first day at the dress rehearsal: 70% of those present were children we had no control over! We didn’t block the access, and as there are fires, particularly at the beginning, they were very frightened. Most had never seen a play, and fled in panic. We are very happy to have performed there, even if we had some difficulties in terms of attentiveness. The play is very hard: it is very verbose and I think that we might have stayed too close to it. This griot-style language peppered with proverbs fascinated us at first.
The structure of the play is also very classical, it is a Racinean tragedy.
The playwright is a griot who was taught the oral traditions by his uncle. But he was sent to France at the age of 17. He received a French education. And his aunt, who was French, and who brought him up, taught him French with an iron rod. He is a man who has a real devotion to the French language, and who sees it as a bridge between the West and Africa. He says so in particular in a very fine sound recording: « I am a bat, I have a beak, but I am not a bird, I have wings, but I am not a bird, I cannot define myself in relation to Africa, I cannot define myself in relation to the West, but I have the wealth of this double culture. » That is more or less the quotation. It is that which moved us, the discovery of an author who, like us, is positioned between modernity and tradition, between the oral and the written. It is that which gives his play its highly classical touch. But we had to break it, to break away, and I don’t think we have finished doing so, this show is still evolving.
This rupture lies essentially in the way the set is divided up, which, moreover, reminded me very much of the mystery plays.
Patrick Janvier was the one who came up with the stage design. He has had a street theatre company for 15 years called L’Obubambulle, which is based near Cahors in France. He is in fact very interested in the medieval. He works on the image, the fire, the carts, on a primarily visual aesthetic. He knows the streets very well, and the difficulties of performing a play. He has participated in parades before one or two thousand people, which is why he thought of those proscenia that sort of encircle the audience. We worked with local materials, notably the tara, which is a kind of bamboo. We also strove to give the spectators’ ears a rest through the images, the songs, the music. It was necessary to inject some dynamism into this text, to give it some life.
Were the music and songs created for the show?
The music was composed by musicians who also work for the national ballet and by a real griotte: Maritou Kouyaté, who is related to the author’s family.
It is a history play, but the inventiveness of the costumes and a chromatic harmony also takes the play into the realm of the myth.
The author says at the beginning of his work that he wanted to write an epic. We worked with a Malian artist who works in the cinema a lot: Abdoulaye Ouologuem. He is also a craftsman: all the costumes are hand-made. The aim was to evoke the epic tales. Which is why it is very plain: at that time there weren’t all those motifs, like on mud-cloth, there was no relief, everything was white or ochre. And it is said that Samory was dressed in white…
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