Shakespeare at the Festival d'Avignon : the Poetics of Adaptation of L. Lagarde (Richard III, 2007), T. Ostermeier (Hamlet, 2008) and I. van Hove (The Roman Tragedies, 2008)

Par Florence March
Publication en ligne le 07 avril 2010

1 « All writing is rewriting», according to French writer Marguerite Duras.1 Terence Cave also reminds us that «the existence of any text depends primarily on the pre-existence of other texts rather than on phenomena external to writing».2Jorge Luis Borges develops this idea of a «bibliocosm» where all the books run away from the shelves to communicate and exchange so as to create one huge universal book.3 As a result of this textual intercourse, hybridization lies at the root of all literary creation. In the palimpsestuous / incestuous world of literature of which it is a scandalous epitome, adaptation openly claims its genetic heritage. The result is a complex reading pact, based on a dialogic relationship between the hypertext, the hypotext whose existence it ostensibly acknowledges although simultaneously asserting its own autonomy, and the reader’s particularly demanding expectations.

2Considering that staging is adapting, since it consists in transcoding a significant system into another, then an adaptation for the stage is the product of a double process of adaptation between two coexisting texts on the one hand, and from page to stage on the other hand. This paper purposes to focus on theatre adaptation as a specific form of literary and artistic hybridization, studying dramatic and performing strategies of adaptation in three plays adapted from Shakespeare and staged during the Festival d’Avignon in 2007 and 2008: Richard III (2007), written by Peter Verhelst and directed by Ludovic Lagarde; Hamlet (2008), adapted by Marius von Mayenburg and directed by Thomas Ostermeier; The Roman Tragedies (2008), adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove.4 The corpus examplifies different types of adaptation, from translating what we tend to think of (despite knowing it a fiction) as the original text and manipulating its structure (adding, deleting or displacing scenes) as in Hamlet and The Roman Tragedies, to complete rewriting as in Richard III.

3When Jean Vilar, an adamant advocate of a theatre for all people,5 created the Festival d’Avignon in 1947, he naturally turned to Shakespeare. Richard II thus was one of the three plays staged for the first edition of the Festival, now one of the greatest cultural events in Europe. Since then, Shakespeare’s original or adapted plays have been regularly performed in the Festival. Yet Vilar warned his contemporaries against the use of Shakespeare as «a guaranteed income».6 It seems he was rather interested in the adaptogenic nature of Shakespearean drama, that is to say its capacity to generate autonomous artistic creation, to be a laboratory for artistic experimentations. In keeping with the Renaissance «culture of borrowing», in Gisèle Venet’s words,7 Shakespeare’s plays are part of an intertextual network, borrowing dramatic material and providing in their turn material to be borrowed. In the local / global context of the Festival d’Avignon, the Shakespearean canon thus invites artists from all over Europe to give free rein to their creativity, confronting the Elizabethan playwright’s idea of a theatre for all people with Jean Vilar’s.

4Particular attention will be paid to the opening scenes and the way they impact the complex performance pact, building up original relational aesthetics.

5Although Verhelst’s Richard III borrows its title and dramaturgic material from Shakespeare’s, the play is radically different. Historical circumstances are backgrounded, summarized by an offstage voice acting like a chorus at the end of scenes, and the battle of Bosworth, staged in act 5 of Shakespeare’s play, is omitted. Verhelst’s dramaturgy focuses on interiority and intimacy through monologues, creating a tension between national History and individual stories. The number of male characters has been drastically reduced, and female characters’ points of view are foregrounded as the Flemish dramatist focuses on the margins of Shakespeare’s play, making them the centre of his own. Two plays thus coexist under the same title, a palimpsest whose different layers of writing each claim their autonomy. The performance pact, which establishes the relationships between artists and audience, thus turns out to be particularly complex, all the more so as the source play is canonical, if not mythical. Part and parcel of the artists and audience’s cultural background, Shakespeare’s Richard III enjoys an ambiguous status as it both constitutes a common basis for and an obstacle to the performance pact. Lynda Hutcheon’s general observation in A Theory of Adaptation certainly applies to theatre adaptations: most spectators will tend to develop strong and demanding expectations, setting themselves up as experts, or even judges, ready to assess the adaptation in comparison to its source, through the dialectic prism of faithfulness and betrayal.8 The aesthetic gap, which according to Hans Robert Jauss designates the distance between preexisting expectations and the new work of art, thus seems all the wider in the case of an adaptation, particularly so in the case of a theatre adaptation of a Shakespearean play.9 If we may apply Jaussian literary theory – which addresses the reader and listener – to the reception of performance texts,10 the reception process may be described as the progressive reconstruction of the spectator’s horizon of expectations.

6In such context, the exposition, which initiates the reception process, proves a crucial moment to negociate. It is then that the paradigmatic isotopy of the spectator’s preexistent expectations starts turning into the syntagmatic horizon of expectations immanent in the work.11

7Act 1, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Richard III stages a famous soliloquy by the eponymous character. The audience thus immediately confronts his physical and moral deformity and are acquainted with his political program, which is also the dramatic program of the play. Adapting such an intense and efficient exposition scene is a real challenge to the artists who must take into account the spectators’ demanding expectations and redirect them deftly if they wish to avoid frustration, while simultaneously defending the adaptation as an autonomous, original creation free from any hierarchical relation to its source.

Video sequence 1

© La Compagnie des Indes – La Compagnie Ludovic Lagarde – with the participation of France 2 and the support of the CNC (National Centre of the Cinema) – 200712

8Verhelst, who purposes to exploit the dramatic and spectacular potential of female characters, has the curtain rise on a soliloquy by Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, postponing Richard’s appearance and speech until scene 2, entitled «The discourse».13 To cheat the spectator’s impatience in the meantime, French director Ludovic Lagarde involves him actively in Verhelst’s dramatic program through an auditory zoom adapted from filmic techniques: starting close to whisper, the Duchess’s voice is progressively amplified, as if fetching the audience’s attention at the far end of the auditorium to focus it on the stage. Scene 2 eventually answers the spectators’ expectations. In the written text, the use of the definite article in the title «The discourse» explicitly acknowledges the readers’ expectations. Lagarde’s fade in-fade out linking of scenes 1 and 2 proves quite clever as Richard suddenly bursts into the Duchess’ curtained bed, as if cutting in her soliloquy, scaring her and succeeding in creating surprise with the audience who were paradoxically waiting for him. Hunchback and crooked, he delivers the first line of Shakespeare’s play: «Now is the Winter of our Discontent»14 in a distorted, creaky voice. He then walks downstage, shaking off his crookedness to stand tall, and erect, and smart, in front of the audience, while delivering «The discourse» in a voice ostentatiously amplified and dubbed by its own echo. This magnifying device, which meets patently and playfully with the demands of the audience for Richard’s speech, confers a double status on the auditors. They are both the addressees of Verhelst’s play and of Richard’s public discourse which seems to address them directly, transgressing the borderline between fiction and reality, stage and auditorium. Direct address and response to the spectators’ expectations – even though it is to cheat them better – build up complicity between stage and audience, which helps ground the performance pact.

9The link between scenes 1 and 2 is particularly pregnant with meaning. The distortion of Richard’s voice is in perfect adequacy with his moral crookedness, which is also physical at that very minute. Yet it also signals to the audience the displacement, the decentring of deformity in Verhelst’s character. Just as his first soliloquy is displaced, Richard’s deformity will not be found where it is expected. Furthermore, the intertextual intrusion of the first line of Shakespeare’s tragedy, delivered in a distorted voice, appears as a metaphor of the adaptation, of the complex relationship between Shakespeare’s Verhelst’s plays. Should Verhelst’s rewriting of Richard III be considered merely as a distortion of the Shakespearean tragedy? The actor interpreting Richard literally shakes off this posture, the sound gesture thus developing into a lesson for reading adaptations. Quoted in English, whereas the performance was in French, the intruding Shakespearean line is both a recognition of the Bard’s text – as is the very title of Verhelst’s play, Richard III – and a way of getting rid of it to achieve autonomy. This dialectic of attraction and distancing, which lies at the root of the process of adaptation, is developed by Peter Brook in Evoking (and Forgetting) Shakespeare: «it is only when we forget Shakespeare that we can begin to find him».15

10The exposition of Hamlet, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, also implements structural displacements. The purple patch «To be or not to be», delivered in act 3 in Shakespeare’s tragedy, opens the adaptation, thus anticipating the audience’s expectations. It is repeated in the middle and at the end of the performance, the treble occurrence taking away its mythical aura so as to make reappropriation possible. Ostermeier’s exposition stages the funerals of King Hamlet, the eponymous character’s father, hybridizing offstage action and the churchyard scene of act 5 in the source play.

Video sequences 2, 3 and 4

© Festival d’Avignon – La Compagnie des Indes – 200816

11Conflating structural and thematic key passages of Shakespeare’s play, the exposition abruptly confronts the spectator with the tragedy in a nutshell, turning surprise into destabilization, discomfort, and the pleasure of recognition into bliss or jouissance, if we may apply Roland Barthes’ theory to performance text.17 The churchyard remains downstage, at the foreground, visually echoing the recurrent monologue «To be or not to be», forcing both characters and spectators to confront death throughout the play, in an extension of the iconic source scene of Hamlet facing Yorick’s skull. The monologue is followed by the sequence of the funeral in which music silences the text, perhaps an invitation to forget Shakespeare, and even to bury his inhibiting figure for the time of the adaptation. The structural displacement of the churchyard scene goes hand in hand with a change in mode, the high comedy of wit being replaced by low comedy inspired from the famous cyclone scene of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Junior (1928). The burlesque which derives from the gap between the subject-matter and its treatment is thus reinforced and probably more adapted to the conditions of performance in the huge Honour Court of the Popes’ Palace.18 Summoning cinematographic references onstage makes all the more sense in a play such as Hamlet that challenges theatre itself. The characters bogged down in the mud at the end of the funeral, together with the melody getting stuck on the same notes, provide a metaphor for Hamlet’s incapacity to fall to action, the very essence of drama. Significantly, as he delivers his famous monologue in the exposition, Hamlet films himself before focusing the video camera on the other characters, keeping at a distance from the action he visually comments upon. The eponymous character resists being at the centre of the tragedy, fulfilling a choric function.

12In The Roman Tragedies, Flemish director Ivo van Hove creates an immersive stage arrangement so as to turn the spectator into an active participant, an accomplice, rather than an expert or a judge. Audience members are invited to sit wherever they want, in the auditorium or on stage, and are allowed to move during the show. They may buy drinks and food, read the press, surf on the internet, have their hair and make-up done onstage. News concerning domestic as well as foreign affairs is displayed on luminous screens. They may watch the performance directly or on TV sets disseminated onstage, as it is entirely filmed by a camera-person operating in full view.

Video sequence 5

© Toneelgroep Amsterdam - 200719

13Ivo van Hove thus recreates the spectator’s familiar environment, making him or her feel at home in the theatre. He breaks the conventional frontiers between stage and auditorium, stage and wings, playhouse and street as the actor playing Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra runs into the street followed by the camera-woman mediating the spectator’s eyes.20

Video sequence 6

© Toneelgroep Amsterdam - 200821

14New technologies and video thus establish a continuum between the theatre and the exterior world, fiction and reality, revisiting the Shakespearian metaphor of the theatre of the world. Yet the notion of a continuous space is contradicted by an aesthetics of fragmentation and dissemination, as the stage is divided into microcosms and provides a multiplicity of points of view. Free to choose his / her own standpoint in the interactive set, each spectator is goaded into inventing his / her own theatrical experience, into finding his / her own way of watching the play. He or she is made responsible for the reception process. The Roman Tragedies thus examplify Antoine Vitez’s definition of popular theatre as «exclusive theatre for all people» - a definition which no doubt concurs with Jean Vilar’s.22 Whereas in everyday life screens disappear behind the images they mediate, Ivo van Hove’s stage arrangement makes them visible, transforming them into theatrical objects, thus inducing the spectator to look at them differently, critically. In this respect, his theatre proves socially and politically aware, coming close to the theatre of French director Ludovic Lagarde who claimed to address public opinion rather than the public when staging Richard III.

15In Shakespeare’s time, theatrical activity was concentrated in newly-erected playhouses, yet the spatiotemporal confinement of performances was counterbalanced by the omnipresence in Shakespeare’s texts of the extended metaphor of the theatre of the world. Relying on the spectator’s imagination, his theatre thus metaphorically crossed the physical limits of the building to disseminate into the world.

16The dialectic of concentration and dissemination, territorialization and de-territorialization, is also at work in adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays at the Festival d’Avignon. The adaptations under study result from a double operation: creating a new dramatic text and transposing it from page to stage. This double process reinforces theatricality as it reiterates the choice of theatre as a medium to convey the adapted dramatic material. However, the three performances also paradoxically resist the theatre as they open to other arts and media, summoning cinematographic techniques and new technologies on stage, recreating theatricality as the locus of intermediality. As a matter of fact, they reinforce theatricality while constantly defying theatrical forms, importing the world onstage and exporting theatre into the world through the use of new technologies, thus revisiting the metaphor of the theatre of the world and, through it, the concept of popular theatre.

17Thus caught in the dialectic of sameness and otherness, the adaptations under study evidence a dramaturgic tension between narcissism, leading to morbidity, and extraordinary vitality. The dynamism generated by the circulation of texts is counterbalanced by the specular dimension of hypertexts revisiting their classical sources, themselves resisting fixity as different states of the Shakespearean texts coexist and mirror one another – a device Howard Barker interprets as literary necrophilia.23 Such narcissism shows in the form of the soliloquy which dominates the rewriting of Richard III by Verhelst, as well as in the repetitive pattern of Marius von Mayenburg’s adaptation of Hamlet. On stage, narcissism is conveyed visually by the video cameras and multiplicity of screens mirroring the performance. The omnipresence of red in the stage arrangement designed by Lagarde for Richard III is a self-reference to the semiology of the theatre. The amplifying and echoing effects of Richard’s reverberating voice also convey narcissism at sound level. Narcissistic writing on page and stage develops into morbidity in the adaptation of Hamlet, in which the representation of the churchyard is foregrounded throughout the performance.

18Adaptations are thus ambivalently located at the crossroads of metatheatricality and intermediality, narcissism and vitality, pleasure and bliss, which probably accounts to a great extent for the complexity of both their production and reception. The Festival of Avignon provides a privileged research field to explore the issue of theatre adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Both a laboratory for dramatic and theatrical experiments and a showcase of contemporary European drama and theatre, it is the locus of various aesthetics, pointing out specific, original features as well as general characteristics of theatre adaptations.

19Although strategies of adaptation generally aim to deconstruct all attempt to trap the hypertext into a dialectic of betrayal and faithfulness, claiming its autonomy, the plays of the corpus nevertheless remain faithful to the principle of a theatre for all people, bridging in Avignon the gap between Shakespeare and Jean Vilar, classical dramatic text and contemporary performance text.


1  This paper was presented at the Fourth British Shakespeare Association Conference on «Local / Global Shakespeares», held in King’s College and Shakespeare’s Globe, London, on 11-13 September 2009, in the panel session «Hybrid Shakespeare &/in Europe» co-organized by Pascale Drouet (University of Poitiers) and Nathalie Rivère de Carles (University of Toulouse). I wish to express my gratitude to Jean-Christophe Mayer, whose comments and kind support helped me improve this text in many ways. I am also very grateful to the staff of the Festival d’Avignon; Ludovic Lagarde, the director of the French National Dramatic Centre La Comédie de Reims; Ivo van Hove, the general director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam; and Gildas Le Roux, the director of La Compagnie des Indes, an audiovisual company specializing in the culture sector, for their help and authorization to reproduce extracts of the films of the plays referred to. On the issue of writing as rewriting, see Bernard Alazet, dir., Écrire, réécrire. Bilan critique de l’oeuvre de Marguerite Duras, Paris: Lettres modernes Minard, 2002.

2  The Cornucopian Text, Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979, p. 325.

3  Jorge Luis Borges, « Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote » and « The Library of Babel », in Ficciones, (Editorial Sur, 1944), translated from the Spanish by Anthony Bonner, New York : Grove Press, 1962, respectively p. 45-56 and 79-88.

4  Peter Verhelst is a Belgian Flemish novelist, poet and dramatist. In 1991 he won the literary prize «Taalunie Toneelschrijfprijs» for his play Aars! and in 2000 the prestigious Gouden Uil (Golden Owl) and Young Gold Owl (Jonge Gouden Uil), a literary prize for Belgian literature in the Dutch language. Richard III is his first play staged in France. Ludovic Lagarde has been directing the French National Dramatic Centre La Comédie de Reims since January 2009. He has been regularly invited to create shows for the Festival d’Avignon since 2004. In 2005 he supervised readings of plays by Belgian authors at the Festival, among which Richard III which he decided to stage two years later. Thomas Ostermeier was artistic director of the Baracke, the studio theatre of the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, from 1996 to 1999, during which period the Baracke was nominated «Theatre of the Year» in 1998. Since 1999 he has been artistic director of the Schaubühne, Berlin. He was Associate Artist of the Festival d’Avignon in 2004. He directed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream after Shakespeare’s comedy for the Schaubühne in 2006. Marius von Mayenburg has been playwright, translator and dramaturg at the Schaubühne, Berlin, since 1999, after being a member of the artistic direction team at the Baracke in 1998. He was awarded the Kleist-Förderpreis für junge Dramatik for Feuergesicht in 1997, and the Preis der Autorenstiftung during the Heidelberger Stückemarkt in 1998. Ivo van Hove has been general director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ largest repertory company, since 2001. He was created Knight of the Order of Arts and Humanities by the French government in 2004 for his invaluable contribution to the international development of art and culture. In 2007 he received the Annual Award of the Society of Dutch Theatre Critics, and in 2008 the Dutch Proscenium Award together with scenographer Jan Versweyveld. He directed a production of The Taming of the Shrew for the Toneelgroep Amsterdam in 2004-5; Romeo and Juliet: A Study of a Drowning Body by Peter Verhelst after Shakespeare’s tragedy in 1997-98 and Hamlet in 1993-94, both for Het Zuidelijk Toneel; Richard II for Theater van het Oosten in 1989-90.

5  The notion of « popular theatre » is purposely avoided as it may be understood variously. Jean Vilar, who considered theatre as a state service, granted it an extended meaning as far as audience and repertoire were concerned. In the post-war context of French national reconstruction, he meant to bridge socio-economic differences and gather in the theatre not only working-class people but people from all social classes. He wanted everyone to have access to high quality repertoire, both classical and contemporary. The notion of a « theatre for all people » thus seems to me more accurate than that of a « theatre for the people » used by Philippa Wehle in Model for the open stage : a study of Jean Vilar’s Theatre for the People, Doctoral Dissertation, Columbia University, 1974 (published as Le Théâtre populaire selon Jean Vilar, trans. Denis Gontard, Avignon : Alain Barthélémy and Actes Sud, 1981). Yet her phrase « popular civic theatre » qualifies Vilar’s theatre quite successfuly : Philippa Wehle, « A History of Avignon Festival », The Drama Review : TDR, vol. 28, n°1, Spring 1984, p. 57.

6  « Les Rentes Shakespeare ». Jean Vilar, Chronique romanesque, Paris : Grasset, 1971, p. 97. My translation.

7  « culture de l’emprunt ». Jean-Michel Déprats et Gisèle Venet, eds, Shakespeare. Tragédies, vol. 1, « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade », Paris : Gallimard, 2002, p. clxxxi. My translation.

8  Lynda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, New York : Routledge, 2006, Preface p. xi-xvi.

9  Hans Robert Jauss, « Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory », in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, transl. Timothy Bahti, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

10  Keir Elam distinguishes between the theatrical or performance text and the written or dramatic text. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, London : Routledge, (1980) 1994, p. 3.

11  Jauss, « Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory », in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception.

12  Richard III. Author : Peter Verhelst after Shakespeare. Stage director : Ludovic Lagarde. Film director : Roberto Maria Grassi. Co-producers : La Compagnie des Indes and La Compagnie Ludovic Lagarde. Festival d’Avignon 2007. Location : Cloître des Carmes, Avignon. TV Channel : France 2. Duration : 90 mn.

13  « Le Discours », Peter Verhelst, Richard III, trans. Christian Marcipont, unpublished text, p. 4.

14  All references to Shakespeare’s text are taken from The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, in Gary Taylor ans Stanley Wells, eds, The Oxford Shakespeare. The Complete Works, Oxford : Oxford University Press, (1986) 2005, p. 183-222.

15  Peter Brook, Forget Shakespeare (1996), in Evoking (and Forgetting) Shakespeare, London : Nick Hern Books, (1998) 2002 (expanded edition), p. 47.

16  Hamlet by William Shakespeare, transl. And adapted by Marius von Mayenburg. Stage director : Thomas Ostermeier. Film director : Hannes Rossacher. Co-producers : Festival d’Avignon and La Compagnie des Indes. Festival d’Avignon 2008. Location : Honour Court of the Popes’ Palace, Avignon. TV Channels : .Arte and ZDF Duration : 100 mn.

17  Roland Barthes distinguished between the text of pleasure and the text of bliss. Pleasure derives from comfort and readability, whereas bliss stems from a certain unreadibility. The Pleasure of the Text, transl. Richard Miller, New York : Hill and Wang, 1975 (Le Plaisir du texte, Paris : Le Seuil, 1973). In S / Z, this distinction develops differently, opposing the readerly text, inducing passive reading and turning the reader into a consumer, to the writerly text, encouraging active reading so as to make the reader a producer of the text. S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1974 (S / Z, Paris : Le Seuil, 1970).

18  Owing to its last renovation in 2002, the Honour Court of the Popes’ Palace can now hold 1996 spectators. Measuring 38 meters wide and 15 meters deep, with a total surface area of 570 square meters, its stage is one of the largest in Europe.

19  The Roman Tragedies (Romeinse Tragedies) after William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra, transl. by Tom Kleijn and adapted by Ivo van Hove. Stage director : Ivo van Hove. Film making : Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2008. Duration : 6 hours.

20  In Avignon, the actor ran out of the theatre into the street. The video sequence shows a performance in Amsterdam, in which the actor walks out of the auditorium onto a balcony looking down on the street.

21  The Roman Tragedies (Romeinse Tragedies). Op. cit.

22  « un théâtre élitaire pour tous », Journal du Théâtre National de Chaillot, n°1, 1er juillet 1981. My translation.

23  Howard Barker, « Murders and Conversations : the classical text and a contemporary writer », in Arguments for a Theatre, Manchester : Manchester University Press, (1989) 1997, p. 153.

Pour citer ce document

Par Florence March, «Shakespeare at the Festival d'Avignon : the Poetics of Adaptation of L. Lagarde (Richard III, 2007), T. Ostermeier (Hamlet, 2008) and I. van Hove (The Roman Tragedies, 2008)», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Mise en scène de pièces de Shakespeare, L'Oeil du Spectateur, N°2 - Saison 2009-2010, mis à jour le : 12/05/2016, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Florence March

Florence MARCH est agrégée d’Anglais, Maître de Conférences en Études Anglophones à l’Université d’Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse où elle enseigne le théâtre anglais, et chargée de cours à l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Techniques du Théâtre (ENSATT). Elle est l’auteur d’une quinzaine d’articles scientifiques sur le théâtre anglais du XVIIe siècle, et a récemment co-dirigé un ouvrage, Théâtre anglophone. De Shakespeare à Sarah Kane: l’envers du décor, publié par les éditions L’Entrete ...