Interview with Jean Lambert-wild

Each one of your shows is part of a wider project. What does this project look like? 

Over the past twenty years, I have been building a very specific body of stories, which I call the Hypogeum. It is composed of three Epic, three Threnodies, three Confessions (including one, Crise de nerfs – Parlez-moi d’amour (Fits of Hysterics – Tell Me about Love), which couldn’t be performed in front of an audience in Avignon, in 2003), two Exclusions (which I have made but that are kept hidden), a Dithyramb and 326 Calentures.

What are the differences between these types of work? 

They are created from different perspectives: in the way they are written, in the spaces they occupy and the way they are interpreted and performed. The Calentures for instance, are performed by a clown who is present in a variety of spaces: on stage, on the Internet, sat on top of a table, at the desk of a theatre’s artistic director, in other artists’ shows… The internal logic that governs each act of this Hypogeum aims to connect together every parts of one’s life. These parts are at times factual, at times imaginary. Once I have visited the entirety of this Hypogeum, I’ll imagine a new life. It is difficult to explain in a few words the structure and organisation of such artistic geology, because more and more often we live at the surface of time, without paying attention to the deep layers of an artistic endeavour that was built over several years, in a process of sedimentation. It is a very slow labour, with elements that work and other that don’t work so well. This endeavour needs theatrical geologists, like Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller. I find it difficult to entirely answer your question; I don’t theorise my work, and I hardly control it. What matters are the points where we meet our audience, these moments that question and reorganise such imaginary classification.

Where does La Mort d’Adam sit in this vast and ongoing work-in-progress?

La Mort d’Adam is the second of the three Threnodies. It was a real pleasure for me to be able to premiere it in Avignon, especially since the first Threnody, Mue (Sloughing), created with members of the indigenous nation Xavantes, was first performed there in 2005. These two projects are both different and similar on several levels. Both deal with a real or fantasised event that actually occured, but one belongs to the present when the other belongs to the past. 

Could you say that La Reunion is at the heart of this project?

Yes. I was born on this island, and it is where I lived as child. There, the relationship one has with the horizon, and with the notion of an elsewhere, is a significant physical experience. All around me, there was an infinite variety of forces and powers, an excessive and lush vegetation, cirques and beaches, lagoons and chasms, forests worthy of the legend of the Erlkönig, woods where it would not have been incongruous to meet roaming dinosaurs. I can’t escape the island; wherever I walk in the world I have to carry it with me. It is like an invisible suitcase that I can’t get rid of, because I don’t know for sure what it contains. A suitcase I can’t open, because I don’t have the key for it. It is a forbidden heritage I have to carry along with me from bedroom to bedroom, theatre to theatre. Over time, this has imprinted on my personality motifs of nostalgia-tinted curiosity. 

It is nothing too demanding, rather, it’s a self-contained act of roving, which sometimes means I lose balance. Each time I trip and fall is an attempt to interrogate what I am made of, as a human. Theatres are formidable places for such an attempt to be expressed: theatre as a medium is more efficient than literature because there are mysteries that come into effect through the work of the actors. Theatre allows states of unconsciousness, similar to the state of someone who would be walking following one’s own steps, without knowing where they would lead them. What I am worried about nowadays is that theatre is becoming standardised, for production reasons, but also for conceptual reasons. I feel the tales I tell sit outside these rationales, these norms, outside any school. At first, my work was labelled “art and new technologies”, then I became a “writer”, then a “clown” and now I am “one of those who go too far”. This last label is my favourite: it grants me freedom. 

And perhaps, if I push a bit further, I can adopt the label “director who works on revisiting classics”: after all, I am working on an adaptation of “La Chèvre de Monsieur Seguin”! If I had said that in 2003, people would have thought that the Avignon heat had made me lose my mind. They would probably say the same today if I announced I was interested in adapting Racine or Strindberg. 

La Reunion is present in this project because it is where you spent part of your childhood. Is childhood also at the core of La Mort d’Adam?

Yes, because, at some point or another, we all look back on this time in our life. But what I’m interested in here is less to return to childhood than to explore the continuity of childhood. My life has been very ritualised, with regular transitions from one state to another, successive sloughs that have left behind exuviae, the pieces of skin that are detached from the body. But I keep a trace of everything that happened before the day of today. What sort of identity has this accumulation created? An identity that is fantasised rather than actual: the question of truth in theatre does not really matter to me. Some of the elements of this show are: the bull Adam that concretises the myth of the Minotaur that used to fascinate me as a child; Oedipus’s wandering, which we explore without a psychoanalytical reading; and the question of the Eucharist. By laying out this fable, I would like the audience to rediscover signs, points of emotion that could enable them to construct their own story, not just remember it. 

Adam is a bull, not the Biblical character…

He is a bull. With a name that takes some living up to! Adam was a bull who died, and which my family and I ate. It is this sacrifice, the way we devoured him, that have made this moment particularly intense. Anecdotes become edifices built with the cement of a sacrifice.   

Did you go to La Reunion to prepare the show?

Yes, I went back to La Reunion, but under singular conditions I imposed on myself. I wanted to go back blindfolded, wearing my clown outfit, and with my son in the role of a guide, a Hermes-like psychopomp, the one who leads the souls of the dead. 

A film made by François Royet for this specific occasion will accompany the show.

The narrative elements that make the show will be interlocked, which means that the audience might not necessarily see what is about to be said, but might see the consequence of what has just been said. There won’t be an explanation for everything; the point of the film isn’t to illustrate anything. What I want to say is just: here is what this story has built, here is what the child saw, and here is the sense of strangeness that makes up the man I am today. The film will show my own idealised version of events, how I used to perceive myself as a child, and the imaginary companion whom I used to play and go on walks with. 

You are going to work with Thierry Collet, who is both a magician and an actor Why?

Because there will be magic in the show! I have known Thierry Collet for fifteen years now and I wanted to combine traditional magic with more modern, more technology-oriented means, in order to use them for their poetic dimension, which is the only thing I’m interested in when working with technology. Thierry and I have been exploring a type of magic that unfolds within the constraints of theatrical time. 

This year, you will also premiere another show during the Avignon Festival: Comment ai-je pu tenir là-dedans? (How Was I Ever Able To Live In There?), adapted from Alphonse Daudet’s La Chèvre de Monsieur Seguin (The Goat of Monsieur Seguin). Is this your first family-oriented show? 

It is a children show that parents should also enjoy watching. It is a family show rather than a family-oriented show. It works very well for children aged 7 to 12 and their adults who see it differently. I like the idea that parents and children can then go home and talk about it. As this is the first time I work for young audiences, I have presented work in progress performances throughout the creative process to children, and I paid great attention to their reactions. I really wanted to understand what they could perceive, and what they couldn’t. I quickly noticed divisions between secondary school pupils from Hérouville-Saint-Clair, and those from a well-to-do area of Caen. The former seemed freer, with a way of accessing the piece that was more direct, when the latter had already acquired more constraining frames of thinking. 

How did you create the character of the goat?

My daughter and my son, to whom I was reading La Chèvre de Monsieur Seguin, asked, when the goat and Monsieur Seguin have a conversation: how is it possible for a goat to speak? Inspired by such pragmatism, I thought that perhaps the goat wasn’t a goat. And the goat speaks to Monsieur Seguin a little like a daughter would speak to her father. I thus entrusted the part of the goat to a female actor who isn’t dressed as a goat. 

And what about Monsieur Seguin?

He is represented by an imposing mannequin. In the story, he is under profoundly inert. He doesn’t even run after his goat after she leaves. 

Did you keep the original text in its entirety?

No, not all of it. However, the version I use is uncensored. I discovered for instance that, in some editions, words had been replaced. In one for example, the goat was not “drunk” but “inebriated”; other sections had been completely removed, like the one about the little chamois. I cut some of the text, for example I removed the reference to the horns that call the goat, because at that specific moment in the show, we use a piece of music that was especially composed for it. I adapted the story, but I didn’t rewrite it. 

Interestingly, you present in Avignon both a children show and a show about childhood. Should we see a connection here?

I think that, in each one of my shows, there is a part of my childhood that interrogates another one. But in this case, it’s contextual. I’m also deeply convinced that if I make theatre, it is to “play”. 

Since the beginning of your theatrical activities, you have always clearly claimed that the work was made in an equal partnership with Jean-Luc Therminarias. Do you feel this is a way of working that we see more and more in theatre-making?

I don’t think of myself as a theatre director, therefore I never felt like I was the sole instigator of a project. Rather, I feel I’m a member of an artistic cooperative that offers projects. I think we are witnessing the emergence of a new political awareness. Little by little, we understand that the world we live in is more and more complex and that it can’t be explained through one perspective or by one individual only. Consciously or not, we have understood that, when confronted to a complex situation, it was necessary to set up a system of cooperative problem-solving, something researchers and industrialists do very well. A lot of creative professionals are also conscious, sometimes excessively, that they have reached the limits of their discipline. To go beyond these limits, they choose to work in a way that is interdisciplinary. Besides, the lack of public funding for the performing arts urges artists to join forces. What is positive about this is that the multiplicity of voices allows a multiplicity of emotions. Perhaps we are at the start of a rebirth of the concept of theatre as a place that brings together the energy of filmmakers, dancers, circus artists, musicians, visual artists, painters. A rebirth of theatre as a place where one can feel they belong to a community, the place of an extreme modernity attuned to the development of our souls, rather than a tacky museum-like place. Since its origins, theatre has been a place of community-building. This is even more the case today, at a time when other collective rituals of sharing tend to collapse. 

Interview conducted by Jean-François Perrier