Homeward Bounding

In a rare (and timely) New York appearance, Théâtre Du Soleil sheds light on the world's refugee crisis

Though she can't help advocating for those denied a public voice, Mnouchkine isn't blind to the complexity of the issues. "While I think people should be able to travel wherever they want, I understand that a country should be able to say, 'No, I only want so many refugees a year and this man should be denied entry because he's a terrorist or fanatic.' "

Still, she says, though the West may not be entirely responsible for the refugee crisis, it is part of our collective responsibility to deal with it, particularly given our "support for unacceptable regimes." The hypocrisy is hardly lost on her. "We want your oil, but we don't want your refugees," she says by way of explaining the West's mentality. "We want your oil so we pay your dictatorship to stay in place, but we don't want the victims of this dictatorship we are paying to stay in place."

At stake for Mnouchkine in Caravansérail is the awareness of the refugees' humanity. "When you decide who deserves your compassion and your understanding, you are helping to decide someone's destiny. These are human beings, as good and bad as you or I am. They are the same. I am French, but my name is not. My father was a refugee or immigrant. I cannot forget that. At any point I can be thrown into a desperate situation, needing asylum from another country. Who knows what is going to happen?"

Ariane Mnouchkine: "Lack of freedom is the fundamental problem"
photo: Courtesy of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Ariane Mnouchkine: "Lack of freedom is the fundamental problem"

Mnouchkine's hope is to create a theatrical experience—a lengthy one, and therefore in this age of quick and easy consumption, arduous and demanding, though (characteristically) not inaccessible—that allows you to identify with the refugees on their journey. (What links the 60-odd stories in the piece? "Emotion," she says).

John Lahr once described Mnouchkine as a "conservative avant-gardist," an artist who "wants mass communication and actually loves the masses." That said, Mnouchkine productions require a certain effort on the part of their audiences, if not simply in terms of the works' marathon duration then for the charged relationships they forge with their viewers, who are usually prevented both spatially and philosophically from remaining detached. The theatrical labor is, in a sense, shared.

"When you go to the theater, you work," Mnouchkine says. "You don't know that you're working but you are. Cinema does not require it. As a director, you can put something on the stage, but it's the audience that comes up with everything else. One gesture, one sound, and they see a world."

Has the preferred 90-minute, intermission-free theatrical experience spoiled our capacity for this imaginative complicity? "I don't think the human mind or human heart will lose it," she says. "It may mean that our contemporary life won't allow it to happen everywhere. But I think it just takes real theater for us to immediately start responding again."

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