The grave disappointment of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival was the return of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil to New York for the first time since her 1992 triumph with the tetralogy of Greek tragedies, Les Atrides. In length (six hours plus), scope, and ambition, few events could have been larger or more imposing in their demands
than the new piece, staged by Mnouchkine using texts by the performers. Yet it’s hard to recall a piece of similar size that vitiated its own effects so quickly, despite being done with such immense skill and care.
The Last Caravansary is Mnouchkine’s meditation on the travails and fates of refugees in the contemporary world. Done in a cascade of largely non-Western languages, it makes a sweeping though not all-encompassing survey: Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, Chechens, Russians, Kosovars, and others straggle through its long procession of scenes, fleeing Christian extremists, Muslim extremists, war, totalitarianism, starvation, drought, or simply the general misery of life in countries where the economy has tanked and the water in the rusty taps is no different from that in the open sewers.
Persecuted at home, mercilessly bilked when they sell off their belongings, they face worse agonies on the road to someplace better, contending not only with the elements and the nightmare vagaries of clandestine transport, but with extortionate guides, predatory gangs, border guards who shoot to kill, and the mad tangles of bureaucracy set up by Western nations trying simultaneously to seem humane and to admit as few foreigners as possible. Betrayal, brutality, murder, and corpse robbing crop up regularly; as bad as the agony they cause are the mind-numbing waits in refugee settlements and the overarching ache of being cut off from everything and everyone back home. Refugees lament, and sentimentalize their former lives, a lot.
None of this, however, is exactly news, not even to the theater. In trying to give it a new formal life for contemporary audiences, Mnouchkine seems to have placed her faith in a combination of grandeur and specificity: Her chronicle of refugee sufferings, layered scene upon detailed scene, is like a cathedral built of toothpicks, a tiny but imposing replica of something endured by others on a much larger scale. The immediate effect is not of a big, sweeping statement but of an unwieldy, eccentric curio. This in itself is startling, since Mnouchkine is celebrated precisely for her ability to create unforgettable stage images that coalesce a drama’s currents of thought into snapshots that stay with you forever. But in The Last Caravansary, Mnouchkine has gotten lost in the details, and we’ve seen the snapshots all too often. As the work wends its sluggish way from mountain passes to train tunnels to internment camps, it never coalesces; no feeling is built up, and no overall idea is caught in an unforgettable image.
The exceptions to that last assertion are the opening scenes of the work’s two three-hour halves. These two brief, agonizing scenes must be among the most thrilling theater moments made in our time. Both involve a terrifying trip across turbulent waters, created Asian theater-style by the use of billowing cloth. In the first, a man reluctantly ferries a pack of miserable souls from one rocky spit of land to another, in what looks like a large wicker basket, across the “cruel river” of the subtitle. The dialogue is inaudible against the roaring torrent, but every movement is full and precise, psychology raised to the level of myth. This, one thinks excitedly, is an epic; it will proffer epic shape and perspective to go with its epic intensity of vision.
At the top of Part II, “Origins and Destinies,” Mnouchkine repeats the trick, with a difference. This time the refugees are in a rickety boat, crossing the fierce sea from Pakistan to Australia. In the center of this scene, for one breath-stopping moment, the boat disappears under the waves. When it resurfaces, it confronts a new menace: Australian coastguardsmen, on ropes that suddenly sprout from nowhere, while earsplitting helicopter sounds pour down from above and a bullhorn voice orders the refugees to turn back. Here again the image is dazzling, the details perfect, the effect devastating and complete.
And that, in a sense, is the problem with everything that follows. For while Mnouchkine and her writer-performers may arrange arresting details here or startling events there, everything the theater can make us feel about the experience of being a refugee is already in those two opening scenes, at full power. The interlacing odysseys that follow offer only data and details, their dramatic moments often predictable. That the reality of a worldwide problem is large does not mean that crumbling it into small pieces will help us understand it. Trying to do the work of a U.N. report, Mnouchkine seems to abdicate the work of the theater. Far from creating a strong new approach to narrative, her fragmented following of a dozen stories suggests only a less well-focused version of the large-scale dramas that theaters here and abroad have been stumbling through for decades.
I don’t mean to be petty about the work of this remarkable artist, only to say that I think she has been guided here perhaps by well-meaning intentions that have no place in art. Tackling an enormous reality, Mnouchkine has done the one thing I would not have expected of her: She has made it less interesting.