“State of Siege” may be performed in French, but director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota believes that the play conveys a message that the whole world should hear. Albert Camus’ harrowing 1948 play emphasizes humanity in the face of oppressive governance, which Demarcy-Mota argues is just as relevant to the present global political climate as it was when written.
“State of Siege,” or “L’État de Siège” in its native tongue, will inaugurate Cal Performances’ 2017-18 season of theatrical performances for a two-night show at Zellerbach Hall this Saturday and Sunday. Demarcy-Mota and the troupe of Paris’ Théâtre de la Ville will take to the Zellerbach stage for their third time, following 2014’s production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and 2012’s “Rhinocéros.”
“State of Siege” follows two government officials, Plague and his secretary Death, as they impose a totalitarian regime upon a Spanish town and enforce antagonistic conditions of political brutality therein. Written as a response to the tragedies and horrors of World War II, fascism and the Spanish Civil War, Camus’ play is argued by Théâtre de la Ville to possess an equivalent amount of contemporary relevance as any other dystopian fiction from its time period, such as Orwell’s constantly contemporarily referenced “1984.”
In an email interview with The Daily Californian translated by Natasha Boas, a trustee of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Demarcy-Mota shared that despite its grim subject matter, “State of Siege” truly shares a message of hope.
“Although it is a very dark play, I believe it actually evokes a world of beauty, of the power of love, the necessity for us to find meaning in life through engagement and resistance as we confront our worst fears. This play has us believe profoundly in humanity and active optimism even in the most pessimistic of times,” Demarcy-Mota explained.
In technical terms, Demarcy-Mota noted that the greatest challenge in directing “State of Siege” came from synthesizing Camus’ various stylistic choices of language and theatrics within the show. He described the guiding principle and framework behind the choreography and organization of the play as a belief in “the use of space and the freedom of movement.”
Demarcy-Mota also praised the extensive range of media used in “State of Siege.” “We love to engage all of the arts of theatre, from simple shadow games to sophisticated technologies,” he said. “This range also allows us to move through the different eras of history where we can disrupt ideas of time, spatial perception and space by creating a fusion of the concrete, the poetic and the spectacular.”
While the members of the audience who do not speak French will be reading live on-screen translations, Théâtre de la Ville ensured the utmost precision of these subtitles, and Demarcy-Mota believes audiences will quickly adapt to their use.
“The use of supertitles (in “State of “Siege”) accompanies the rhythm of the presentation—almost to the exact breath of the actor,” he said.
The power of Camus’ words across language barriers aided Demarcy-Mota in his goal of emphasizing the play’s universal themes for a contemporary audience. He pointed to the recent terrorist attacks in France, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s extreme right-wing ideologies, the U.K.’s National Front, the United States’ election of Trump and the rise of nationalism in Europe as sources of inspiration for his choice to produce “State of Siege,” which he described as ahead of its time.
For those living under the rise of these political movements, Demarcy-Mota described how the play addresses their effects on the individual, highlighting its relevance in an age of ideological isolationism and ignorance. While comfort may be found in the act of ignoring the modern world’s horrors, the director argues that these tragedies and injustices must be addressed to effect true change.
“We are living through a time when we all have a tendency, at one level or another, to one degree or another, to shut out the negative destruction all around us,” Demarcy-Mota began. “But it is like constant sinister throbbing music—sometimes we listen to it and sometimes we are just deaf to it. The play works on this level—by evoking past terrors. It sheds light on the darkness and makes it visible so that we have to listen.”
To allow for discussion of and reflection on the play’s messages, Zellerbach Hall will host “Catharsis Cafés” after each performance. All the more, Cal Performances and Berkeley faculty are in conjunction to work to increase the show’s accessibility for students. At least five UC Berkeley undergraduate classes will attend “State of Siege” and incorporate the show into their academic curricula. Two UC Berkeley professors and one former UC Berkeley doctoral candidate will host a roundtable discussion on the conditions wherein Camus wrote “L’État de Siège” at 6:30 p.m. in the Durham Studio Theater on Saturday.
Demarcy-Mota affirmed the importance of such dialogues. “Theatre, all theatre, has a fundamental role to play in breaking down barriers, walls and frontiers by creating urgent dialogue,” he explained. “I am convinced that the role of theatre is more important today than ever because it is an art form that convenes individuals together—two groups of individuals—the audience and the performers. By creating this confrontation, this stimulating meeting that is live, we can experience the anxieties of the world together while finding ways out of the pain and into hope.”
“State of Siege” is part of UC Berkeley’s Homecoming Programming. It will play Oct. 21-22 at Zellerbach Hall.
Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].