(By Kalina Stefanova)

it was high time for us to stop living with an illusion: there isn’t “our” world and “their” world; the borders can’t stop sorrow from spilling over; the earth is only one and for all of us it’s simply "The Last Inn"


This time it wasn’t on TV. Neither was it in a paper. It was taking place right before our eyes. Just several meters away.

A small raft was fighting with the waves, some of the passengers managed to reach the opposite coast, the rest were swallowed by the sea depths… In a caravan wagon, turned into a doctor’s office, a doctor was examining a young man with a wooden leg… In another wagon in the same camp, a girl was prostituting, encouraged through tears by her own mother—this was the only way for them to earn money in order to escape from there and start a normal life… Months before that, in Moscow, metal rattled in the pot of a street beggar, lying on dirty flat boxes: “Here are your medals from Afghanistan! We are leaving for Europe!” said the mother from the previous scene… In Tehran, after a demonstration, a young girl beaten by the police, came back home; the whole family hastily packed and fled to the West… Human beings were sneaking through a hole in a wire fence, spurred by the crude shouts of men who had just received money for arranging the n’th illegal transfer of people from the “under” land of suffering and oppression to the “upper” land of freedom and prosperity…


Yes, we couldn’t simply switch off the TV or throw the paper away. We had gone the opposite way—from the “upper” land to the “under” land—and were already down there, where pain wasn’t just a news scoop, but a daily round. Our guide along the roads of this totally new reality was Ariane Mnouchkine and her Theatre du Soleil.  And with the title of her show (Le Dernier Caravanserail) she was already telling us that it was high time for us to stop living with an illusion: there isn’t “our” world and “their” world; the borders can’t stop sorrow from spilling over; the earth is only one and for all of us it’s simply “The Last Inn”. Or: “the last place where people from different nationalities gather,” according to an old dictionary’s translation of the French word caravanserail. (What a perfect definition of the planet which we inhabit and which we call in a more modern fashion a global village!)


And as every traditional inn, this one too is a place where stories are being told. Or, as the subtitle of the show calls them: Odysseys.  Sangatte, a French refugee camp, closed in 2002—this is the place where some of these odysseys come about. Others just start from there. And for yet other ones Sangatte remains the Promised Land which their characters never manage to reach. [1] Every story begins with a title projected on a screen. Then some of the odysseys are told, so to speak, “behind the scene”: only in words, without images—in an epistolary form, the text of which simultaneously resounds in the hall and is projected on the screen. Others are enacted on the scene almost without words. In a third kind, the flood of words is simply an attempt to hide the sorrow behind them.


The words are said in different languages. In the languages they were actually uttered. Because the text is almost entirely documentary, assembled from parts of letters and stories of and about  refugees.  Moreover: some of the actors come from the countries of their characters. From Russia, Afghanistan, Iran. Bosnia. Bulgaria… And there’s yet another extraordinary thing which lends additional credibility to the events unfolding before our eyes: some of the performers are not actors but the refugees themselves who tell their stories. (The text in foreign languages is always accompanied by subtitles in French.)


However, this is not simply an excellent documentary show. Period. This is high-class theatre that has an incredible impact not only because it presents heart-rending “true stories” but also because it manages to recreate the characters’ state-of-mind and make us feel as if literally experiencing, with all our senses, the horror they’ve gone   through. Arianne Mnouchkine achieves this with a very simple and extraordinary trick: both the characters and the sparse sets are brought in onto and taken out of the bare stage (or rather flown in and out of it!) on wheeled wooden platforms that are moved on the run by stage hands or actors (not participating in the respective scenes). The feeling is as if the stories themselves rush towards us, thrust themselves upon us, one after another, overwhelm us with their pain and transmit to us the extreme tension they are charged with. This directorial move emphasizes the feverish frenzy of the stampede—the general situation the characters of these stories are in. The stampede in the course of which dignity often turns out to be the heaviest burden that has to be abandoned if one is to go on. That’s why the creatures frantically running in front of us at times look more like chased animals than people. People who could even “envy” animals: “In Europe a dog lives better than us!” says a refugee from the Middle East.


However, is it only the world these people are trying to escape from that has to bear the whole blame for the pain resulting from their lost dignity? Or should the responsibility be equally shared with the world that very often meets them exactly as if they were homeless animals who have dared to rush into its inviolable territory and disturb its comfort? Mnouchkine doesn’t let us wonder at all what her answer to these questions is. She does so by means of the warmth, understanding and compassion she creates and surrounds her characters with. She does so via the choice of love as the main “glue material” in this otherwise so sad collage—love that goes on being present in the characters’ life (and Mnouchkine is very keen on emphasizing that!) even when it has a foretold tragic end. (A series of scenes entitled An Afghan Love goes through the whole show as a leitmotif.) Finally, Mnouchkine does so through the songs which are interwoven in or connect the episodes. One of them says: “Everything’s forbidden. You are forbidden. I’m forbidden.” Only minutes after the Afghani girl, who has dared to love against the rules, is hung at the back of the hut, where she and her beloved man have been caught “red-handed”.


Another song is a Bulgarian folklore one. It is played twice. First, when the Bulgarian man, who’s part of the team arranging the illegal traffic of people, sings it to his small son in Bulgaria. And several scenes later, when he lies, just killed by the competition, near the hole in the wire-fence through which the refugees are going; the cell phone rings in his pocket, a Russian woman automatically takes it out to answer and, before being able to say anything, the song resounds—this time sang by the child, eager to please his father.


It’s not necessary to be Bulgarian for one to burst into tears at that moment. As it’s not necessary to know all the languages spoken in Mnouchkine’s show for one to be shattered to tears by the odysseys of her characters. Because all of them in the end talk to that thing in us which is beyond languages and differences, and which is called humanity. And the tears are not only of compassion and pain for the abused humanity we witness but also of indignation and shame that all we see is a reality not fiction. Reality belonging not to other times and ages but to the very present day. Reality that transpires in our very world—the last inn we all have.


By the way, only three hours prior to that (such is the duration of the show) the same world has seemed perfectly nice. And this contrast is actually part of the preparation for the shock in which we leave the theatre. Because the “road” we go along from the moment we cross the threshold of Theatre du Soleil to the moment the lights go down  is a special prelude to the show, directed equally extraordinarily as the show itself. In order to have enough time for this prelude one has to go to the theatre an hour before the curtain time. (Actually, the audience is advised to do so anyway, because the seats are not reserved; so the first thing one does is to find an empty seat and put one’s ticket in a transparent pocket, specially designed for this reason on the front side of the back.)


The big non-traditional building of Theatre du Solieil consists of three gigantic rectangular premises, almost equal in size, with very high ceilings. The first one is the most impressive, because however easy it is to “identify” each and every separate thing there, on the whole this premise doesn’t belong to any definite style, nationality or place in the world. It’s rather the whole world gathered in one place. Half of the ceiling consists of opaque white rectangles, like  white sails though which the light makes its way into the hall. The other half is wooden and along its length there are strings of differently colored bulbs. A low-height yellow frieze of Greek and Asian motifs goes along the two long walls of the hall. Above the frieze there are numerous, scattered inscriptions and graffiti in different languages, alphabets and fonts. Ordinary messages, quotes, poetry… A verse by Marina Tsvetaeva in Russian among them. Here and there the frieze is peeling, as if it has been on these walls for a long while and the uneven letters look like they’ve been written in a hurry by people who have been here before us. The whole short wall opposite the main entrance is a map of the world. Not an ordinary atlas map, though, but also as if drawn by someone as an illustration of something. The “something” are the roads (or itineraries) marked by arrows. From Afghanistan towards Europe, through Turkey and Bulgaria. Or from Iran towards Australia, through India and Malaysia. From Algeria towards France and England. From Timour towards New Zealand… THE ROADS reads the sign above the map. The same roads are the subject of the books attached with strings to the short library shelves standing at different places in the hall. In brief: this hall is something like a three-dimensional playbill of the show. It’s the place where part of the words that precede the show dwell in. All what theatre will later on be telling us at length about is encapsulated here in several messages, letters and graffiti—those very ones that have served as the springboard for the stage narrative.


This hall is one more thing as well: it’s the essence of life material-wise. Because in-between these painted walls and in the midst of the library shelves a real culinary feast takes place in full swing. At the left side of the hall there are food bars that offer a limited-choice yet very interesting menu: from half a chicken on rice with Asian spices and several other main courses to very exotic deserts. Beside the bars black women in bright native African dresses offer no less exotic drinks. Both the food and the drinks are being served out of very large pots and barrels. Afterwards one has a real choice of tables: huge, round ones with white table-cloths; small, wooden garden ones; square ones with chequed covers; tables on bike wheels; or simple wooden benches, like in an old-fashioned railway-station waiting room…


When the first bell rings, we leave the empty plates and glasses at the designated places, as if symbolically bidding “Good Bye” to the material, and head off to the second hall. It’s entirely empty and dusky. The light seeps through several windows, up near the ceiling, already filtered once through the thick trees out there. One has to stare in order to see well the Buddhist frescos in the different nuances of red that cover the walls. This hall makes us quiet down, whisper, walk on tiptoes. It almost makes us humble ourselves. The Material is behind our backs—on the other side of the wall. We are already in the territory of the Spirit. And we could already be received by the Theatre.


And the Theatre is expecting us, as usually chez Mnouchkine, in its dressing room. Between the second and the third hall there’s no real wall: the actors are putting their make up in the space under the metal construction with the seats for the audience and on a scaffold—continuation of the stage, jutting out into the ascetic emptiness of the second hall. Still there’s something like an entrance between the two halls: at the beginning of the aisle between the seats and the stage. A large basket full of whitish reed fans stands at the side of that entrance. There’s no air-condition and it’s hot. All of us take a fan and in a while our part of the third hall starts quivering like a many-colored bush with thousands of white butterflies on it. The ceiling above us is even and wooden, whereas above the stage it rises like a dome and consists of many white spread sails, like a sailboat moving at full sail. It’s with this boat that in a short while we embark on a voyage around the world. More precisely: along the roads marked on the map in the first hall.


Some ten meters only separate us at this moment from the beautiful place where, comfortably ensconced and eating, we have curiously studied the inscriptions on the walls. Yet, when the show starts, we realize that that distance cannot be measured in meters. It’s the distance between two worlds—the world of normal existence and the one of total injustice. Gradually, though, we start asking ourselves whether the first one is not also the world of satiation, for which the suffering of the people from across the border is something like a spice, a pinch of the exotic? And whether the pieces of info and show-time that the media constantly bombards us with are not there also to make us feel privileged that all this is not happening to us? And, finally, where is the borderline between compassion and cynicism, when we watch on TV the n’th war or human tragedy?


After the end of Mnoushkin’s show one feels like one has experienced the other people’s pain with one’s own body, having wept the other people’s sorrows with one’s own tears. And having gone through all that, one feels confident that from now on no such injustice will ever pass by unnoticed and unpunished. In other words, one feels different and changed. The magic wand in this case is in the hands of Mnoushkin and her creative team. Generally, though, it’s in the hands of The Great Theatre. The Great Theatre whose impact has always kept power-wielding, almost equal in size authorities on alert and has even made them carefully censor the stage—in some places until recently, in others nowadays too. And for good reason: after every performance of Theatre du Soleil there are more people who’ll insist on making the world—the whole world, not only their part of it!—become a better place. With the indisputable argument that this is our “Last inn”. For all of us.

[1] Because of its whereabouts near the entrance of the tunnel under the Channel, Sangatte gained notoriety for the numerous escapes of its inhabitants in the direction of England and its liberal immigration laws.


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.