At the head of the Theatre de Soleil for 25 years, Ariane Mnouchkine is one of the great emblematic figures of French theater and one of the few survivors — Patrice Chereau having abandoned theater for cinema — of a generation for which the director was the most important ingredient of any play. With “Drums on the Dyke,” written by Helene Cixous, her collaborator for 15 years, Mnouchkine has delved ever deeper into her fascination with Far Eastern theater techniques while still using the collective methods — 25 actors living and working as a community and playing a huge number of roles — for which she is famed.
This latest work was inspired by the Chinese government’s recent deliberate flooding of vast tracts of farming land without warning the local population. Set in a mythical Far Eastern country and in an unspecified historical period, it portrays a feudal lord whose city is threatened by a rapidly rising river. The dyke protecting the city must be breached to divert the floodwater, with inevitable loss of life. Who is to die is the dreadful moral question.
Mnouchkine has drilled her actors into performing like marionettes, each of them manipulated, sometimes in reality but more often symbolically, by two puppeteers — onstage members of the troupe, dressed all in black, who follow their slightest movement. This generates a range of very beautiful effects, enhanced by a magnificent array of costumes.
The rhythm of the play, however, is dictated not by dramatic development but by the initially charming if time-consuming device of having every character lifted offstage by its puppeteers at the end of each tableau. Vocal delivery, meanwhile, is as mannered as the minutely choreographed movement and roles are played indifferently by male and female actors.
Mnouchkine’s entire approach is highly aesthetic: The stage itself resembles a piece of contemporary sculpture. It is walled in by wooden planks to resemble a dyke, complete with gray pebbles and a central platform which, at the end, sinks into several feet of water. The play is accompanied nonstop by music and sound effects, played on a huge array of oriental instruments.
So much appealing and clever stagecraft cannot, however, mask the weaknesses of an overly complex plot and feeble characterization which, with such a mannered form of acting, needs to be particularly strong. As it is, the prettiness is overwhelming.