Review: ‘Dämon: El Funeral de Bergman’ Brings Electricity to Avignon

Theater critics can be masochistic creatures. On Saturday, the Spanish provocateur Angélica Liddell opened the Avignon Festival in France, one of Europe’s most prestigious theater events, with a no-holds-barred diatribe against them. She quoted, and taunted, several writers who were in the audience.

The response from the rows of journalists in attendance, and the nearly 2,000 attendees? A standing ovation.

Bizarre and grating as it was, Liddell’s “Dämon: El Funeral de Bergman” (“Demons: Bergman’s Funeral”) brought a level of electricity to the Avignon Festival, which runs through July 21, that few have matched in recent years. Its most prized venue, the open-air Cour d’Honneur of Avignon’s Palais des Papes, or papal palace, tends to foil even the most experienced artists. Not so Liddell and her visceral monologues.

She spent long stretches of “Dämon: El Funeral de Bergman” alone on the vast, blood-red stage. Pacing back and forth, she vociferated as if she were possessed. At regular intervals, she took her cue from the intense, misanthropic writings of the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, one of her idols. “I am Ingmar Bergman,” she declared at one point, before returning to her favorite themes: death, guilt, sex and excrement.

Yet the first vocal shots Liddell fired were directed at critics, in a section called “Humiliations suffered.” With her back turned to the audience, she began reading excerpts from negative reviews of her work, starting with an article by Armelle Héliot, the former chief theater critic of the French newspaper Le Figaro. “Where are you, Armelle?,” Liddell yelled, before moving on to the next name.

As those around me realized what was happening, mouths fell open. Many of us thought back frantically on our past reviews, wondering if we were next.

It was an incendiary breach of the unspoken contract between artists and critics, with one writer in particular the target of an unjustifiable litany of insults. “I despise and hate you,” Liddell said, asking reviewers to “face your own vileness.”

To be fair, Liddell seems to despise most of humanity, so we were in good company. Yet it was a strange choice of target, because French critics have been among her biggest advocates since her Avignon debut, in 2010.

In fact, Liddell embodies the rebellious, experimental side of the event, where she built her cult following in Europe. “Dämon” marks her eighth production at the festival. From noodles thrown at the audience in 2013’s “Ping Pang Qiu” to naked women masturbating with dead octopuses in 2016’s “¿Qué Haré Yo con Esta Espada?,” she is part and parcel of Avignon folklore.

Her Cour d’Honneur debut only cements that status, and she makes clever use of this one-of-a-kind venue. The stage is nearly empty, except for a toilet, a urinal and a bidet positioned against the Gothic wall of the palace, once home to popes.

A mystic, religious streak has always run through Liddell’s work, and here the first performer to appear is costumed like a pope. Casually, with his hands held behind his back, he strolls around the stage, pausing to examine the toilet.

Then, before Liddell even utters a word, she stakes her claim to the Cour d’Honneur in idiosyncratic fashion. Her backside to us, she pulls her dress up over a basin filled with water, and proceeds to wash her genitals in plain sight. Next, she throws the water against the towering medieval wall behind her.

The rest of the cast only makes an appearance after Liddell’s marathon-like monologue. The biggest tableau is a meditation of sorts on the indignities of aging, involving, as often with Liddell, significant nudity. A dozen seniors sit in wheelchairs while vignettes happen around them — an older man singing naked, younger women stripping off to sit in various laps, Liddell briefly arousing the faux-pope.

“Dämon” ultimately builds up, as the title suggests, to a theatrical reimagination of Bergman’s burial. The filmmaker wrote a script for his own funeral, and Liddell faithfully recreates the simple wood coffin and musical accompaniment that he wanted: Bach. (The female mourners in black lingerie and the men who pull down their pants are presumably a Liddell touch.)

After the ceremony was done, Liddell stayed alone onstage with the coffin. “Loneliness is nigh,” she said, addressing Bergman. “Will you accept me as your last wife? Because I can’t live like this.” All of a sudden, she looked quieter, touching on her troubled relationship with her parents and her sense of guilt over once wishing them harm.

She directed some final jabs at critics, but a vulnerability had crept in. “Friends and enemies, our days are numbered. Theater is time, and time kills,” Liddell said, before pausing.

At that moment, on opening night, raindrops started falling over Avignon. Liddell looked up to the sky and some audience members started clapping — still bewitched by her, in spite of it all.

“It’s nice to get a good kicking sometimes,” a fellow critic told me after the standing ovation receded. Liddell may hate normie reviewers, but the extremes she pushes us to consider are never boring. As she puts it at the end of the show, in white letters projected over the venerable backdrop: “Watch out, bastard, and see you at the next play.”

Dämon: El Funeral de Bergman

Through July 5 at Avignon Festival;

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