French Critic Sues Theatremaker Who Mocked Him Onstage And Mooned Audience

A Spanish theatre-maker is being sued for defamation by a French theatre critic after she read out one of his reviews on stage, flashed her bare bottom at the audience and called him a “bastard”.

In a stunt that has sparked a debate about the limits of artistic freedom in politically divisive times, Angélica Liddell, a director and performer, read out a list of negative reviews of her past work from French critics, many of whom were in attendance at her opening show of the Avignon performing arts festival on Saturday.

With her back turned on the audience in a 15-minute sequence near the start of her play Dämon: El funeral de Bergman (Demon: Bergman’s Funeral), Liddell named the reviewers and asked them to “face your own vileness”.

“I despise and hate you,” the 67-year-old said, at one point lifting the back of her dress to the 1,000-seater auditorium of the Palais des Papes.

A special dose of vitriol was reserved for the critic Stéphane Capron of the radio station France Inter. Riffing on his surname, Liddell called Capron a cabrón, a Spanish slang word literally meaning “male goat” but often used to mean “bastard” or “arsehole”.

According to French media reports, Capron subsequently filed a complaint for defamation, as well as asking the theatre to exclude his name from future performances at the festival. The move was supported by the Syndicat de la Critique, a French union for theatre, music and dance critics, which said Liddell’s show had “undermined the moral integrity of our colleague”.

“In the same way that we support freedom of creation, we support freedom of the press,” the union said in a statement. “Critics, in our country, are still free to write, to express a point of view. Artists too, within the limits of public insult.”

Responding to the criticism, the Avignon festival said it “defended freedom of expression and freedom of the press”, but that its directors had “no business interfering with the integrity of the works presented”.

“Comments made on stage as part of an artistic project cannot be considered a position of the festival,” it added.

A spokesperson said Liddell’s diatribe against her critics had not been part of the dress rehearsal for the play and that the festival’s directors had not been made aware of its inclusion beforehand.

Born in Figueres, Catalonia, Liddell is known for her scorching monologues against injustices, usually directed and performed by herself. “I opt to be an irresponsible artist,” she said in response to questions about the Avignon incident. “We have to give the stage back to the mad, the irresponsible, those who do not understand what is appropriate.”

While some critics have bemoaned a self-indulgence in Liddell’s work, her relentlessly impassioned performances have also won her many admirers – especially in France.

“I was surprised that Liddell targeted French critics in her play, because they have given her a lot of support,” said Laura Cappelle, who attended Saturday’s premiere as a reviewer for the New York Times.

The Avignon episode appears to be reminiscent of an incident in Germany last February, when the director of the Hanover State Opera ballet company smeared a critic’s face with dog excrement after she described one of his productions as “boring” and “disjointed”. But Liddell said her attack on her critic should be understood as being part of her artistic performance.

Dämon is in large part an imagined dialogue between the Spanish performer and one of her artistic idols, Ingmar Bergman, and Liddell said the diatribe against critics was above all a reference to the Swedish director’s notoriously combative relationship with his own critics.

Bergman in 1969 had a physical altercation with a theatre critic for Dagens Nyheter newspaper over a negative review, for which he was fined 5,000 kroner. “In his diaries, Bergman says paying the 5,000 kroner was worth it,” Liddell said. “We don’t even know the name of the critic these days. Bergman is an immortal.”

Liddell said she had not yet received a court summons or an injunction, but dismissed the critics for lacking a sense of humour.

“The critic in question has been offended by a play on words and their synonyms, which is not even an insult in itself,” she said. “It is a buffoonish, a satirical act, taking advantage of the fact that Spanish is the guest language at the festival.”

Alluding to the advances of the far right in last weekend’s first round parliamentary election, she added: “It’s unbelievable that a Frenchman feels his moral integrity has been damaged when it is the moral integrity of France that is in danger because of its voters. When someone sues an artist, they are attacking art and culture, out of sheer narcissism. Art is not the business of the police.”

Capron did not respond to a request for comment.

But even those critics who declined to take legal action have taken issue with Liddell’s attitude.

“Theatre criticism is a very precarious and niche profession these days,” said Fabienne Darge, a critic for Le Monde. She said one of the singled-out reviewers was a freelance journalist, while another who was named but was not present in the audience, Philippe Lançon, was severely injured in the 2015 terror attack on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. “Hitting the most vulnerable is just not very classy.”

Another critic named in the play, Armelle Héliot of Le Figaro, bemoaned in a blog post that Liddell was not interested in an exchange of views, but is “only interested in herself”.

After the Avignon festival, Dämon: El funeral de Bergman will travel to Barcelona from 19 to 21 July, and later to Madrid. El País has speculated whether, for these performances, Liddell will direct her diatribe at Spanish critics instead.

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