Thursday, 20 October 2016

An Event in the Town of Goga – SNG, Maribor

[seen 16/10/16]

I once got very told off for using comparisons to English plays in Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, the quickest way to describe [Slovensko Stalno Gledališče Trst in Glasbena Matica’s staging of] An Event in the Town of Goga (Pogovor o uprizoritvi Dogodek v mestu Gogi) is to say it’s a bit like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood crossed with Jim Cartwright’s Two. With added string trio and piano.

[Please understand, grumpy Eastern European critic, that I’m not actually saying one is better than another thing; I’m just trying to explain a thing to my predominantly English audience by giving them an idea of something it’s a bit like. I’m sure there are better ways of doing this, but I think there’s also a useful dimension where borders are usefully collapsed by doing it this way...]

Essentially, two actors (Patrizia Jurinčič, Dan Malalan) play all the roles of the inhabitants of Goga, a (fictional?) Slovenian town where the townsfolk grumble that nothing ever happens. The clanging irony, of course, is that there is lots going on underneath the surface (think Blue Velvet). A hunchbacked youth dreams of becoming an actor, and appears obsessed with Ibsen’s Ghosts. A young woman returns home and tries to murder the man who raped her as a child. A couple of other things happen. I get the impression that this is a radically pared-down version of the original, witn only the bare bones of set-up and pay-off in each event remaining; the rest having been cleared away to make room for a meta-theatrical framing device of two bewigged (C18th) socialites/singers observing the citizens at a party of some sort, while also singing operatic arias to the audience (and Bohemian Rhapsody).

As stagings go, well, it looks lovely. The artfully empty-by-not-empty stage is perfectly lit – a scaff. tower stands in the middle, doubling as various locations, while the impression of other houses is given by a bunch of Persian carpets laid out about the place. There’s a piano at the back, a string trio sitting about the place, and several mannequins and dressmaker’s dummies

As you might have noticed from the plot summary, there is *some unevenness of tone* here. The comic blah sits uncomfortably with the story of a girl who was repeatedly raped in her youth. And, well, the tragi-comic disabled simpleton probably wants a bit of looking at as well. On the other hand, this is my first acquaintance with what I understand is quite a well-known folk play here in Slovenia. Perhaps if the plot and characters of the story are pre-known to an audience (as they will be here), then directors etc. feel less need to cushion the brute facts, or apologise for them. And there is *some* layer of *something* around the performance that I think acknowledges that attitudes have maybe shifted somewhat since the play’s inception. Or, again, perhaps it’s this peculiar situation we now have in England where representations of *everyone* have to somehow be “fair” and showing situations in which the oppressed are oppressed is deemed to perpetuate that oppression. I dunno. England’s in a very funny state right now, and writing about its theatre is just about the worst thing imaginable (apart from all the actual bad things; which are worse).

So, what to say about this performance? It was hard work, for me. But I suspect I’m not the intended audience (not even remotely a native speaker, not culturally native). The seats were uncomfortable; the surtitles too high up, and too dim to be easily read, but this is all piffle.

There’s an uncomfortable feeling, sometimes, in criticism, of just being an external examiner, or moderator. You come in, and see a spread of the work that has already been marked highly, and really you should just be pleased that someone else has seen something in it, even if you don’t perhaps see it yourself. I mean, I really don’t. I haven’t met the curator of this Festival yet, but I suspect if we got to talking, and discussed our highlights of European theatre over the past few years our venn diagrams of the high points would overlap very little. I also don’t perhaps see where he or she is coming from dramaturgically yet. Unlike the Lithuanian showcase at Sirenos, which clearly has an emphasis on the emerging and the young, or Priit Raud’s astonishing programme at Baltoscandal, which chose complimentary pieces that, when placed alongside each other, actually added up to more than the sum of their already considerable parts, the programme here so far feels like “some things”. But perhaps there’s a clear agenda that – because it doesn’t touch on anything I’m experiencing – I’m just failing to perceive.

Director: Igor Pison
Dramaturgs: Katarina Košir, Ana Obreza
Set designer: Petra Veber
Conductor: Igor Zobin
Language consultant: Laura Brataševec

Afra/Hana/Ms Prestopil: Patrizia Jurinčič
Tarbula/Ms Tereza/Komi Omar Prelih/Pisar Klikot/Grbavec Teobald: Dan Malalan,

Slovenian Musical Centre ensemble: Ana Obreza (violin), Valentina Bembi (viola), Irene Ferro Casagrande (cello)

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Oath – SNG, Maribor

[seen 17/10/16]

*Obviously,* refugees and immigration are very much the hot topic of the last year or so in European theatre; all the more so in Fortress Britain since we narrowly voted to leave the EU, for what, it has now been decided by our government, were largely racist and xenophobic reasons.

The Oath is an immigration narrative of sorts. It’s also a massive turbo-folk, karaoke, drinking party. WITH INDOOR SMOKING. [I might have quit drinking, but, my God, any piece of theatre that brings an ashtray to my table and encourages me to get smoking wins my undying love. I mean, if they’re not stopping me smoking, they can pretty much do what they like after that.]

Our two hosts – Nenad Jelesijević, Lana Zdravković – tell us the (true?) story of their move to Slovenia from Belgrade during the NATO bombings of 1999, and their subsequent love affair(s?) careers, and “assimilation” in Slovenia. It ends with their oaths of citizenship in their new country and subsequent (contingent, even) marriage.

On the surface, it’s fun, rowdy, maybe a bit sad/bitter (especially re: drinking and relationships), and camp as [insert non-worn-out-similie here].  My internal Edinburgh producer/Queer Festival curator/RVT programmer reckoned it was 9/10ths smash hit. If he’d been drinking, it would probably have been an 11. I mean, it would probably want a bit of a dramaturgical overhaul for the English market – more story, more legible jokes, bit of a rethink re: five scantily-clad female dancers (maybe. But maybe I’m just being over-sensitive there – it’s basically just a drag show, but with female performers. It’s a bit in-your-face, but maybe that’s good?) – but, yeah. I could see a revised version playing in one of those drinking tents in Edinburgh (if they can find one that allows smoking) and making a tonne of money. (Even more money if they stop giving away a tonne of free rakija.)

Underneath, well, I think I detected a mass of irony seething away under the surface glitter and ceremony, but I’d have to be a native speaker (great surtitles, though), and a better historian of the period to say for certain. Suffice it to say, I think there’s that’s immigrant’s dual sense of gratitude for having found a nice country to live in, and acknowledgement that the host country is maybe full of racist bastards who’d rather not have you there. There’s also the amusing (again, I imagine true) fact that both these “immigrant/refugees” have gone on to obtain PhDs in social and political sciences and visual and digital culture, and there’s some amusing talk of NGOs and arts council grants (which, again, I don’t think needs any translation for a UK context). (“Coming over here, adding to the sum total of human learning!”)

It’s not a show that totally resists analysis (cf. James Varney’s excellent review of the drag Return To Grey Gardens), more that I don’t think I have sufficient critical tools to do any good poking around under the chassis. Instead, I’ll leave you with some examples of the sort of music played...

[ADVICE: they *adapted* the lyrics of these songs, and they didn’t show the videos, so you might want to just listen to the music and tune out the contents of the originals (where they’re even understandable) and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T WATCH THE VIDEOS...]

[Embedding disabled by request, click to watch]

[Embedding disabled by request, click to watch]

So, yeah. Basically, anyone who wants to make the lip-synch drag version for the UK has a sure-fire hit on their hands. Would probably also do well as a late show at International Festivals (if anyone reading happens to have one of those...)

Kitch and Bunker Institute
Première: 28. 1. 2016, The Old Power Station Ljubljana
Running time 1 hour 15 minutes. No interval.

Author of concept: Kitch
Advisors: Bojan Jablanovec, Andreja Kopač, Katarina Stegnar
Choreographers: Teja Drobnjak, Evin Hadžialjević, Sara Janašković, Eva Lah, Tanja Sabol
Sound designers and transmitors: Jure Vlahovič/Rok Kovač
Music: fragments and remakes of songs by various artists
Singing instructor: Nataša Nahtigal
Costume designer: Mateja Fajt
Makeup artist: Tina Prpar
Author of space and lighting concept, graphic designer: Kitch
Lighting conductor, technical coordinator: Andrej Petrovčič
Photo-documentator: Nada Žgank
Video-documentators Urša Bonelli Potokar, Valerie Wolf Gang
Hosts: Nenad Jelesijević, Lana Zdravković
Dancers Teja Drobnjak, Evin Hadžialjević, Olivera Milašinović, Bela Pikalo, Tanja Sabol
Waiters Žan Mrhar, Gal Oblak

Photo: Nada Žgank

Učene ženske po motivih Molièrovih Učenih žensk– SNG, Maribor

[seen 17/10/16]

I was a huge fan of Jernej Lorenci’s Iliad at BITEF last year.

This adaptation of Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes (full title here, in English: The Educated Ladies after motifs from Molière’s The Educated Ladies) is a rather more difficult proposition.

I should say, first off, that the surtitles were squint-inducingly dim, very high up, badly out-of-sync [although the performance is, I think, improvised, so maybe text surtitles also do it a massive disservice] and that my chair wasn’t the comfiest, so I was not in an ideal position to appreciate very much. Visually the piece is very well made. And I think, postdramatically, it was also incredibly astute (at least, right up to the point where I thought it wasn’t).

The action of the adaptation pretty neatly mirrors the action of the original – performs the same functions – but with all the ornate crap stripped out; the Philippe Starck Louis Ghost version of the original, you might say. However, Lorenci and his dramaturg Matic Starina, don’t appear to have done much to alter the *somewhat* misogynist premises of the original. (Sure, you *could* argue that Molière is more of an equal-opportunities offender than that, but this entire play is premised on the idea that educated women are essentially inherently a) ridiculous, b) pretentious, c) amusing d) more so than men, or it would be men in the title. The only tiny thing in Molière’s favour is that, as a result of being the butts of the joke, the women at least have larger parts/more stage time/more lines.)

I mean, it does feel like there’s an awareness of those premises being problematic. The whole production is in quote marks. The problem of the women is one of superiority and elitism, not pretension per se. Indeed, they really needn’t be women for the comedy to work, such as it is. But nonetheless, they are. Now, I don’t know if Lorenci is skewering some particular, leading Slovenian cultural elitists here, and if he is, perhaps that makes the choice of play breifly understandable.

Except then there’s The Problem of the Plot: very briefly, in the Molière there’s a daughter who wants to marry someone other than the terrible poet that her mother wants her to marry. In this version, this is represented by the daughter and the man she wants to marry, coming in, both stark naked, and sitting about for half the play. And, look, I do get that it’s also dramatically/visually effective, but at the same time, it doesn’t half feel unnecessary. *Then* – in a departure from the Molière, the poet her mother wants the daughter to marry essentially strangles her to death, and leaves her naked body lying on the stage until the end of the play.

I don’t think it really says anything useful, and what little it might be saying is completely overshadowed by what appears to be the crashing misogyny of this gesture. (Although, the piece is devised by the company, so I don’t know who suggested who do what. For all I know it was the woman playing the daughter’s idea...)  But that doesn’t happen until near-the-end, so there’s a lot of wrestling with What’s Are They Trying To Say Here? that goes on before that feels like it negates it all. I have to say, I found the whole thing made me feel cross and rather grubby,

However, the piece did also remind me of what I think is a crucial and emerging trend in mainland European theatre; that is: Theatre that hates theatre; theatre that properly attacks theatre for all the reasons that theatre needs attacking. I mean, yes, sure, maybe it’s an empty gesture. Maybe once everyone’s turned up, it’s a bit naughty for theatre to tell them off for turning up to watch theatre. I certainly don’t see it taking off as *A Thing* in prissy, audience-development-land England, where theatre is held to be A Marvellous Thing; and where we condescendingly don’t want to go confusing New Audiences by telling them that theatre is a criminal, fascistic mechanism of bourgeois power (much less actually attacking New Audiences for their complicity). But, well, there it is. 99 Words For Void did it better, more openly, and more subtly (and, Christ, without anything that could be taken for misogyny), but I think it’s the direction UK theatre needs to head before making nice again.

Anyway, I’ll just leave that thought with you guys.

[Oh, positive Slovenian review of this show:
“At first sight, The Learned Ladies directed by Jernej Lorenci doesn’t have much in common with Molière’s comedy other than the names of the protagonists, the text is, in the vein of an authorial project, not only modernised, but also completely improvised ... Regardless, this is all about detecting identical anomalies which today manifest themselves completely differently, yet in their essence remain almost unchanged. Among these are ostensible knowledge, affectedness, shallow culture, the idolatry of self-proclaimed artists, the intertwining of relevant and pop contents, the contrast between the conservative and the "avant-garde", tiredness, weariness, exhibitionism ... And the eternally questionable and manipulative strategies of achieving goals on the one hand, and the a priori refusal of culture and art as parasitism; all this is presented as an event, as something that should give an image of a real, unmediated project.”
(Peter Rak, Delo)]

Avtorski projekt
SLG Celje in Mestno gledališče Ptuj
The Learned Ladies after the motifs of the Learned Ladies by Molière
Authors of text: ensemble
Director: Jernej Lorenci
Dramaturg: Matic Starina
Set designer: Branko Hojnik
Costume designer: Belinda Radulović
Composer: Branko Rožman
Choreographer and assistant to director: Gregor Luštek
Language consultant: Jože Volk

Monday, 17 October 2016

Wunschkonzert – Lutkovno Gledališče, Maribor

[seen 15/10/16]

Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Wunschkonzert (or Request Programme/Show, or Glasba po željah) is a remarkable play. Written in 1971 [Kroetz would have been 25], and first staged in Stuttgart in 1973, it simply and meticulously details the last hour in the life of a middle-aged woman who commits suicide.

In the script, there are no spoken words – although it is implicit that there will be spoken words in the form of the found text of the titular radio programme to which the suicide, Miss Rasch, listens. In the text, Kroetz suggests the Bavarian evening show Your Request? Hosted by Fred Rauch at 7.15pm every Wednesday; “Beyond Bavaria, a similar radio programme must be found.” he helpfully instructs his directors-to-be. From 1971. This is a helpful frame for the new tensions that now operate between text and production.

Kroetz’s youthful, German, Marxist text now reads quite “coldly” in English – its portrait of the woman who is to take her own life is detached and patrician. To an English reader, it could read more like snobbery than compassion. Rasch is at all times treated more as a symptom, than as a person. Of course, none of that need bleed into the staging. Details are details, and how Kroetz feels about them is neither here nor there when the room has been assembled according to his instructions. So what if the way he chooses to characterise the way Rasch washes herself is “pedantic” (in the English translation at least – perhaps it’s only in English that it reads as snobbery. Perhaps in German it’s just refreshingly direct, but we don’t possess the non-judgemental vocabulary to express it as such in English), if the actress doesn’t play the pedantry, then who’s to know? [This production doesn’t feel like it looks down on its protagonist, for example.]

The next problem of the text/production is how much both popular culture and working conditions have changed since 1971/73. Beyond this, there is also some potential for dispute between the lower-class circumstances of Ms. Rasch’s life and her suicide. We do not know why she commits suicide. Kroetz lightly implies that it is down to ennui, boredom and irritation. And perhaps some people do commit suicide for these reasons. I really don’t know. Wikipedia suggests loneliness.

TR Warszawa and Teatr Łaźnia Nowa Krakow’s production add a whole raft of extra problems to the pre-existing questions that the text raises; the main one being: should the play remain a historical drama about a woman’s suicide in 1971 or should it be updated? If it is updated, what can be allowed to remain?

[There is also here the extra problem of four countries and 45 years now being involved in this simple exchange of information; from Germany (ageing text), to Poland (production), to Slovenia (host theatre and majority audience) to UK (me also watching it and now writing this)]

Over my viewing of the production and writing of this review hovers the ghost of Katie Mitchell’s 2007 Schauspiel Köln production. Which I did not see. But which, having seen photos, being familiar with Mitchell’s work, and having read the play, I think I can almost completely imagine. (It really is excellent.) So there’s a sense of a technically impossible memory haunting this production like a kind of ghost. There are also the ghosts of the various people one has known who have committed suicide.

Beyond this, there are the ever-persistent, never-fully-answered questions about what theatre is for. Is is veracity? Analysis? Authenticity? Symbolism? Metaphor? Research? Catharsis?

Director Yana Ross’s production of Wunschkonzert is, I suppose, set in Poland. It feels as if the production team have actually created the titular radio request programme themselves. As such, the text spoken feels like I might be more loaded than one would otherwise expect. Similarly, the choice of songs seems like it’s been deliberately pulled together to underline some sort of thesis(?) (Daniel by Elton John, I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen, and of course, uh, To Mi Je Všeč by Nina Pušlar...).

More interesting, though, is the effect of globalisation and the internet/comupter games on the piece. In the original Ms Rasch finishes a little woven blanket/rug she’s been making. Yes, sure, the effect of this (even just reading it) is unbearably poignant and more than a little sentimental. Here the blanket/rug has gone. After all, who makes rugs/blankets in 2016? Instead, this section is replaced by Rasch playing Sims on her laptop. The effect of the change, though (even when you don’t know it’s a change – I read the text after seeing the show) is essentially one of reactionary irritation. I mean, the first thing is at the very least a satisfying act of creation. Rasch even looks at the blanket, satisfied. Forgive me, computer games fans, but Sims *really isn’t the same thing*. At the same time, she doesn’t check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, 100 other social media sites. Is this symbolic? Does she have so little life online? It seems marginally unlikely, if she’s got this Sims habit. I mean, GOD KNOWS, I’m all for directorial interventions, but this one feels too loaded.

And then there’s the TV programme. It’s a good half hour of Kim Kardashian’s Wedding. I’m really fighting the urge to say that if someone made me watch half an hour of KK’s Wedding, I’d probably be lining up the sleeping pills too. But, yes. Again, without the comfy, sleepy, West Germany-ness of 1971; the somewhat more regimented and low-key offerings on telly and radio, the pitch and point of the thing changes. Perhaps not as much as I’m imagining, and perhaps in its time – in 1971 – whatever was on the telly and the radio then felt just as alienating and futile. But my bet is that is didn’t to quite the same degree. There are, after all, HUNDREDS of channels of EVERYTHING now. And in a way, that can be a problem too. But it’s a different problem. (Similarly, does she kill herself because, well, we’re al a bit sick of IKEA now, right? The entire flat is decked out in the stuff, and Rasch even reads the catalogue for a bit. I mean, *I know*, consumer capitalism sucks, but even so...)

I don’t think I’m saying that the piece *has too* always be a museum piece, but as soon as you bring the modern world in, then the architecture of the piece seems to crumble. When no one can even think of a (lower class) radio request programme to use, can you still meaningfully put on a play called Request Programme? But then, how much do we believe the analysis relating the suicide to class, and then on to loneliness? Who knows? I don’t know how much actual research Kroetz did, or even whether it’s a research play or a thesis play or a symbolic play. It’s interesting as a theatrical problem, though. I definitely don’t have any answers.

Danuta Stenka as Ms Rasch is essentially very good, if perhaps a little bit too reactive. But, again, I don’t know how much that’s deliberate, and how much is also my taste. The production is staged on a little piece of floor standing like an island in the middle of a much larger stage, and we the audience are asked to stand round it. There are (obviously) no walls. So it’s exponentially more difficult for Stenka to pull-off not-eye-meeting naturalism. (Not so much fourth-wall naturalism as 1st, 2nd, 3rd *and* 4th wall naturalism.) But, yeah, like I said, the big problem for me was decisions and reactions being telegraphed just a bit too hard.

What’s brilliant about the play, though, is the apparent unknowingness of the decision process. We really don’t know when Rasch decides to kill herself. It seems to be (to me), at the end, pretty much as she does it. A sudden impulse. But perhaps not. (This productions LOUDLY TICKING CLOCK is not a helpful addition.) Maybe I’m wrong, but people don’t kill themselves because they can’t get to sleep. Or maybe they do. That really is a discomforting thought. And, perhaps this review fails because I’m trying to make a very discomforting piece of work feel like it’s about something more understandable, where the piece itself succeeds (if/where it succeeds) because it does allow suicide to be inexplicable – at least in the moment. I don’t know. I would love to see more productions. Even full-on naturalistic ones. It feels more like a challenge to an actress than Hedda or Hamlet or Blanche or Lear...

Anyway, here’s some excellent Jugoslav pop music:

Dramaturg: Aśka Grochulska
Author of music: Aśka Grochulska, Tomasz Wyszomirski
Production designer: Simona Biekšaitė
Lighting engineer: Mats Öhlin
Curator of the project: Marcin Zawada
Radio broadcaster: Wojciech Mann

Sunday, 16 October 2016

“The Death of the West”

[Sirenos Festival 28/09 – 02/10]

Don’t worry, the title’s taken from something someone else said.

Again, taking a bit more thinking about than I’d have liked.

Postcards from Vilnius – the politics

[Sirenos Festival 28/09 – 02/10]

Sorry. Pending piece again.

This one’s taking much longer than I expected to be write-able.

It’ll probably surface properly once it’s stopped being notes ahead of the panel discussion on censorship at the Arcola on Sunday 23rd.

Come to that, it’ll be good.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Postcards from Vilnius – the papers

[(re)Fresh – 6th Annual Conference for Young Theatre Critics 29/09 – 01/10]

Short intro: alongside watching all the shows detailed in the last two posts (link, link), Ott and myself also moderated a young critics/dramaturgs/etc. conference. Shared below are the abstracts for the papers given. They were REALLY GOOD. Anyone who’s interested in reading a specific paper, I think they’re being published – in English – soon, but I can pass on requests via email if anyone wants one. The Russian and Belarusian papers in particular might be of interest to those of you currently looking for new foreign plays to put on in translation? Elsewhere, the close similarities and vast differences between the theatre cultures in different (European/European-ish) countries are continually fascinating to me, and hopefully you too.

[Oh, and SOMEONE BRITISH PLEASE APPLY NEXT YEAR? It looks bad when it seems we’re never interested. Especially now.]

Rugilė Pukštytė (Vilnius, Lithuania) – To Be Continued (?)

If you‘re a thirty-year-old director, who has created more than 10 performances and has been nominated at least three times for the Golden Cross of the stage awards, does this mean that you have to have your own style, without the possibility of changing your aesthetic or making mistake?

Theatre has its own rules, but now we see, that the “lords” of this world loose their way and forget the rules they had created at the start of their theatrical journey. The word “lord” is used not for nothing; sometimes it appears that the directors of the new generation wear crowns, live in their own kingdoms, and pretend that they don‘t have any contact with past, not paying any attention to those who do not live in their land. In other words, the biggest part of new generation of Lithuanian theatre we could define as “me/ myself/ I”. I am speaking about those who mostly take classical drama works (those who still trust in words more than in other forms) and speak loud that they are changing the look at it, while just quoting the ideas of other directors; or, even worse, earlier works by themselves. The disappointing fact is, their wish to change something mostly isn‘t reached and all we feel seeing their creations is déjà vu.

It is important to note is that we do have a new generation of theatre directors that were interesting at the start of their careers. But now they look like researches of themselves, sometimes reflecting the past or the present, but mostly ignoring it. Of course we can‘t deny the fact that they are different between each other, noticeable and having the potential to change those who could be called as fathers of their theatrical life. But if they want to be loud or reach it, they should deeply think which is their true way and their performances shouldn‘t leave the feeling called „To Be Continued“. In other words, „Maybe Next Time“.

Ksenia Yarosh and Olga Markarian (Saint Petersburg, Russia) – Re-thinking the mythologisation of history in the post-Soviet theatre space: the conflict of the memorial and memory

A new tendency seems to have emerged in documentary theatre: while speaking of today’s history, it is not the present that is being reflected upon with the use of the document/s, but the past. One is trying to make a new sense of the Soviet myth in the post-Soviet space.

More generally speaking, the prism/space of post-Soviet thought is used to re-read this history; the same history, although in different performances and using different sources – peasants’ petitions, letters of the members of “Narodnaya Volya”, Decembrists’ confessions, memoirs of WWI soldiers, denunciations of Stalin’s young guards and their diaries – to re-read the history how a myth of opposition/resistance was created. To revisit the process of turning a document into a myth, of distorting a document.

We would like to take a number of performances presented in St. Petersburg and Moscow (“19.14”, “Rebels” by the Moscow Art Theatre; “A Life for the Tsar” and “Word and Action” by Teatro di Capua; “Young Guards” by Masterskaya [Workshop]) and discuss the conflict of the myth and the document, the memory and the monument, the irretrievable thought, the clash of sarcasm and pathos, the energy of resistance, the refusal to withdraw and the different attempts to fill a document with new energy.

On stage this instigates different theatrical languages, types of theatre, unusual doc.aesthetics. This appears to be one of the ways that allows the theatre to open up and saves the theatre from human and historical optimism.

Anastasia Vasilevitch (Minsk, Belarus) – New drama in Belarus: people and conditions of existence

In Belarus there is an interesting phenomenon of local drama; native playwrights become more popular abroad than at home. For a play to be staged in Belarus it should be first recognised and staged in other countries. The roots of this phenomenon can be found in the Soviet past when all the trends were set by Moscow. Belarusian playwrights, such as Dmitry Bogoslavski, Pavel Pryazhko, Maxim Dosko, Andrey Ivanov, Pavel Rassolko, Andrey Kureichik and Mykola Rudkovsky are very well-known outside the country. Their plays get into shortlists of prestigious drama contests and are staged not only in the neighbouring countries, but even on other continents. In their works, the playwrights touch on social and political themes. Belarusian local reality is often used as material for the plays. However, state theatres give preference to more “loyal” texts, or make a significant “corrections” – removing offensive language and violent episodes from the plays. The only way to deliver an uncensored text to an audience in Belarus is to stage plays in private theatres.

In 2007, the Belarusian Drama Centre was founded, with a mission to popularise native plays. For the last five years the centre has been organising dramatic laboratories, supervised by the leading Russian-speaking playwrights (M. Ugarov, J. Pulinovich, L. Mulmenko and others). Besides this, the centre holds readings of plays, thanks to which the authors can present their plays to the public in their original form. This year, the necessity of modern Belarusian drama was confirmed by a topical and vital performance “Opium” based on a play by V. Korolev. The financing for the staging has been gathered from different local people with help of crowdfunding. As a result, the performance was named “the most honest of the year”.

Francesco Brusa (Chișinău, Romania) – The future is not now but it’s here

Stop The Tempo is the title of a 2003 successful play by the Romanian playwright Gianina Carbunariu that denounces the hopeless condition of new generations in her home-country. At the same time, the expression “stop the tempo” could symbolically represent the battle cry for young theater-makers in the current post-Soviet bloc (and to some extent also in Western Europe).

One of the main issues that the new generations should face in order to make their voice heard is related to the “Post-modern/ism,” and to the peculiar time-space coordinates it creates. Has Postmodernism already ended? Did it ever actually exist? How can we find a way out of it?

Theater seems incapable of producing alternative and reliable “grand-narratives”. Moreover, it seems incapable of speaking about contemporary “youth” as a whole, or offering them a “fresh” political consciousness. But how it is possible to speak about our generation while we don’t even have a clear picture of the times we’re living in?

Fredric Jameson’s words resonate:
The new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism. That is to say, to its fundamental object – the world space of multinational capital – at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last.
This is one of the major challenges for young theatre-makers and perhaps part of the solution to this challenge. New theatre practices (especially in Eastern Europe) are trying to investigate the condition of new generations by describing the past they come from, the present they’re living in and the future they can possibly achieve. But maybe this is not the right dimension to look at. On the contrary, the “truth” of postmodernism lies in its space. Can (new) theatre represent the latter? Can theatre create a narrative that doesn't unfold time but develops just through a spatial dimension? Stop the tempo, make the space speak out.

Simten Demirkol (Eskişehir, Turkey) – Being a part of this drama

In my country, 20 to 30 years ago the National Theatre was the dream of many actors and a heaven for directors, with big stages, steady pay cheques, staff, crew and reputation. Then, Generation Y came… Fearless, bold yet, impatient, independent. According to research, Generation Y has a free spirit. They are also very sensitive about human rights, racism, gender equality, environment etc. So when they don’t feel good somewhere, they leave. In the last couple of years, I have seen students saying – students of a prestigious [theatre] school, which is very hard to get in to – “I am not going to make theatre, I will go to the countryside. I will grow tomatoes and beans. I will be a part of the nature. I will not be a part of this drama.

Other new graduates form little theatre groups by themselves. Most of them with zero funding from the government. Starving themselves. Forming and deforming. They are angry. In my country young people are still not heard, although they are very loud and very eager to express themselves. Language is coming back. Stories are coming back. But it is time to tell them in a different way. And there are independent stages all over. Mostly in İstanbul, but also in other cities too. And they criticize the traditionalism harshly. But I also wonder, how successful their connection with the audience is. Sometimes I hear the older theatre makers saying, “I know what it is to be young, but you don’t know what it is to be old.”


Teresa Fazan (Warszaw, Poland) – Political themes in young Polish choreography

My paper looks at political themes in Polish modern choreography and performance. Firstly by talking about how creating outside of the mainstream and tackling economic difficulties is a chance to create independent art. Secondly by acknowledging that performance and dance, which usually operate outside linguistic and literal meaning, can paradoxically be more political. By covering those topics, I would like to try to answer the question: are young Polish artists are ready to take an artistic and political stand?

In Poland, many dance projects continue to be under-financed. We are witnessing a shift in popularity of performance, which seem to be gathering more and more interest, but many artists still struggle with poor labour conditions. Paradoxically, this leads to them seeking other means of expression and gives a chance to create strong artistic community. In this way the pieces they create are political at the level of production. When artists create outside the mainstream and tackle economical difficulties, the art they create is truly independent. They not only make a point with the theme of their pieces, but on a higher level; just by the way they produce it, they are taking a stand.

The concept of choreography is expanding beyond the traditional meaning: the boundaries between visual and performance arts are disappearing, creating wide and intriguing space for solo and collective creation. Choreography is expanding to new locations – art galleries, public spaces – which gives it a chance to speak about new topics in new ways. It is often thought that political art has to be very tightly connected to a current context, to speak of and for certain people or groups of people. However taking stand in political discussion is always advocating one side of the conflict and by that, accepting the conflict itself. Art can be political in other way too – it can consciously choose to speak of something else, to give meaning to the life outside of the conflict. And I believe this is what young polish choreographers are successfully pursuing.

Niklas Fullner (Bochum, Germany) – The depiction of humanist acting in Philipp Löhle’s Wir sind keine Barbaren! (Engl.: We're No Barbarians!)

The new generation of theatre makers in Germany cannot be called revolutionary as it mostly follows the theatrical conventions that have been set up by the previous generation. Holding on to these conventions, which are still dominated by the concept of postdramatic theatre, makes it difficult to create a theatre that is rebellious or that takes a stand in the societal discourse. However, the new generation of theatre makers is not homogenous and some are trying to break out of the theatrical traditions which were set down by others. This is true, for example, for the young playwright Philipp Löhle and the plays he has written in the last ten years. In his trilogy of dreamers, as he calls it himself, Löhle tells stories about individuals that oppose the hypocritical ethics of today’s affluent society and develop their own humanist visions. Löhle shows a gap that opens between these individuals and the society they live in which evokes tragedy. But in Löhle’s plays tragedy always appears comical at the same time, which makes it possible to follow his plays without being moralised.

In his newest play Wir sind keine Barbaren! (engl.: We're No Barbarians!), which was premièred at the beginning of the so-called refugee crisis in 2014 and which was shown in many theatres all over Germany in the past two years, Löhle addresses the fear of foreigners in today’s society. In the play the petit bourgeois world of two neighbouring couples falls to pieces when one of the women decides to grant asylum to a foreigner who suddenly appears at night. The narrow-minded world view of our society is revealed in the following arguments of the couples, while the foreigner never appears on stage and his identity stays unclear. Again, Löhle depicts how an individual acts humanistically against the resistance of the society. This aspect of Löhle’s work is highly political and a much needed signal for resistance in today’s societal discourse.

Isabel Gatzke (Hildesheim, Germany) – Being in limbo: how do we (want to) rehearse? 

The proposed work points out, contextualizes and reflects the various positive and negative aspects young theatre-makers have to face during their rehearsal. Reflecting my own artistic work with the theatre collective Roda/Born at the Ruhrtriennale Masterclass, I will take a closer look at the conditions under which theatre collectives on the line between studying and professionalism develop new artistic forms.

In the first part I will give a short introduction to theoretical publications dealing with the process of rehearsing and different ways of creating material for the stage. For this reason I will set out some approaches from Mieke Matzke’s work with SheShePop and how these artists generate content based on their own experience and Rimini Protokoll and their specific ways of doing research during their rehearsals.

After that I will contextualize my own experiences as a theatre-maker during the rehearsals for the Ruhrtriennale Masterclass 2016. For this reason I’m going to describe the structure of how we rehearsed in connection with the different (study)backgrounds we have. This includes external circumstances, time and money difficulties and various approaches to our concept. The main focus of this explanation lies on the question how we produced, wrote and spoke text and, on the other hand, how we tried to pass on content while avoiding text.

At the end I want to draw a conclusion from our experience and the theoretical background to summarize the development of rehearsing up to now but also to show what will change with a new generation of theater-makers and what needs to be optimized to let the rehearsal room the safe place it should be. My aim of this lecture is to share my questions with the other participants to collect ideas and wishes and to develop a new vision of rehearsing.

Maryna Strapko (Poznan, Poland) – Theatre Curator: the artist or the theatre manager? Voices of curators in a theatrical discourse

In my essay I would like to talk about the figure of the theatre curator in various contexts, as well as about the structure and impact of curators on certain Polish projects. [For a useful English equivalent, perhaps read “curator” as creative producer + festival director + building dramaturg]

When speaking about the new generation, it is impossible to ignore the “new” generation in its truest sense, especially in relation to young members of the theatre community – curators. Every year in Poland, in addition to students of various theatrical faculties, young people graduate from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan with a major of „Interdisciplinary curator projects”. Young curators work with topics that concern them personally; they develop project concepts, concentrating on a specific issue or problem, and then seek support and cooperation both with well-known and aspiring directors, actors, performers who have to confront, in creative sense, with these topics.

However, apart from projects that are directly related to theatre or art, curators create new formats of theater festivals today, as well as unique, from ideological and artistic point of view, curatorial projects on sensitive historical and social topics such as: feminism, the Holocaust, the Polish Roma community, LGBTQ+ and others. The degree of importance and influence of current interdisciplinary projects is evident: people write and talk about it more and more, and they cause no less interest than premières in leading theatres of Poland.

Young theatre curators demolish the ossified hierarchy of theatrical sphere and raise new questions about cross-, inter-, transdisciplinarity of the theatre. Nowadays’ curators explore topics of taboos quite differently. Curators include people and history in the theatrical discourse, and thereby cause incredible local discoveries. Curators are people who think about theatre with non-dogmatic intentions.


Kristina Steiblytė (Lithuania) – New Generations = New Identities

Twenty six years of independence brought a lot of changes in Lithuania. Not only have policies changed, but also culture. Some major theatre directors from Soviet period are still active and relevant, but there are also a lot of young people coming into theatre. Every year there are Music and Theatre Academy graduates hoping to succeed in theatre world. There are new acting, directing, and theatre teaching programs opening. Do these produce young people with new ideas, representing changing aesthetic and ideological identities, or are changes impossible with the same old people teaching, leading most of the important theatres, and distributing the money for new performances?

The end of recent theatre season makes one question the possibility of change. Especially when looking at main stages of the country: young directors presenting replicas of their teachers’ works; socially engaged theatre without thorough investigation of the social issue at hand; and great actors of different generations waiting patiently for THE DIRECTOR.

On the other hand, away from the main stages, there are some intriguing things happening. Klaipėda Youth Theatre is showing how a collaborative form of theatre can work. Puppeteers from Klaipėda are experimenting with materials and forms of expression. Could this be the beginning of more decentralised, democratic theatre making, or are we bound to stay in the same comfort zone, replicating the same aesthetic and ideological identities?

This can be tied to a broader theme of identity in Lithuania. On one hand, being members of EU and NATO makes us more cosmopolitan and open to global problems, topics, and aesthetic experiments. On the other, the right turn in politics across Europe cannot be ignored and is also obvious here – in theatre too, with national branding (instead of nation building, important in the interwar period and at least in part during the Soviet occupation) becoming an important part of performances or even theatre’s repertoire.

Karolina Matuszewska (Poland) – The young and talented women of Polish and Lithuanian theatre

They are unruly, expressive, charismatic, and in only a few years have given the theatre a new rhythm and tempo. In last few years there has been a real rash of young and talented theatre directors who consistently demand a place for themselves on the Polish and Lithuanian theatre stage. What interests them? What topics touch them the most? What forms of artistic expression they use?

In my report I’ll present a subjective selection of the most interesting theatre directors, whose performances can be seen today in Poland and Lithuania. I'll try to think about what they have in common and what divides them, and answer the question whether we can talk about a new, wider phenomenon in the theatre, based on a bold mixing of different styles and forms of art.

Ewa Uniejewska (Warszaw, Poland) – “Living Classics” or reanimating a corpse?

The Staging of The Old-time Polish Literature Competition “Living Classics” (“Klasyka Żywa”) was organized to celebrate 250th anniversary of the Polish Theatre. Polish artists were encouraged to look for the old texts written before 1969, i.e. before Witold Gombrowicz’s death, and to stage them. As a result, there were 83 spectacles directed in 56 theatres located in 31 Polish cities. These created a discussion about “classics” as a some kind of a canon or a pattern. Re: staging – on one hand, directors tried to reconstruct the old scenic conventions and to stage the whole play without any shortcuts. On the other hand, they contemporized the old works by using the brand new means of scenic expression and using various dramatic treatments. In the latter case it was apparently easy to replace a Polish cultural code with pop culture (for example in Grażyna directed by Radosław Rychcik the Lithuanian-Teutonic battle was played out as a basketball match accompanied by a gospel chorus).

In my paper I would like to analyse the ways in which young Polish directors tried to re-read classics and answer the recurring question of whether they managed to reanimate the old pieces or just to translate them into much more simpler language of social and cultural communication (basing on the plays presented during the “Living Classics” Competition).

[cover photo: Laura Vansevičienė]

Friday, 7 October 2016

Postcards from Vilnius: the pieces – II

[Sirenos Festival 28/09 – 02/10]

[Nine years ago I got to go to eight Theatre Festivals in Europe as part of the Festivals in Transition, starting at SpielArt in Munich, November 2007, and ending up at Exodos in Ljubljana in November 2008. I’ve written repeatedly about how influential these seminars were in terms of the work I saw, the ways it seemed possible to respond to it, but most of all the sense of being part of a wider network; a sense of “Europe” not just as am idea (and one to which the UK could be actively hostile), but as a set of concrete places where people I knew and loved lived and worked. (Would that the rest of the UK population had also had such experiences.)

The pen-penultimate Festival – hard on the heels of Homo Alibi in Riga – was the Sirenos Festival in Vilnius (after that, just the Nitra Festival in Slovakia (where I saw Sebastian Nübling’s Pornographie), and then on to Ljubljana (Dave St Pierre’s Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde)). Last time it was where I saw Korsunovas’s Hamlet and Arturas Areima’s Road.

But the work this group of young critics saw was only a fraction of the story. Even the fact of our being critics was also only a part of it. Instead, really it was just the fact of being a group of young people from different countries all trying to explain the situations in our various countries – yes, in theatre, but also in terms of culture and politics.

When we all first met, the Berlin Wall had only been down for nearly 18 years. Most of the group had lived at least the first ten years of their lives under dictatorships. And, until the Nitra Festival, capitalism seemed like a fait accompli. It was while we were there, on the last night, after we’d watched Nübling’s Pornography, that the US Congress put the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act to a vote and it did not pass. US stock markets dropped 8 percent, the largest percentage drop since Black Monday in 1987. We sat in a cellar bar, our pockets full of Slovakian currency, wondering if capitalism had just died. I don’t think any of us could have even begun to predict the extent of it then.

As such, returning to Lithuania eight years later – at the invitation of one of that original group of young critics, who now seems to be running Lithuania’s Arts Council, along with another of my colleagues from that trip, who is now the editor of Estonia’s weekly Arts newspaper – the most interesting thing was WHAT  THE  HELL  JUST  HAPPENED???

But before I get to that, I should get through writing up the rest of the work we saw, because I now know – having not written up the work we saw eight years ago – that if I don’t do it at the time, I kick myself in the future...]

1st October 2 pm
Director – Eimuntas Nekrošius
Venue – “Meno Fortas” theatre
Duration – 1 hr 30 mins.

The primary conflict in Lithuanian theatre appears to be between metaphor and realism. [Just like in the UK!] In Lithuania, however, it’s the Max Stafford-Clark/Michael Billington generation who are the avowed stage-metaphorists, and the younger generation who yearn for concrete realities and infographics on stage. [Exactly the opposite of the UK!] (I simplify, but only slightly.)

Of course, the context of metaphor in post-Soviet countries is very different to “the West”. During Soviet times, it’s generally held that metaphor was the most effective tool for getting criticism of concrete political realities past the state censor. This led to Eastern European theatre being admired around the world for being much more interesting than the work of its somewhat literal Western counterparts (in the UK/US), where, being allowed to say whatever it liked*, did so; and thus often rather limited the scope of their work to the time and place where it was made and to the people who would put up with being told about what they already knew and hearing viewpoints with which they already agreed. (Germany perhaps dodged this dichotomy by having a) the inheritance of Brecht, b) a foot in both camps c) a concrete reality – in the form of having committed the Holocaust – that facts alone didn’t even begin to touch). Anyway, here we are in 2016. Lithuania is 25/26 years independent, and one of its pair of leading older directors (the other is Rimas Turminas) is presenting his new, highly metaphorical work.

In many many ways, The Hunger Artist is a big departure from Nekrošius’s usual work. Perhaps you saw (the very strange transfer of) his Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012 as part of the globe to Globe festival? (Hardly ideal, since it was designed to be played in near-darkness and was on at lunchtime in, well, mild drizzle but hardly inky blackness). Anyway, *usually* his work is elemental and austere, designed to be played on vast stages of grand State Theatres. This, on the other hand, is a kind of clownish, studio piece. That said, it’s still got hallmarks of what feel like very “Eastern European” theatre practices, and, more than this, is very definitely one big, massive, *clanging* metaphor.

And, here, it’s the metaphor that feels like the biggest problem. I mean, it’s not a stage-metaphor (although you could take the bare means used and the studio performance space as supplemental to it), it’s really just a long allegorical story, narrated here by the four performers (3m, 1w – playing another man). It’s not so much the fact that it’s a metaphor that’s a problem (although it’s *so* clunky that they really might as well have just said the thing they were getting at), so much as what it’s a metaphor *for*.

Bear in mind Nekrošius’s status as a now-elder director used to being accorded great respect while reading the synopsis: The Hunger Artist is a story about a kind of performer whose ‘art’ is not eating (although the piece goes nowhere near contemporary concerns about eating disorders). This is set in a very unfixed Mittel-Europa (although it could, I guess, be anywhere where hunger isn’t the norm for everyone else too), and, well, it’s firstly a kind of exultation of artists being ‘hungry’, and secondly, it narrates the decline of spectators’ interest in seeing someone being *hungry*. When the hunger artist finally dies, he is replaced at the circus where he’s spent his last few years by a panther, which everyone kinda prefers, even though the panther is not even hungry at all. This is explained in such a way as to make us in the audience aware that this is very much The Wrong Opinion.

I must be forgetting some details, but the absolute pointedness of the analogy makes me wonder how this lot ever got away with anything in Soviet times (to be honest, I always get the impression that there was actually rather more collusion by State censors than anyone feels comfortable admitting since the fall. I think they might have known very well what was actually being said, and the fact that artists had gone to the trouble of pretending to disguise it perhaps seemed like enough deference for them. After all, punishment was hardly evidence-based anyway, so as long as these stage metaphors didn’t prompt any actual insurrection perhaps they were tolerated in the same way that modern Western political satire is tolerated – i.e. mostly, until it isn’t).

So, yeah, it’s very difficult to shake the feeling that one is watching close on two hours of grumpy old man special pleading here. That said, it was fascinating. And it did make me wonder/question a bit the extent of what we do want from our artists, etc. And it was well enough performed. And as stories go, it was engaging enough, if somewhat slow, and potted with far too many false-endings in the last half hour or so.

*as long as there were people prepared to buy tickets to hear it.

1st October 4 pm
Director – Oskaras Koršunovas
Venue – Arts Printing House, Black Hall
Duration – 1 hr 30 mins

Already reviewed.

1st October 6:30 pm 
Director – Gintaras Varnas 
Venue – Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, Main Stage 
Duration – 3 hrs 50 mins (3 acts)

You want to know a funny thing? This is perhaps the performance around which we visiting critics received most ‘coded warnings’. Like: “It is quite long. Don’t feel obliged to stay past the first interval. It doesn’t change much, and you already know the story, right?”

The funny thing is that this is the piece that I saw in Lithuania that was far and away the most comfortingly familiar (to me, as an Anglas). This was National Theatre theatre at its finest: monolithic, too long, too stately, too National, and too “Theatre”. It’s precisely the sort of thing that people come away from feeling that they’ve been done some good. Endured some culture. Etc. etc.

And I actually rather liked it, in a perverse sort of way. I mean, I was reading surtitles, so that helped. And the theatre auditorium was Very Large Indeed – think a kind of Lyttleton-shaped Olivier – so you could just sit back and not really feel too implicated by anything happening (the actors certainly wouldn’t have noticed if I’d left). And the stage pictures were quite pretty, in a conservative, glacial sort of way. You certainly didn’t miss any action while having to read the surtitles. The translation seemed rather fine, and it’d been a while since I’d read Oedipus.

And, well, let’s be honest, you have to pull out rather more stops than a pretty set and blokes in suits to make Oedipus feel *surprising*, don’t you? I mean, we all know what’s going to happen, and if we’re a critic, we maybe even feel the acute inevitability of each scene, the back and forth-ness, the achingly gradual realisation dawning on literature’s slowest thinker.

What was striking was the familiarity of the tone and the rhythm and the style of speaking. This was dead theatre, par excellence. I dare say you could even use it as a kind of monitoring machine to see if other theatre was dead. And yet, in this deathliness was a strange kind of attraction and appeal. No, it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to draw new audiences to the theatre, or to the Greeks, as Rob Icke’s Oresteia did. No, it didn’t even really awaken any sense of The Greeks, as Lithuanian director, Cezaris Graužinis, did in Epidavros. What it did do, though, is affirm some sort of Universal European Nothingyness, which I think is perhaps rather dangerous. This was a take on the Mediterranean redolent of The Knights Templar, the middle ages, Teutonic Castles, and Catholicism. In short, precisely everything that has nothing whatsoever to do with the place that it came from, enacted as both a homage to it, and a defence against it. That is to say, it is nonsense to claim that The Greeks were somehow definitively “Western” and their victory against the “Eastern” Persians somehow a categorically definiting cultural moment. And it is striking that so many of Europe’s current problems spring from the attempt to uphold this ancient category error.

None of this is to say that I mind adaptations, or that this one couldn’t have felt more lively if “lively” had been a thought anyone had at any stag during the rehearsal process. But, yes; it did make me think about “Europe” and “The West” a great deal.

1st October 11:00 pm
Director – Karolis Vilkas
Venue – Vilnius Theatre “Lėlė”
Duration – 1 hr

Perhaps my favourite piece that I saw in Lithuania was also my last. I should admit that on many levels – everything from dramaturgical to technical – this was An Incredible Mess. But it was also far and away the most exciting, original, instructive, inspiring and thought-provoking. Perhaps precisely because of its roughness.

Following the show, a colleague and myself tried to recount the “plot” to another colleague who’d missed it. I say “plot”. Really it was more like that definition of history from The History Boys – “Just one fucking thing after another...”: First there’s a baby on stage. Then maybe a gorilla? Then perhaps two gorillas? All of this in near-darkness. Also, mad music. Then the whole stage is flooded in light and ALL THE PEOPLE come on and perform mundane chores for what feels like forever. One girl lights what must be over 50 candles. Someone else hoovers. A bloke does weights. A woman puts on make-up. Another woman punches one of those boxing things. A bloke at the back smashes up and angle-grinds several pieces of furnitures. There are A LOT of people on stage.

They then disappear again, except for the woman with the candles at the front, who is covered in flowers, and just lies there. Two gorillas come on and sit at the front of the stage and smoke. The smoke gets caught in the gorilla mask and smoke blows out of every hole. One of the gorillas takes off its gorilla head to reveal a giant papier maché baby’s head. The other gorilla leaves? A knight in armour comes on and menaces the baby. (My second knight in armour this year. I really approve of this new zeitgeist signifier. See: Jan Klata’s H[amlet] for the Ur- theatre-knight?)

The knight fights a puppet dragon. The knight kills the dragon, and seems to be killed himself, until he is revived by a performer dressed as a Japanese schoolgirl who has just thrown a coin into a wishing well wheeled on specifically for her to do so and then wheeled off again...

I mean, more things happen after all that, but you get the picture. Random doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Part of me uncharitably wondered if, graduating from the drama academy classes of these great Metaphorists, and perhaps simultaneously aching for realism but also knowing where the bread was buttered, the director and classmates made this in an attempt to satiate and short-circuit the metaphor-drive in their educators once and for all. I mean, this is the show to end all allegories. You could analyse it forever and never hope to reach the bottom. A bottom at which you may discover there is nothing to discover anyway. But at the same time, on the way down you could like an academic have unpacked your entire cultural history with words. I won’t try. I’d feel silly. I certainly had several thoughts about the sort of battle between the baby and the knight. You could put that in any show (in Europe) ever, and I think it would speak *volumes* to *every single person*. Possibly beyond Europe too, although I think it would just say “Europe” once you got as far as the middle east, over the Caucausus, or over and significant oceans. Within Europe, though, it seems to speak to/about so much of our history and culture.

Of course, I’m using a rather imprecise formulation of “Europe” there. Perhaps there are people who are now Europeans for whom the image will not resonate at all, or for whom it is a symbol emnity rather than a rather clunkily achieved acculturated familiarity.

These questions will come up again, in the next bit, I suspect...

Postcards from Vilnius: the pieces – I

[Sirenos Festival 28/09 – 02/10]

This last trip to mainland Europe [starting Warsaw, then Berlin, then Vilnius, then back to Berlin] already feels like it was possibly the most useful, influential and informative since the young critics “Mobile Lab” that I took part in 2007-2008. And it’s going to take a bit of untangling, writing-down, and thinking through. I will say, it also felt very strange “going back as a grown-up” (this time I was moderating a young critics forum, with one of my old Mobile Lab colleagues, Ott Karulin, having been invited by another, Goda Dapšytė, who organised it). That marker of difference was very useful for thinking about how much else has changed since I first went to SpielArt in Munich in November 2007. But, before getting down to that, I feel like I should at least offer short write-ups of the rest of the shows I saw at the Lithuanian Showcase part of the Sirenos Festival. [because I now know – having never written up the work we saw eight years ago – that if I don’t do it at the time, I kick myself in the future...]

29th September 7pm 
Director – Paulius Pinigis 
Venue – Arts Printing House, Black Hall 
Duration – 2 hrs

The genesis of The Conscripts is the fact that last year (? two years ago?) Lithuania reintroduced national service. Why? Because, post-Ukraine, every other former-Soviet state believes that it’s only a matter of time before Russia reinvades. All the Baltic states have entirely separate Russian-speaking communities who in 25 years since independence haven’t really been integrated in any way into the mainstream national societies of the countries they now live in, and are still treated as second-class citizens; precisely the same pretext used by the Russian Federation to annexe half of Ukraine. So.

That’s the background. Nothing could feel more oppressively topical or horrible-to-contemplate, really. It really puts Brexit and the Tory Party Conference right in the shade by comparison.

If The Conscripts has a problem as a piece of theatre it is this: it is a pretend gameshow, albeit a pretend gameshow that runs for twice the length of any actual gameshow. Beyond that, it is in need of a serious dramaturgical overhaul. The performances are fine for what they are; basically two Eurovision-style hosts, a selection of incredibly butch military types and four contestants being put through their paces. The problem is, there’s neither a driving narrative, nor a bigger structural metaphor. “Conscription is like a gameshow!” Well, no; not really. Yes, the piece lands rather obvious punches on institutional sexism in the army (the sole female candidate is routinely rubbished). Perhaps it slightly satirises the unfitness of some Lithuanians (a “fat” candidate/contestant) is mocked. It might say that the people who are fit for the army are possibly not the brightest, or the nicest people (there’s a fit-but-thick‘n’nasty candidate), and then there’s a sort of hipster who’s too skinny to be much use to anyone who doesn’t use the words “pop-up” or “artisan” (and, as yet, Lithuania has yet to organise a pop-up, artisanal army that was into armies before they were mainstream).

The rigours they face make it pretty clear that the army isn’t a very nice place/thing, and no one in their right mind would want to take part. There’s stuff about torture, and having to shoot who you’re told to shoot... And, yeah, who wants to do that? Against that, there’s the looming threat of Actually Being Invaded. At which point you think, yeah, you would want to know how to at least use a sodding machine gun. Damn right you would.

And this is pretty much the whole show. Perhaps – overlongness notwithstanding, and maybe there’s even an argument for it – the show can’t succeed any more than that, because it’s an impossible situation. Yes, there’s a certain scrappiness to the proceedings that a bigger budget would help to iron out. And, yes, certainly the piece could have had more of an aesthetic impact, even on its present limited means. And I can’t help feeling that there are many better shows about the present situation in the Baltic states to be made. But this was the one we saw. At the level of theatre, it was nothing to write home about. In terms of the ongoing panic/crisis it looks at, it was grimly effective.

This idea that Russia is getting ready for several wars is not a pleasant one. I hope it’s wrong. I don’t especially want to see my friends in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia invaded and subjugated. And I don’t especially want to have to go to war with Russia to liberate them. Jesus. What a world.

29th September 10:30 pm 
​Director – Olga Lapina 
Venue – Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania 
Duration – varies (wildly)

Due to limited spaces, I didn’t actually see this. Other factors that played a part in my not seeing it included: this isn’t a “conventional theatre piece,” but a series of locked room type puzzles. It started at 10.30pm at night, and the previous group had taken two hours to complete the “show”. It mostly took place in confined spaces in the dark. It didn’t have awfully much to do with Hamlet (except the solutions to the locked rooms were all Hamlet-based). This was the second ever performance in English (the show should only take one hour).

I know I should have, but colleagues told me I didn’t miss much.

Also, it’s not reviewable anyway because spoilers.

Maybe I should just claim I did see it but am #KeepingTheSecrets.

So: Brilliant! Do see it if you ever get the chance. I can’t say why, but trust me!

30th of September 6: 30 pm 
​Director – Agnius Jankevičius 
Venue – Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania, Main Stage 
Duration – 2 hrs 50 mins. (with intermission)

Due to the extreme running time of this piece causing it to clash with the next show, I only saw the first half of Ice. But, blimey! What a mad little thing it was. I’ll freely confess that I didn’t really have the faintest idea what was going on while I was watching it.

Well, no. That’s not true. I understood the (surtitled) narrative. I just didn’t know what it was trying to say. Nor did I understand any of the decisions that had been taken with the staging, save that they were broadly, naturalistically functional, in the same way that 70s episodes of Doctor Who or Blake’s Seven are broadly, naturalistically functional.

Looking about for some further explanation in order to write this “review”, it is heartening to come across a review of the source-text – Vladimir Sorokin’s novel of the same name – and discover that the New York Times’s book critic had just as little idea what the book was driving at. The guy from the LA Times at least offers a plausible and seductive (if ludicrously Western) reading. [Both/either of their plot synopses will do.]

From the Sirenos website we learn from a Lithuanian critic that: “The visual side of the performance being in no way functional is not a director’s light-minded mistake but rather a conscious choice. As Agnius Jankevičius himself admitted, he was making a performance-presentation. He tried to present Ice together with its [character] Varvara Samsikova as a product to sell. It is apparently why scenography and video are being treated as independent from the play itself, like a charming package – useless but necessary.”

Which sort-of helps.

There’s also a note from the director himself: “The genre I chose for this play is performance-presentation because my aim here was to provide the audience with all hidden codes and ideas of the novel in the most attractive way, as if it were a product to sell. I only used the part which tells the story of a character named Varya Samsikova. She has a special place in the novel, for it is her character that reveals the main ideas of the whole book, and it is she who undergoes conversion and gains insight.
As the director of the performance, I’m not imposing any particular interpretation of the novel, on the contrary – I’ll watch it together with the audience as if I’ve never watched it before.”

Which might explain a lot.

I will say that isolating the central character from the novel – at least for the half I saw, which, lest we forget, was longer than most plays in London in their entirety – maybe didn’t make the ideas of the novel as a whole as clear as the director imagined it would.

Still, it was completely fascinating to watch as something which existed within its own logic and its own universe. The performers on stage were similarly completely cut-off from the audience, totally wrapped up – with complete conviction – in what they were doing. I mean, that level of focus and sincerity isn’t to be sniffed at, so, again, I was pleased to have seen it, even while my jaw was dropping and I was looking bug-eyedly at my colleagues silently demanding to know what it even was.

30th September 9 pm 
Director – Oskaras Koršunovas 
Venue – Vilnius Red Cross Hospital 
Duration to be determined by the audience

In comparison to Ice, Egle, The Queen of Serpents is a model of clarity and concision. In all other universes, of course, it absolutely wasn’t. What it was, however, was familiar territory. What we have here is three floors of site-specific installation, and a piece that was originally inspired by Koršunovas’s students taking on Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Schutzbefohlenen. Interestingly – both tellingly and bizarrely – this had morphed into being an exploration of a bonkers Lithuanian folk-story.

Telling, because I suspect Lithuania’s experience of the current refugee crisis is even more limited than the UK’s. My colleague told me that those refugees who had been settled on Lithuania as its mostly-resisted EU quota had all made a dash for Sweden as soon as was humanly possible. (aid colleague also added, not without irony, that roughly 10% of Lithuania’s own population has probably done the same to Sweden and the UK. Or at least had, until Brexit made everyone feel so unwelcome that they’re all returning. Yes, even the ones who were living and working in Scotland. Nice one, 52%. But I disgress...)

The opening of the piece, outside an old, now-disused Red Cross Hospital in a Vilnius back-street was about as impressive as anything I’ve seen in site-specific theatre. Two performers dressed as police were mounted on actual horses. Real live dogs barked angrily at us, held back by not-very-reassuringly-strong-looking performers. Much of the rest of the cast (maybe fifteen or twenty) were dressed in full police riot gear and stood on the imposing inhospitable hospital steps.

We filed in past them, bit by bit. This was something of a problem as there were far too many people to really fit into the building and experience the scenes, room-by-room as they were set out. Sightlines were similarly compromised. I mean, that’s fine, but it’s a pity they couldn’t have run the thing over several hours and given the audience more freedom, but then, I suppose the cast had to change roles several times, so there were practical reasons why this wasn’t possible.

The level of detail, and also abstraction, was highly impressive. Each room was almost an entirely new reality. Sometimes relating to the experience of refugees, sometimes to some oblique reference to European/Lithuanian history (in common with much of the rest of the former “Eastern Bloc” their WWII consisted of being invaded by the Russians, then invaded by the Nazis, then invaded by the Russians again – the latter occupation lasting 50 years – which obviously gives them a very particular response to national-ideological issues).

What did it all add up to? In a sense, everything (or a very good stab at it) and nothing. Forced juxtapositions are all well and good, and there being an ordered imposed – if only by the necessary linearity of the hospital’s corridor-based architecture – wasn’t unwelcome. Being old, slightly cynical/jaded and tired didn’t help me a great deal, though. There was that sense – a sense I also get with Belarus Free Theatre – that declaring war on subtlety, using the weapons of nudity, VERY LOUD SHOUTING and repeated evocations of torture and religion, is probably an understandable first reaction to a lot of situations, but it also has the feel of GCSE art coursework by 14/15-year-old goths in the 1980s (I know whereof I speak). Which ultimately makes me wish everyone involved had spent a bit more time sitting down working on the Art side, and a bit less on the 4-REAL-ness of it all.

If the real-world problems faced by artists remain the same, a secondary struggle of the artist becomes the need to find new ways to present them. The problems of the real world addressed here (exploitation, torture, state brutality) never seem to go away, and probably everyone who sees the art will agree that they’re Very Bad Things. It seems for art to be either useful or profound, it has to go beyond this first-level problem-identification. Still, for all my grumbling it’s a visually arresting piece, even if the arrest does feel depressingly familiar.

It is churlish to grumble about it, though.  From my privileged, Western viewpoint, perhaps the repeated torture imagery (three of the four shows above, plus Cleansed) does look like a cliché, but the similarities, the precision of the image, even the repeatedness, becomes something more than cliché when it continually occurs in a national showcase.  We are reminded of the hell that the country went through under occupation by the USSR. Perhaps this isn't "unearned" art-clichés, perhaps it's national trauma.

[on to Part II]

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Schatten (Eurydike, sagt) – Schaubühne, Berlin

[seen 03/10/16]


From what I’ve read, it seems that Katie Mitchell’s production of Elfriede Jelinek’s (newest?) text, Schatten (Eurydike sagt) [Shadows (Eurydice says)] hasn’t been particularly warmly received by the Germans. Their main problem? That Mitchell hasn’t treated Jelinek’s text in the way that they’re used to.

I say “fascinating”; really it’s more like hilarious. Long-term readers of this blog would probably admit that if there are two constants in my criticism they are admiration for Germany’s theatre culture and of the work of British director Katie Mitchell (see yesterday’s review of the Lithuanian Cleansed, for e.g.). And, as we know, Mitchell’s own narrative of her career trajectory has this period of “exile” in Germany, where – sidelined by the critical culture in the UK – she found a properly intelligent, appreciative reception in Deutschland. At the same time, via an entirely different set of circumstances, I moved toward the (mainstream) German take on How Theatre Works, attracted by its apparently healthy disrespect for How Plays *Ought* To Be Done (or indeed, How Plays Should Be Written). Admittedly, this was always a response to a rather broad understanding of both the UK and DE positions, but that’s how it was at the time. I loved the idea that a play was one consciousness, but that a director was required to actively be another, and that the staging could be a conflict between the two.

And now, part of the German issue with Shadows... appears to be that Mitchell has performed the *wrong sort of directorial intervention* on Jelinek’s text. Saying I’m amused doesn’t even begin to cover it. I mean, I do understand that there are also other criticisms, and I perhaps understand the German critics’ perplexity at why anyone would want to try to reintroduce realism or naturalism onto their stages. But I would also suggest that believing that’s all that’s happened here is *a massive category error*.

Mitchell’s production is one of her “camera shows”. That is to say (and, as Nachtkritik’s Michael Wolf rather snottily puts it – “Anyone who knows their language of form, can safely skip the following paragraph”), what happens is a small army of actors, camerapersons, stage-hands, and a voiceover artist make and live-project a “film” on the stage. As Wolf also says, if you’ve never seen it before, it is a genuinely stunning effect. Mitchell has now made about ten (?) of these shows, however, and Wolf seems a bit impatient, suggesting that the novelty has worn off. I think that’s a *slightly* lazy way of looking at it. Obviously there are superficial similarities between this one and Forbidden Zone, or Wunschloses Ungluck or Reise Durch Die Nacht, et al. However, there are also differences. And it’s not like it’s Mitchell’s default or only approach to theatre. Neither Ophelias zimmer nor Atmen at the Schaubühne, much less Cleansed in London or (any?) of her operas had any cameras anywhere near them, for example. So I think we might extend the courtesy of trusting that she’s done it for a reason when she’s done it at all. (Similarly, we might be less cynical about it as a mode, if we’re going to accept – say – Nicholas Stemmann trotting out all the same tropes every time he does *anything*.)

Jelinek’s text – as tends to be the case – is essentially a vicious screed-of-consciousness. If you imagine Virginia Woolf waking up reincarnated as a Marxist Courtney Love you might get some idea. Here she has imagined herself inside a kind of modern Eurydice – a writer married to a rock star. As with Wut, and Die Schutzbefohlene (x2), or Das Werk (et al) before it, there is literally nothing in the text that suggests how it should (or shouldn’t) be staged.

[There is, however, the likelihood, that all the German critics will have read the text before seeing it. Whereas I didn’t read it beforehand, and didn’t particularly concentrate on the German while watching either, and then read (Google-translate’s Ok-but-hardly-poetry stab at) the text afterwards... Obviously this isn’t perfect, but it does seem to mean that I liked the production more than anyone else...]

And it’s fair to say, there is a surprising disconnect between how you’d read the text in the first instance, and what’s now on stage at the Schaubühne. Mitchell (and her video scenographer, and Alice Birch – credited with “Text” – possibly meaning having written the film story, possibly script editor, I don’t know) has made a pretty straighforward narrative film of the story of Eurydice, transposed into a modern idiom, with much of the text existing superimposed onto the visuals by means of a visible voice-over artist in a soundproof booth smoothly reading the jagged text over the polished visuals. I do get why the Germans are surprised, but I can’t say I minded especially. It’s a perfectly ok film (though admittedly not perhaps Mitchell’s *best* by a long way), and, ironically, the disconnect between form and content feels amusingly German – just in a way that the Germans seem to disagree with.

Perhaps my favourite critique of the piece comes from Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Mounia Meiborg’s argument that the feminism of the piece is almost kitschily retro. That the gender relations in the visuals are not gender relations that she recognises in modern Germany. And that the piece even perhaps betrays women further: “The camera feeds on Jule Böwe [Eurydice] lying in black negligee on the floor and staring into the distance... And Katie Mitchell, who sees herself as a feminist, confirms an old patriarchal law: the suffering woman is still the best.”

Now this is fascinating. Obviously I can see the converse view as well; that if we can’t name and depict problems of gender-relations in theatre, then we are a) ignoring them, b) endorsing them, and c) censoring ourselves. On the other hand, there’s the argument articulated by Doon Mackichan and/or Maddy Costa that reproducing images of suffering women, we naturalise them, immunise ourselves to them, give people ideas, and are even making that violence ourselves on the stage.

I sit uncomfortably on the fence here, because I think both points of view are both true and untrue, pretty much equally. Perhaps *intent* is the key here. I think we can at least allow that the piece has been made in good faith, rather than with the aim of setting the Women’s Movement back fifty years, and titillating men into the bargain.

So then we come back to the question of whether the form itself is reactionary. I’ve gradually been coming round to the uncomfortable (for me) realisation that, much though I’d like to believe in the primacy of my own political reality, the inconvenient existence of other countries and other theatre cultures means that that enterprise is pretty much doomed. There’s nothing *inherently* more left-wing about using the stage for metaphor, or right-wing about using it for verbatim etc. etc. I might have a few beliefs about what’s best, and might tie them to my ideas about what politics are best, but I think any definitive links are impossible to prove beyond doubt. There’ll always be another country/culture doing the opposite thing to achieve the same result. It seems largely to be a matter of precedent and reaction against precedent. To believe otherwise it to argue for the objective primacy of your country’s theatre culture over another’s, and I don’t think anyone with leftist views is going to be keen to do that. So...

So, where does that leave us? Well, it’s a Katie Mitchell camera show (with some properly excellent music by Melanie Wilson – I wish they’d release a CD/MP3s of both this AND Cleansed), with a visual narrative about a woman being bitten by a snake, dying in hospital, being taken into the underworld – a concrete Lubyanka, 99 storeys below the earth – being pursued by her husband Orpheus (whose singing to the elevator to gain admission is an amusing nod to the original), who wants her back in the land of the living. A disinterested, and somewhat amused Hades (scary contact lenses and a rather German way of dressing) seems essentially to be offering her sanctuary – this underworld seems more like an existential writer’s retreat, with no laptops, only boxes of paper and a nice fountain pen.

I *think* this ties up to some meditation on Eurydice refusing to be His (Orpheus’s) shadow, but instead a shadow of herself in some way. It’s possibly more amusing and less absolutist than detractors are giving credit for, although, given the somewhat bleak mise-en-scene, maybe it’s me at fault detecting a wry smile here.

If we’re interested in things like Like/Dislike, it wasn’t my favourite Katie Mitchell (et al.) show, and – in a bizarre turn of events – it’s not even my favourite Jelinek of the last week or so (probably Poland’s, then Lithuania’s, maybe). But I thought it was *alright*. I’m most interested – annoyingly, given that theatre doesn’t really work this way – to see what (if anything), Mitchell and Birch make of Meiborg’s critique, and whether or not that’ll be something they seek to tackle in subsequent shows.

Still, I’ve been spoilt recently. It’s still streets ahead of most of what’s opened in UK theatres since Edinburgh...