Friday 26 June 2015

Israelica / Performing Art Through Ecstatic Pathways – Stary Browar, Poznań

[seen 25/06/15]

One of the many strands at this year’s Malta Festival is one of Israeli-Polish choreography exchange. Yes, I am aware there is a debate in the UK about boycotting the work of Israeli artists, especially when their work is state-subsidised, as this programme is. And I am fully aware of precisely why that debate exists. Similarly, I am aware of the events, particularly in Poland, that directly preceded the foundation of the State of Israel.

Had I not watched these two pieces, I would not have known – or at least, not experienced first hand – that both are searing critiques of the present state of the State of Israel, both made by Jewish Israelis. Yes, there is also an interesting debate to be had about what the state-funding of work that is directed against the present administration of that State means.

Rotem Tashach’s Israelica is a kind of stand-up performance lecture on dance. It is warm, beguiling; he’s like this Jewish version of a younger Kevin Spacey, but *actually* charming. He talks about the division of the space we’re sitting in – him on the dance-floor/stage and us all sat up in the chairs in the other half of the room. He gets a couple of volunteers down from the audience to demonstrate walking in straight lines, crossing the stage, passing each other. His patter, all the while, is gentle, calm, funny, personable. Even when he says “And, y’know, obviously in Israel we all know where straight lines lead: straight to Auschwitz” (paraphrase, but pretty much exactly that) it sounds like a – ha ha! – like a friendly joke. And, yeah, it just gets more and more mordant, combative and critical from there. Without a script I’m unwilling to just list more things he said. And I’d feel uncomfortable doing so. There’s a whole show here, and a context, and a line that moves through that context, and everything he says he says in a particular order for a particular reason, and says it about his home country. A country of which he despairs profoundly. This is not a matter of being a “self-hating-Jew” any more than despising Nigel Farage makes me a self-hating Englishman. Tashach’s questioning of how Israel conducts itself is no more undermines *the State of Israel itself* than my open and ongoing disgust with the Tory party threatens the existence of England. There is a better way of being Israel, the piece says.

Asher Lev’s Performing Art Through Ecstatic Pathways is a more diffuse, yet ultimately more specific, piece. It is (mostly) the seated/desk/laptop/mic/projection style of performance lecture. Lev starts off by explaining “his practice” to us. He’s interested in reaching altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, vomiting, and something else. In this lecture he wants to concentrate on the first two. He tells us this slowly while at the same time typing what he’s saying on the laptop in front of him. He is quite a slow typist (but then presumably English isn’t his first language (or even his first keyboard)). It feels a bit ponderous and grates like anything. I’m not a big fan of “body art” at the best of times, and even less so a fan of people who use words like “shamanic”. And, as it happens, the first half of the show – so, maybe fifteen/twenty minutes – is extremely boring. He breathes hard and fast, and occasionally types a bit. I am resolutely unimpressed. The only reason I watch is because I figure I should occasionally challenge myself, and I’ve been having it all my own way, way too much recently. Then the whole thing suddenly completely changes gear. We seem to be completely done with hyperventilation, and we’re onto vomiting. Now, I wasn’t sure I’d be all that into this.

[I’m pretty squeamish. And I have hang ups about people making a freakshow of themselves. Even if it’s voluntary on their part, what it implies for the spectator is still unclear, and I feel further compromised by the fact that that I’m there professionally, rather than of my own volition (here especially, since I was just handed a bunch of tickets to *stuff*).]

As it turns out, “vomiting” as I’m going to call this section, is in fact a long diatribe against the current Israeli arts minister, Miri Regev , who is conducting “de facto censorship” (Lev’s exact words) against leftist artists whose work attacks Israel or “delegitimise” Israel (a kind of Israeli, arts-Gove, if you will). He has written her a letter, which he reads to us, while drinking a suspiciously unplesant-looking two litre carton of liquid. He has also written a reply he imagines she might send him, which he gets his computer to read while he finishing drinking a second carton. As the letter plays, with musical accompaniment and her smiling face beaming at us all from the screen, he takes a white plastic bowl and proceeds to vomit the liquid back up. It’s actually quite cathartic (also, bright blue, which is unexpected). As a response to any right-wing government’s arts policy, it seems like an entirely fitting response. Think Torycore, but with sick rather than death metal.

No conclusion-drawing here. The works (and my descriptions of them) speak for themselves, I hope.

Inventory of Powerlessness – Stara Rzeźnia, Poznań

[seen 24/06/15]

How timely that just as everyone in Britain starts talking about “community theatre” or “outreach”, I should see an example of what they’re doing with the same on the mainland.

And, dear God, it’s different. Actually, it’s not – you’ll see – but I honestly can’t imagine anyone ever making this show in Britain. Perhaps I’m wrong, though.

Edit Kaldor are a Dutch-Hungarian company. For the Inventory of Powerlessness here they have worked with local Poznań residents. I don’t know how the participants came to be selected, but they are about as diverse a group of the properly socially un-privileged as I’ve ever seen on a professional European festival stage.

The premise and proceedings of the show are incredibly simple. There are two mic stands, and the various participants take it in turns to go onto the stage and explain a time when they felt powerless. In doing so they often describe their circumstances – a mother whose child has been killed, a disabled man who’s lost his job, a man with specific learning difficulties or mental health issues that have also cost him his job, a single mother who isn’t making enough for food and electricity, two women with severe cerebral palsy.

Their stories aren’t a walk in the park either. After so many of them you really do wonder about other people’s capacity for – well, let’s not say “evil”, but – unthinking selfishness, sadism, and bullying the already-powerless.

“How’s this so different to the UK (or elsewhere)?” you ask. And, yes, in essence this isn’t wildly dissimilar to the concept of, say, Chris Goode’s 9. Or Stand, but with the original interviewees not replaced by actors, and their stories not edited and skilfully intercut, but constantly refreshed for locality. In theory, it’s not even dissimilar to The Last Witness – the Austrian verbatim/testimony piece made with Holocaust survivors.

What’s different is the tone and the emphasis. All it asks for is instances of powerlessness. And it gets them. And they are relentless. And there is absolutely no let up. And they are not stories told with self-irony, or humour, or a happy ending, or a lesson we can all learn from. It’s just the instance of powerlessness, be it temporary, ongoing – or in some instances – seen by the speaker a permanent.

Of course, *in theory* just the fact of this piece *could* be seen as empowering, but it feels more or less everything in the show’s dramaturgy conspires against our drawing this conclusion. We’re not told reassuring stories about the transformative power of theatre. We are simply sat in a theatre and told stories about profoundly powerful experiences of powerlessness without hope or redemption.

And it feels like it’s probably an infinitely more accurate representation of how people actually feel than the miles and miles of attempts to make everyone feel better and more empowered that we make in the UK. This, by contrast isn’t suggesting anything. It just explains, quietly and patiently, and with limitless examples, that the majority of people are powerless, feel that powerlessness, and are miserable.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Home Visit Europe – [someone’s home on] ulica Rylla, Osiedle Bajkowe, Poznań

[seen 21/06/15]

Rimini Protokoll! It’s been a while. Rimini Protokoll are a fascinating beyond-verbatim theatre/live-art/whatever Swiss-German company headquartered in Berlin. I first came across them at the SpielArt Festival in Munich, in 2007, and what they were up to, even back then, kind of blew my tiny mind. It might seem, given the gulf between the work described in my first encounter with the group (‘07) and my last, in 2011, that RP have been moving further and further away from shows that involve them employing actual “performers” (or the members of the public whom they term “experts” – experts on their own lives – that perform in their pieces). Actually, the second to last RP show I saw – at HAU2 – was rather more like the first, so as far as I know, that’s not particularly true. Rather, their work has two almost distinct strands to it – with pieces that are mostly participatory seeming to take the main stage at international festivals now.

Home Visit Europe *sort of* does exactly what its title suggests. Here at the Malta Festival, myself and eleven other guests made our way out to a house right on the edge of the city’s suburbs – I’m not kidding, they had a full-on MittelEuropa pine forest at the end of their back garden. The set up of the show is as follows: the guests all sit round a table on which is drawn a paper map of Europe. We plot various places in our lives into the map and later join the dots.

This done, a mad little device is place on the table. You press the green button and a till receipt comes out with a question printed on it. This is passed round, everyone taking a turn to press the button and ask the question. The piece is essentially about the answering of these questions, which have a very definite inbuilt dramaturgy to them.

It would be entirely wrong of me to really reveal what the questions are, or even what happens next (if this piece doesn’t tour widely and for ages, I’ll eat my hat), but in order to give any sense about the thing at all, I think it’s probably ok to suggest that it feels *a bit like* a more dramaturged/abstract version of World Factory. (I say *sounds like* since I didn’t see the latter.) Here, rather than *directly* *playing* the European Parliament, or anything similar, by answering questions, first as twelve individuals, then as smaller and smaller groupings, you definitely get a sense – especially given the little information sections that also happen – that what we’re thinking about here is how Europe has been constructed, first as a concept, then as an actual political entity. And how power operates within that. And whether that power is even remotely equally distributed.

I’m not sure if the piece is *finished*, or if there’s a certain amount of “road-testing” that’s still going on here. It’s sharp, definitely, but I get the impression that it could be sharper, or more pointed, still. But perhaps, again, this is down to German opposition to too much directed thinking (as I see/understand it), coming up against my Anglo- trained mind wanting to be given some much more definite parameters. Either way, it still puts you very firmly in a pretty specific ball park. And the way *the game* unfolds definitely makes you think again about how much actual good the European project is doing.

It’s worth qualifying this last point about “how much actual good the European project is doing” for a British audience. This isn’t the same pantomime of xenophobia and sovereignty-related pram/toy-outchucking that passes for “questioning the European project” in the UK, one of Europe’s largest economies and home of the popular-to-the-tune-of-4-million-idiots UKIP. Instead it is informed by a rational and concerned stance on, for example, what the German economy is doing to the Greek economy. And, perhaps much more importantly, the extent to which the entire enterprise might be firstly a massive exercise in expropriation by the capitalist West of the assets of former-Warsaw Pact nations, with a side order of massive cultural imperialism, and secondly, a largely American-sponsored ideological pact with an endgame of US airbases on the soil of the former-Soviet Union.

All this is carried off in the guise of an innocent, well-meaning party game where all we’re doing is competing for the biggest slice of cake. Which, thinking about it, is pretty much how Europe probably feels. Bravo, then, to Rimini Protokoll, for creating a show which, when described in its barest form, exactly describes precisely what it’s seeking to excavate.

Doktor Faustus – Stara Rzeźnia, Poznań

[seen 24/06/15]


This is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus by Italian theatre director Romeo Castellucci.

I’m afraid my acquaintance with the novel is limited to that Wikipedia page to which I’ve linked above. It seems like a fine summary of a great book. I hope one day to read it.

Castellucci’s *adaptation* of the novel takes the following form:

The small audience enters of one the halls of the venue, Stara Rzeźnia (old slaughterhouse). It is long, high, and only slightly gloomy in the 5pm light.

In the centre of the room is a black wooden frame with glass panels. Inside this glass box sits a man in a black suit, black shirt, black shoes, with a cello.

The man starts to play the cello. We hear the cello amplified through the several speakers standing on posts, slightly above head height, around the room. After a small amount of time I imagine everyone notices that the music coming out of the speakers is delayed. We are not hearing the music as the man plays it, but with a, what? Five second delay? More?

The music is Zoltán Kodály’s Sonato for Solo Cello (below).

There are two cellists credited on the Malta Festival website, I have no idea if this is because the music we’re being played is being played by an unseen cellist, or because there is more than one performance per day and they rotate, with the delay itself being mechanical. These are the things you do wonder about.  [I checked; it’s the latter.]

As the piece draws on, the inside of the glass box begins to steam up with condensation.

The spectators around the box stand still, or glide around the room, shuffle from one foot to the other, or take photos with their iPhones. It is impossible to say whether every other spectator is also meant to be part of the piece we are watching or not. Castellucci himself stands, or crouches, or stands again, against one wall. Unreadable.

As a piece of work untethered to any meaning, it is remarkable in itself. It is, if nothing else, a beautiful performance of a fine, haunting, jarring piece of music.

But somehow it is much more than that. And, yes, it *does* feel like – if not an *adapatation* of the novel, then certainly a valid response to it. Again, as with Schwalbe, I found myself in my head much more than is ever possible with the directed thinking of British *argument theatre* (which, let me be clear, I also often admire very much).

And, as I found myself thinking often last week, context is enormously important.

So, yes, because of my morbid mindset, this ex-charnel house, being in Poland, reminded me of the absolute worst parts of C20th history – Jedwabne, Katyn, and worse places still...

I couldn’t say if it was something in the design of the box, a sense of the intent, an unconscious memory of when the novel itself was written... If there is the implication of horror in the cello music itself, dating from 1915, appreciation of the fact is absent from Wikipedia.

There is a fine interview with Castellucci in the Festival magazine, which I haven’t yet read, but from which I have seen the pull quote about art and evil: “Art has nothing to do with good. That’s what Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and even before them, Greek tragedy spoke about. Art does not do good deeds, but it is more like a disease, a virus, which comes to bother, rather than to comfort or confirm, so that we can feel safe.”

Now there’s something we really don’t hear very often. Yes, we hear that cliché about “wanting to make people see the world differently” until we’re ready to strangle the next person who says it. But we never hear “this is actively meant to upset” or “disturb”. We hear a lot about art’s powers for good, often social good, but much less about its capacity to wallow in the foulness of the human condition for the sake of it, much less to celebrate it. Imagine *that* Arts Council Application Form, for Christ’s sake. Or maybe not Christ.

I’ve written before about my tendency to compare theatre to “alternative music” (may it rest in taxonomy heaven), and even (obliquely) about Theatre and Evil. But I think there is definitely something to be said for an art which isn’t all about healing the world like so many hippies. I mean, it’s *Art*. I quite like the idea of art that actually scares people now and again, rather than just being an inconveniently socially-just thorn in the side of the Tories.

What do we think?

The Future Show – Teatr Ósmego Dnia, Poznań

[seen 22/06/15]

I was there when The Future began and I’ve returned once since. The Future started in April 2012, and then again in August 2013. And now I’m here when The Future ends. (Maybe.)

The Future (now Show) is a one-woman table/microphone/script piece by Deborah Pearson. In it, she narrates the future. Her future, and the future of the world while she’s alive in it. The piece begins with the show finishing. She tells us what she will say, how she walks out from round the table she’s been sitting at, down the stairs of the stage, and tells us how she will bow.

It’s like the ultra-personal dimension of the macro politics of Tomorrow’s Parties. As curation goes Tim Etchells and the Malta Festival have played a bit of a blinder here. The two pieces glance off each other like diamond and diamond cutter.

The first The Future only shot a few weeks into The Future, to(wards?) Pearson’s then-forthcoming wedding. It was – if I remember rightly – full of both mild angst and much greater sense of contentment and happiness. In this present Future Show – unpredicted, unsurprisingly, by previous Future Shows (who sees Poznań coming?) – Pearson it staring down the barrel of her PhD deadline in September. And she’s got a cold. This, perhaps, makes it a slighty grumpier affair than before. In The Future, there will be GAAAAHHH, it coolly anticipates.

It’s still a great piece. Whenever I see it, it seems to come at a point when I am thinking about *the future* anyway. But then, I wonder if that’s not just part of a perpetual condition. In first of his Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, Eliot offer us this:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

Gorgeous though it sounds, I’m not sure I fully buy the analysis. Or rather, they’re lines about the past and regret, maybe how an older person configures the world (Eliot was 57). The Future Show, instead of focussing on “What might have been”s and “memory” instead points to possible futures, “What might be is an abstraction” it contradicts. Of course “time present and time past” are both present in time future, but let’s concentrate on the Future, it argues...

Regret is all well and good (and the old anti-Semite had more to regret than many), but it strikes me that what the Future Show confronts is not the easy, armchair grumbling of “if only”s from the past, but the real live potential terror of ongoing ethical negotiation moving forwards in time.

I quoted that bit of Nick Ridout’s Theatre & Ethics in my recent Oresteia review, but it’s really worth referring to it again here. Essentially, Ridout proposes that the words “How shall I act?” encapsulate/articulate the crucial/central ethical dilemma of all dramatic (and postdramatic) “literature” (extending “literature” to intend “texts”, including, un-*written* ones). Perhaps, at this Festival, that question is being expanded across the many shows looking towards the future, to “How shall WE act?”

As such, it feels slightly silly to tag on a pat ending about how nice it was to see this piece again, and how nice to catch up with Deborah, and what a jolly good thing theatre is, etc.

Instead, I’m suddenly really interested in the massive contrast between this week – a programme of what could be clumsily called “avant garde” work – all focused, so far, on the future, somehow; and last week’s programme which was almost entirely focussed on history, and also – entirely coincidentally – felt much more “traditional”. (See my [forthcoming] Rimini Protokoll review for linked examples disproving that the “avant garde” doesn’t also *do* “history”.)

And, as two weeks back to back, it has been remarkably fortuitous programming. So much of the present *is* plainly bound up in mankind’s long, long history, that, yes, *of course* both past and present are the genesis of the future. If, frustratingly, all those histories give precious little away about what might be coming...

Photos by: Maciej Zakrzewski (top), and me (bottom).

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Guardian: Tim Etchells interview

Schwalbe is looking for crowds – Stara Rzeźnia, Poznań

[seen 20/06/15]

“Schwalbe is composed of young graduates in the art of mime from the Amsterdam College for the Arts who are fascinated with physical theatre” (festival programme)

Fascinatingly, Schwalbe is looking for crowds is listed as “Theatre” in the Malta Festival programme. I have no problem with this, but, blimey, I can imagine some people who would. More than this though, it’s interesting because you could equally categorise the work as contemporary dance or Live Art and I don’t think forward-looking types in those disciplines would object. Still, you didn’t come here to read about taxomony.

What happens in Schwalbe is looking for crowds is this: approximately twenty? thirty? people – the company might have been founded by young graduates, but they work with non-trained members of the public of all ages, up to 94-years-old (!!!) apparently – walk round a central point. They keep walking. After a while one of them breaks into a jog, and then a run. Others begin to jog and then run. Various numbers of them speed up and slow down, all the while going round and round. The few older performers limit themselves to the centre, and move at paces with which they are comfortable.

The outside of the rough circular mass moves faster than its core. At the beginning, the space is lit from the floor up the walls. As the piece move forward through time, a light on the rough centre of the mass grows brighter. At some point, lights across the whole performance space spark on and the white stage is bathed in light. The performers run faster.

This is, more or less, the whole piece. EXCEPT [spoiler alerts!] at one point they change direction. And at another point, probably 40 minutes in when the original group seem to be flagging, they are joined by another group of maybe 20 more members of the public (these ones, I happen to know, are local to Poznań). It is probably incidental, and more to do with who volunteered, but these are mostly young women.

The group, the mass, continues to revolve.

The piece is about an hour long, apparently, but I’d be happy to swear it was half that if I hadn’t seen a clock at either end. It’s ridiculous just how absorbing watching a group of people you don’t know run round in circles on a smallish stage for an hour is.

What work like this does is create a huge space for you to reflect. It’s like a shadowy two-way mirror; you do see what’s being done on the other side of the mirror, but at the same time you also, unavoidably, see a lot of yourself. As such, writing about what the piece is *about* feels even more exposing than a regular theatre review, in which at least there are things that other people have said to discuss. Here it’s just this kind of large human nucleus pulsing away.

I probably ended up reflecting most on how we watch things: what grabs the attention. About our in-built(?) or learned tendency to narrativise things. It was interesting that the tallest, the shortest, and the oldest members of the company stood out. That the most colourfully dressed attracted more (of my, slightly sleep-deprived) attention. And of course you wonder what is deliberate and what incidental. How much of what I reflected on was something that one of the makers had been thinking about when they came up with their concept. Apparently the piece is interested in the movement of crowds. Or how large numbers of people move together (apparently there’s an enormo- version of the show with over a hundred participants...). I don’t want to sound anxious. The piece itself wasn’t one of those things where you worry if you’re “getting it”. In a good way, there wasn’t especially anything to “get”. (I mean, maybe there was, but in the absence of any signposting, I was very happy to just watch and engage pretty much on my own terms.)

There is something beautiful about the simplicity here. The piece really did seem very content not to be pushing any directed agenda or debate. And, from this position of apparent calm, seemed to manage to say an awful lot about people, society, how we think, etc.

I am very glad this exists and that I saw it. Hope it transfers, but if not, maybe we can find fifty odd people and make them run round and round the middle of the Lyttleton or something one lunchtime and charge people £2.50 to watch. I think after the hour the audience would feel quite pleased they’d seen it too.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Tomorrow’s Parties – Pawilon Nowa Gazownia, Poznań

[seen 20/06/15 – in the future, this might turn out to be an experimental first draft...]

After a week of mostly big state-theatre stuff in Bratislava, mostly performed in a range of languages of which I speak not a word, arriving in Poznań, and wandering into the small studio space of the New Gazownia Pavilion – a weird futuristic little white lump of a gallery/arts centre looking for all the world like it was just plonked down at the side of Ewangelicka street because there happened to be a vacant lot there – sitting down, and being confronted with two people speaking English on empty stage decorated with a few coloured lights was a bit like being given a massive hug.

Or, looked at another way: like being given a nice crunchy salad after eating risotto for a week. Don't get me wrong, I like the risotto. It frequently tastes great. There are often more prawns than you expect. I’ve got nothing against risotto at all. But, well, after a week of comforting fattened rice, fresh green stuff is pretty damn exciting.

So, yes, here I am in Poznań experiencing something that feels like a really bracing cuddle.

At the same time as feeling friendly and familiar, Forced Entertainment have a brilliant knack for making you think hard about not-always-comfortable-things. The subject of Tomorrow’s Parties is *The Future*. It’s constructed so that it *feels* like a sort of improvised game; the two performers – here Richard Lowdon and Cathy Naden – start their sentences with “In the future...”, or reply “Or...” before launching into long, short, likely, unlikely, detailed, sketchy possible futures.

Some of the scenarios are dystopian, invoking horrible wars, used-up resources, police states, corporate state, and some are ridiculous (“In the future, people will have surgery to make them better at their jobs, like screwdrivers instead of fingers” – catastrophic paraphrase). The “Or...” tends to carry on or reverse these trains of thought. Sometimes with whimsical curveballs, sometimes with flat contradiction. The distance of the futures is also uncertain. Some are near, some are far.

There’s an interesting thing, that some of the futures – the more likely-sounding ones (“In the future, it won’t be all that different. All the stuff that’s already here, most of that will still be there...” paraphase) – are both depressing and comforting. What do we really think about the future? Is the looming environmental catastrophe, all the shortages, all the wars, are they going to happen in our lifetimes? Or the lifetimes of our friends’ children? Or is that war with Russia going to kick off before Christmas, as our friends in Eastern Europe seem certain it will. Or will we just about dodge all the shit that’s coming? Will our generation’s biggest battles be online and mostly concern interpersonal relationships? Are we ever going to solve inequality? Etc. etc.

It’s big stuff, ferried in so lightly and amusingly that you often don’t notice that the issue’s been raised until you find it sitting on your conscience a few minutes later and wonder how it got there...

It’s not strictly relevant to this review, but it was interesting the effect of seeing precisely (or near-precisely. Or, what I assume was near-precisely) what Cathy and Richard were saying in Polish projected as surtitles above them. It does completely remove the illusion of spontaneity and, at the same time, make you realise just how good a pair of performers they are.

Also not remotely relevant, is thinking about what, then, makes this piece so qualitatively different from the stately state theatre in Bratislava – much of which I did love, lest we forget. I do wonder if the biggest thing is the (seeming) lack of an overarching narrative. But then, the game it plays with presence, directness and performers “being themselves” also seems relevant. Doubtless I’ll have more time to think about this in the coming week.

Absolutely of no relevance whatsoever is that fact that Cathy and Richard rather reminded me of a younger version of my mum and dad, or of nice teachers giving an assembly. And I reflected that it’s quite interesting when our foremost “radical, avant-garde performance company” have been working together for over thirty years, since they were in their early twenties, and don’t seem ferocious or frightening any more. (Not that I saw them thirty years ago. Perhaps they were never scary?) And why do/do we expect our avant garde to be frightening anyway? And what’s a better word for avant garde.


In the future I will have stopped writing this thing, that used to be a review.

Poštovou kartou z Bratislavy

[to be expanded]

12th  The Unmarried (At)

13th The Bride of the Ridge (Sk)

Why is Eve? (Be)

14th The Stone (Cz)

Diary of a Madman (Ge/It)

15th  The Shepherd’s Wife (Sk)

16th Prophet Štúr (Sk)

Young Stalin (Pl)

17th Midnight Mass (Sk)

Gypsies (Hu)

18th Maidan Diaries (Ua)

Mojmír II, or: The Twilight Of An Empire (Sk)

Divided Heaven (De)

Rezdelené Nebo – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 19/06/15]

Staatsschauspiel Dresden’s Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven) is a properly beautiful piece of theatre. Based on the novel by Christa Wolf, (adapted by Felicitas Zürcher, Tilmann Köhler, and the cast), this staging makes the meandering story both charming and sympathetic. I’m afraid it was also a victim of being the last show of the Festival and running at 2hrs30 without an interval (starting at eight), it *felt* *to me* like a play of diminishing returns. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t. I’d almost swear that it was my fault. But it’s hard to tell. The energy and the drama *do* seem to drop off slightly, but I bet to a fresh mind – and as the only play of the day – they’d stick with it.

I wouldn’t swear to it, though. The piece tells the story of a young woman growing up in the DDR. Starting in about 1961 (I think), it follows her getting her first job, meeting her first love and, subsequently, his defection to the West. Once he’s gone, the final half hour(?) or so lacks any real dynamic beyond their bickering and grumping. She takes up with another bloke (I think), and he’s all cross, etc. but he went away! And won’t come back! And she likes socialism! And OH, MAN. I’m not sure that the travails of young love are ever going to be the best way of exploring ideology. But then Divided Heaven isn’t really trying to anatomise divided post-war Deutschland, it really was – at least to my sleep-deprived little mind – just about the details, about the feelings, about what love feels like, and what working in a factory, and being shunted around work groups is/was like. And it’s very good on that. Perhaps it’s precisely because of this investment we as an audience make, that the last half hour of bitterness and recrimination is so hard.

The staging itself is also a thing of great beauty and playfulness. It also includes balloons.

Actually, even beyond the balloons, it reminded me *a lot* of the work of the excellent British director Ellen McDougall. It’s got that effortless tumbling-over-each-other style of storytelling – the first time I think I’ve really consciously seen it done by Germans – and that same brilliant improvisatory way that sees two men sitting down to a meal together each roll up a trouser leg and proceed to “eat” one anothers’ leg(s?).

Karoly Risz’s set is also a joy. A simple slight raked square stage-on-a-stage overhung by a billowing, white, sail-like cloth onto which is projected a landscape – illustrative, rather than any attempt at fitting it onto the stage as a naturalistic location. Then, quite a long way through, the square stage suddenly begins to rise until it’s an almost unclimb-able slope (with shades of the Berlin wall?). There’s also live bike-riding on stage, which, for no good reason at all, is something I really love too.

Yes, I was exhausted, but this was a lovely end to what had been a brilliant and challenging week at the Eurokontext festival. And I’m going to stop here, because this is sounding more and more like “what I did on my holidays” than proper criticism or analysis.

Mojmír II. Alebo Súmrak Ríše – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 19/06/15]

At bloody last! It’s so neat it might have almost been planned. Having been *interested* by both the means and subjects of the first four Slovakian plays, I couldn’t honestly say I’d discovered anything that I (and, yes, of course, entirely subjective) could really say I loved (ok, maybe I married a werewolf!, but more in a “blimey!” sort of a way than “here is my new Alles weitere...”).

Mojmír II. Alebo Súmrak Ríše (Mojmír II, or: The Twilight Of An Empire) is kind of amazing really. What it is, what it seems to be, is a play about Slovakian history – circa 893AD – made from a chewed-up, cannibalised King Lear threaded through some wild and rangy poetry of the author’s own. (I say “the author”. There is no author or playwright credited. There’s a director (Rastislav Ballek) and a dramaturg (Peter Kováč) and that’s your lot. Did they really make a text this lyrical and complex without a single living writer in the room? Consider me doubly impressed, retrospectively)

There are only four performers on stage for most of the show. An old man, a blind man, a mad-woman/fool/goddess and a bloke in a suit (Robert Roth, Emil Horváth, Daniel Fischer, Dominika Kavaschová – maybe in that order, but the English version  of the website doesn’t give character names, and I’d be pushed to say which character had which name anyway...). Towards the close, there’s also a life-sized skeleton marionette dressed as a priest (I think operated by at least Ivan Martinka, but also a.n. uncredited-other).

And it’s hard to think of anything that it’s like. The nearest I got was imagining what a young, violent Peter Brook might do with a Howard Barker assault on Sophocles. There is something here that feels at once elemental, atavistic, primal almost. Like the noise of language crafted into something that communicates well beyond the reach of actual language.

The performances are also all suddenly, totally, electrically, alive. There were long stretches where I clean forgot to look at the surtitles because I just want to miss what the actors were doing. Also interestingly, this being the nth piece by the Slovakian National Theatre repertory company, I’d seen all of them before in something else. I’d sort of taken on trust the idea that they were good actors, but, just delivering lines with conviction at different volumes is a completely different game to what was going on here. Instead of some fairly inevitable, standard, near-realist moves, here we have something like complete bodily immersion in a part. The blind king is stripped to the waist, sinews taut, screaming or shouting about the land and the soil as he makes his way slowly, tortuously round the outside of the stage – the studio is here playing in-the-round to a one-row-deep audience, pinned against the wall perched on wooden chairs. [actor] hardly ever opens his eyes – caked in died blood – as he feels his way with a white stick. Meanwhile, [female character name] – Dominika Kavaschová transformed from her role as the selfish daughter-in-law in Midnight Mass – writhes, stretches and prowls her way round the other characters like a wild animal possessed by evil spirits. As Lear’s fools go – and this is her apparent sort-of role (or at least its where some of her cannibalised lines spring from) – she is the opposite of subordinate, having eschewed weird puns for a full on exploration of her sexuality. (And, *I think* this piece pretty much bucks the hitherto observable Slovakian trend for “demure” female “role-models”. I’m not entirely convinced Kavaschová needed to do the last scene in her bra, but then, since most of the blokes are covered in mud, blood, and either nearly naked or dead by this point, it really doesn’t *feel* male-gaze-y, but whatdoIknow?).

Juraj Poliak’s design almost adds to this sense of near-primal fury. On the back wall of the long space there’s a painting that looks halfway between cave painting and dirty protest. There’s also a massive metal frame horses head hanging ominously above the stage, and elsewhere a deconstructed full-size rest-of-horse is wheeled about or a metal frame is saddled... At one end of the stage a metal garden chair is briefly a throne, while at the other a miniature church stands in for, oh, Christ-knows-what.

To be honest, I’m not even remotely sure I got close to the sense of it, but I’m not sure I could have done without a simultaneous translation earpiece (PLUS footnotes in the other ear).

There is one scene, late in the play, where we appear to have reached the present day – or at least the Slovakian/Moravian King of the moment is dressed in the pervasive modern garb of the grudging we-have-to-wear-a-suit-in-the-office suit, short-sleeved shirt and tie. And he rails and rails against Slovakia, against it’s place in Europe. Against its sense of inferiority. Against leaving the country and against not leaving the country. He’s feeding coins into a tiny Red London Phone Box piggy-bank that seems to be standing in for an actual call box. It felt (perhaps over-readingly) to me, like the most honest self-assessment by a country of itself that I’d seen all week. Even the Germans, for all their unending horror at the crimes of their grandparents, or great grandparents, have Kant, Hegel, and Marx, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, of whom they can be inordinately proud. Here was a real sense of rage at a country that seemed destined to be an eternal underdog, to do or say the wrong things.

It’s always struck me that the true mark of integration into a place isn’t when you learn to love it, but when you can’t stop bloody moaning about it. That’s what belonging really means. Patriotism should never be about pride in your country, but disgust at it. The patriot who loves their country unconditionally is a fool, and might as well have been born anywhere. This was the play that actually started me thinking about “why nationalism anyway?”, “what is it even *for*?” “what does it achieve?”. And not before time, perhaps.

It strikes me writing this, that perhaps this should be the question asked by the next Eurokontext festival. This year’s edition did an admirable job of reframing, re-stating, and re-asking questions about nation and history. It would be exciting if the next festival were to ask “why nations at all?”

Sunday 21 June 2015

Cigáni – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 17/06/15]

Cigáni – the translation we’re offered is “Gypsies” – is described thus in the festival programme:

“Thriving gypsy music, colourful costumes and wild dances between shots of plum brandy. The idyllic start to the play resembles famous Broadway musical hits. The story of a classic love triangle in the 1930s – when the Hungarians and Gypsies were able to live amicably side by side – changes to comtemporary documentary with Hungarians throwing petrol bombs at the Gypsies. In 2008 and 2009 there were a series of attacks on Roma settlements in the Hungarian countryside. Musical idyll can no longer be referred to in this influential, opinion-forming Hungarian theatre play that – as an aesthetically and stylistically pure staging – tells of the current Hungary, the rise of nationalism and ethnic hatred, and of a detective plot in a small town where it not easy being either white or Gypsy. A play about seeking out the origin of fear, a play about the dark depths of Hungarians, Gypsies and us Europeans.”

Quite a problematic document, no? The reality is worse.

I don’t know how much you know about Hungarian politics, but, well, they’re pretty fucked. I should say at the outset: I only know left-wing Hungarians and they’re all horrified and depressed by what’s happening to their country. So, this is by no means about *all Hungarians*. However, at present, and by democratic election, the country is ruled by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party – somewhere to the right of UKIP – often supported by the Jobbik party, who are somewhere to the right of the BUF (British Union of Fascists there. Singing their anthem, which is a direct translation of the anthem of the Nazi party, in case you were in any doubt about just how closely allied the two were). There are a litany of examples of how these parties are hideous (the one where an elected member of a modern European democracy in 2012 wonders if they shouldn’t start keeping a “register of Jews” is pretty special, for example), and if you’re not already actively concerned and outraged about this, and about David Cameron’s alliance with them in a right-wing coalition in the European Parliament, then do do a bit of Googling. However, this is a theatre review, so let’s look at the play – but not before noting how Fidesz has a nasty habit of firing artistic directors and appointing its own members to run theatres (imagine Katie Hopkins being put in charge of the National and you’ve got some idea where they’re at).

There’s plenty to raise concern in the blurb: starting with the idea of “an aesthetically and stylistically pure staging” (a stupidly naïve claim with fascist overtones) and going through to the nonsense that is “ the play resembles famous Broadway musical hits” (it doesn’t) “a classic love triangle” (if Run For Your Wife is a classic love triangle, sure) “the 1930s when the Hungarians and Gypsies were able to live amicably side by side” (“were able” is bad enough, but, 1930s? Huh? (“At a conference in Hungary in 1909 concerning the ‘Gypsy problem’, there were equally astonishing statements, that today in the light of history sound familiar. Once speaker said, ‘Every Gypsy should be branded so as to assist in identification’.” [my emphasis]), “contemporary documentary with Hungarians throwing petrol bombs at the Gypsies” (“contemporary documentary” in the same way that England People Very Nice was a documentary maybe?). Not to mention “a play about seeking out the origin of fear” – not much to seek out. It’s: “irrational prejudice. Racism”. Not much investigation needed there, unless you want to justify the racism. “Why are people being nasty to the gypsies?” the play asks. “Let’s look at the gypsies and find out” it seems to suggest. Just: no.

So, yeah. For the majority of the first half we’re shown a portrait of “gypsy life” in the 1930s (there is literally no way of knowing when it’s set, except presumably by the fact that the “gypsy” characters aren’t being enthusiastically loaded onto trains to the death camps, or having petrol bombs thrown at them). All the “gypsies” are played by (white, as if it needs saying) Hungarian actors. The portrayal of the “gypsies” is pretty much the most overtly racist thing I have ever seen. The sum total of the attributes we see them display collectively are: drunkenness, violence, lechery, dishonesty, and playing music. (Thinking about it, it’s basically Posh, but with gypsies – but then, imagine what Posh would be like if it was about a racial minority, played at a time when that minority were already being persecuted, and played solely to people outside that group...). The best I can say, then, of the first half of the play is that it *might* be intended affectionately and just winds up being racist by mistake(!). The second part – the “investigation” – basically consists of some racist policemen poking around in some burnt out housing.

It’s strange to consider that *I think* the intent here is broadly liberal, and concerned about violence against minority ethnic populations. It appears, however, that an uninterrogated, racist stereotype has still permeated the thinking here – not to mention an atrocious lack of *any* discernible theatrical talent or know-how whatsoever – with the net effect that this looks like nothing so much as a bigoted six-form revue. In short, you can’t make an anti-racist play by putting a lot of characters on stage and asking “who’d want to firebomb these fun-loving, simple, childlike folks?” Ironically, though, by pandering to these idiotic stereotypes, the piece ultimately shows us exactly why Hungary’s got a race problem: because it’s a way of thinking so ingrained that even liberal theatremakers trying to protest it can’t seem to think their way outside the rhetoric.

I should reiterate again, lest I be accused of bigotry myself, that in my personal experience, not a single Hungarian I’ve met has been racist. And every single one detests the government with a passion. “Echo chamber” maybe, but at least it exists. By the same token, Hungarians I know have been having a fucking hard time since Fidesz came to power. Everyone not hard-right in the arts in Hungary has. Perhaps ultimately that’s the source of this play’s politics – the fact that if you make a play that calls the government out, you’re effectively asking to be sacked, blacklisted, and unemployable. So maybe not everyone can afford to be brave.

Bleak, no?

Polnočná omša – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 17/06/15]

After the first three Slovakian plays – Ridge, Wife and Prophet – particularly given the work programmed from elsewhere – Young Stalin, The Stone – it was starting to feel like there was a bit of an elephant in the room – a big WWII elephant wearing the uniform of the Hlinka. Polnočná omša (Midnight Mass) tackles the elephant head-on.

Going in blind – not knowing when it was written or that the elephant was the subject – it starts off looking like your bog-standard, post-Ibsen family drama. In Tom Ciller’s design, the SND’s wonderfully adaptable studio space is bisected by a traverse stage with two gauze walls, meaning that we can only see through our own 4th wall to the plain room – a simple wooden table surrounded by chairs and two doorframes left and right. A mother and father chunter about while their son and his wife (although she calls his mother “mama” and might as well be his sister until about three quarters of the way through...) bicker. It’s Christmas eve and there are clearly a few unspoken tensions bubbling around under the surface.

It’s the moment when one of the other sons arrives home that a source for all the tension becomes clear. He throws off his coat and we see that he’s wearing the Hlinka uniform. It is, for the record, a properly brilliant, chilling reveal. As a set-up, it feels pretty promising, but somehow Peter Karvaš’s script blows it.

I happened to see the play the day that the reviews for We Want You To Watch came out and part of me wanted to sit everyone who said something like WWYTW “triggers a debate that it doesn’t fully articulate” down in front of this to see where that line of reasoning could get them. *Except*, there’s nothing actually wrong with the ‘argument play’ done well (Copenhagen’s pretty good, right? That sort of thing), WWYTW was just a different thing.

However, without wanting to be *that guy*, Midnight Mass, failed for me because it falls right down between the two stools it might sit on. It’s a family drama where we just don’t care about the family, OR, an argument play hamstrung because it feels that Karva has taken pretty much every possible argument on the spectrum that Slovakia had in WWII and has made up a person in the family to represent it. Shoutily. But somehow bloodlessly and undramatically. There’s the fascist son who’s been out in the fields murdering Jews. There’s the mother who is also a fascist supporter, but who doesn’t actively take part in their activities, and finds murdering Jewish children *maybe a bit much*. There’s the ageing father who plays up his deafness to avoid even having to confront what’s going on at all. There’s the young wife who’s pleased to have been given a formerly-Jewish-run sweet shop to run. Her husband, the stay-at-home communist who *really disagrees* with the fascists – big whoop. And then, finally, there’s the ultimate source of conflict: the family’s third son, a partisan hiding out in the forests – except he’s not hiding out in the forests because the Slovakian winter has brought him down with a likely-fatal illness. He’s in the family woodshed and urgently needs medical attention. Then, blimey! [Hlinka son]’s German superior pops by to be the unexpectedly urbane and pleasant Nazi who, nonetheless, follows orders.

Even relating the plot it sounds more exciting than potboiler-y, but here the practically melodramatic level of ACTING and SHOUTING!! makes it feel much more so. Added to this is the fact that the only real dilemma being discussed here is whether blood is thicker than ideology. And, inevitably, it isn’t really. There’s a strange scene toward the end where the whole piece comes over all A (Nazi) Inspector Calls, where [German officer] has collected the family Marple-like in their dining room and delivers a synopsis of their moral misdeeds. As a device – and possibly as a scene in a better play, maybe even in a better production of this play – it might be rather good. Here, it felt almost uncomfortably comic. [German officer]’s judgement is compounded by the finest moment of the play – its climax: Partisans have liberated the town with recorded gunfire. They burst into dining room to see the wretched family sitting around and the woman leading the freedom fighterrs says one word: “Fascists” and points her gun. After two hours something, it would have been quite cathartic to see her actually machine gun them all too. Loudly. (Only the characters, not the actual actors, it wasn’t *that* bad). Sadly it’s just lights down and applause.

But, yes; this feels like an urgent dramatic play undone with too much melodrama, too much arguing, not enough at stake to care about, and incredibly weak characterisation (onm the part of the writing). Of course, I say this, flinging reasons for things not working around like I have the faintest idea what it would look like another way. Perhaps the biggest frustration with this production wasn’t that it was bad, but that it was so close to brilliant – just viewed through a frustratingly frosted lens.

Prorok Štúr a jeho tiene alebo Zjavenie, obetovanie a nanebovstúpenie proroka Ľudovíta a jeho učeníkov – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 16/06/15]

Before Young Stalin, there was another historical drama to watch, Prorok Štúr a jeho tiene alebo Zjavenie, obetovanie a nanebovstúpenie proroka Ľudovíta a jeho učeníkov (The Prophet Štúr and His Shadow, or: The Apparition, Sacrifice and Ascension of The Prophet Ľudovíta and His Disciples). This is (as far as I can make out) a new piece of contemporary Slovakian drama. It is about the revolutionary years 1848 and 1849 in Slovakia. And, Very Annoyingly, it is almost entirely dramatically inert.

I’ve been thinking about this, and about my response to the other three Slovakian plays I’ve seen so far this week, and I am feeling fairly wretched for not having been able to praise a single one. It is absolutely crucial – especially at a festival called EuroKontext – to foreground my subjectivity here. And to report also that the (almost entirely) Slovak audiences I’ve been seeing the shows with have liked the work, responded to it, been moved by it, and often given it standing ovations (although that does seem more like a national tradition than a spontaneous impulse). All that is *very important*. Any criticisms I might have/criticism I write comes from what is a place of *fully acknowledged* *complete ignorance*, or at least from a mind so soaked in Anglo- and German traditions that I can’t quite get my head around this would-be “ideologically free” “realist” Slovakian tradition. (Not least because I cannot believe that there is a way for something not to be ideological, which, *obviously* I have to see as ideological too – I can’t have it both ways). The Anglo-German thing is interesting to me, though. Because I do feel at least slightly theatrically bi-lingual (although In No Way *actually* bi-lingual). I now feel both the German theatre response *and* the (traditional, old-fashioned, naturalistic) Anglo- one in my blood while I’m watching (as well as the possibly stronger, deeper Anglo- impulse to like *anything funny*). And I like to *hope*, having been watching theatre a fair old while, that this means I have twice the number of ways to approach a work of theatre. If “watch on its own terms” is meant to be our (flawed) dictum as critics, then the more terms with which we’re familiar, the better chance we have of understanding a piece of work, right? Of course, watching art is political and we might *choose* to wilfully appropriate a piece of work, and maybe even deliberately watch it in a way a piece was not intended to be watched in order to further our own political arguments. But, equally, we may just approach a piece of work *wrong*. And say it’s a bad attempt at (a), when in fact it’s a dazzling version of (b). But if we don’t know that (b) exists, it’s a rubbish (a), until we’ve collected further data.

All of which is a preamble to saying, Prorok Štúr a jeho tiene alebo Zjavenie, obetovanie a nanebovstúpenie proroka Ľudovíta a jeho učeníkov *seems* to be quite a bad (a). In this case, (a) is a historical drama, a history play: history dramatised. It is not a good (a) because it dramatises the history rather badly. It takes the sweep of the events of 1848 (and ‘49), and places blow-by-blow accounts of them into the mouths of ciphers with the names of principle players in the Slovakian freedom movement. Watching, I did wonder if my lack of any sense of connection to this history might be partly the problem here, but I have watched a lot of other history plays about other histories to which I also have no connection, and have been engrossed by them. So I do think it’s the dramatisation itself that’s the problem here.

It’s funny. The text itself is so fact-based, that I think if it was performed *de-costumed*, and on desks with mics and big tellies and etc. – deconstructed any way at all, in fact – it might work rather well. Sadly, this production opts for “a-historical” (which looks a bit like it might mean “let’s hope no one notices it’s contemporary”) evening dress (a staple costume for UK student drama set in the 1920s, for example) costume drama.

I promise this isn’t me just wanting everything to have mics and big tellies. It’s just that the costumes – for me – set up an expectation of character and drama, which then (for me) failed to materialise, but, meanwhile, the production shows every sign of believing either that they already have, or that they will soon, as soon as the fact have been delivered.

There is a bit of (admittedly hugely schematic) personal interest too. But this runs into what seems to be my other perennial issue with the Slovakian theatre this week – its unabashed, rampant sexism. There is a beautiful illustration of that here: the first woman to walk on stage – she’s playing a liberated, free-thinking, modern, progressive Hungarian intellectual (although her only role in this piece is as a love interest whose interior life is only noted because it irritates Him) – she walks on and throws a handful of glittering confetti into the air above her and it sparkles down around her. It’s actually quite a nice effect, objectively (if “nice” can be “objective”). But MY GOD! It’s like calling bullshit on Manic Pixie Dream Girls never happened. (And, let’s be scrupulous: it’s not like it has stopped it happening Anglo- theatre either.) But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it made quite so flagrant. Later on, there’s a bit where Slavic Intellectual Dream Girl is disappointed. She leaves the stage with: actually a forlorn little glitter-trail wafting in her wake. This is also intentional. It’s like she’s literally Tinkerbell. (Who, of course, being an actual pixie is presumably beyond reproach? I dunno.) I should say, in the defence of the production, that the whole is actually rather stylish. It doesn’t really work, and the actual acting feels somehow hamstrung (at least when played through surtitles) by the expositionary nature of the script. But there are definitely some nice flourishes, as we see in the press photos.

But still – yes – problematic. And, once more, I should foreground my belief that all criticism is necessarily subjective, and this, therefore, is deliberately so. (Does anyone else get the feeling I’m trying to avoid having to have an actual argument about this reivew? I do).

Then, dear reader, 1hr30 in, there was the interval, and, having *a lot* of work to do I opted not to see the second half. Which, I am assured by my colleagues, was absolutely no better. But I realise it does stop me actually being able to comment on the success or failure of the piece as a whole.

If you’re interested in the plot, it can all be found here, though:

Friday 19 June 2015

Majdanské Denníky – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 18/06/15]

Verbatim drama is rapidly becoming *the* theatrical weapon of choice in Eastern European theatre, with Belarusia, Russia, Romania, and now Ukraine, all using the form to present urgent versions of events and give voice to those who would otherwise have none.

All of which puts something like Majdanské Denníky (Maidan Diaries) rather beyond the purview of ordinary “theatre criticsm”. What we can say is that director Andriy May and dramaturg/(we’d say author) Natalia Vorozhbyt have definitely created a piece of verbatim theatre. It is 2hrs long (with interval), and performed on a stage which is bare except for a small child’s wooden rocking horse and a mirror at the back – part because the company rehearsed in a ballet studio and got used to one and part because it reflects the audience back at itself.

They sing the Ukrainian National Anthem:

And the anthem of the EU (although without words. Surprised the below one has them, tbh):

(were I a music critic, I might have some stern things to say about the funereal pace with which they treated lovely Ludwig van...)

The Ukrainian, what? protest? revolution? in Maidan Square is one of those bits of recent European history that takes a bit of getting your head around. In the piece the company start by asking audience members [in English] “Do you know what happened in Maidan?” To be honest, just this question (or maybe, plus others like it) could form a whole show by itself.

The piece does give us information, although rapidly, so you’re required to be pretty cognisant with the facts beforehand. And there are very few facts, before the propaganda kicks in, from both sides (in real life, not in the piece).

Viktor Yanukovych definitely refused to sign the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement (“Protests originally erupted in November 2013 after President Viktor Yanukovych chose not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union at the summit of the Eastern Partnership at Vilnius”)

People definitely gathered in Maidan square protesting this refusal (actually, I think Maidan *means* square – and little Maidan is Ukranian for “stage”, neatly). Then:

A period of relative calm in the anti-government demonstrations in Kiev ended abruptly on 18 February 2014, when protesters and police clashed. At least 82 people were killed over the following few days, including 13 policemen; more than 1,100 people were injured.

The “at least” in the above-cited Wikipedia entry – and, y’know, why not Wikipedia? – is flatly contradicted on stage where the figure of the dead is set at at least 200.

The piece does not greatly concern itself with the wider facts, however. This is very much first-person testimony, performed honestly by the actors, who were also at the protests.  And, for the most part, the stories they tell are plausible, often unspectacular, vivid recollections.  It feels as if there’s been a conscious effort to avoid either too-cinematic a narrative arc, or too much sensational detail. Instead the stories feel varied and diffuse, and the piece feels more like it spreads gradually than “hurtles towards its explosive finale”.

The company do not appear to be fascists. Or in the pay of the American government (like the American government would ever fund theatre!). The piece steers entirely clear of anything about the subsequent civil war in Ukraine, and has even less to say about Russia (topically, David Cameron is in Bratislava right now, apparently, having a meeting prompted by precisely this Russia question). There is a point where one of the actors asks – I’d have thought the (unseen, unstaged) interviewer, but people in the audience replied, affirmatively – is it ok if I speak Russian?

Indeed, the conclusion of the piece – yes, funny to think about verbatim theatre having “conclusions”, but – the last word, is given to someone who pins their hopes on communism, international brotherhood and love; the things he experienced first-hand for the first time in the square.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Mladý Stalin – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 16/06/15]

Here’s an unwise bet: I reckon Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Młody Stalin (Young Stalin) would do really well at the National Theatre (the British one). If we reproduced exactly what I saw last night, I think mainstream British audiences would absolutely lap it up. And I’m not talking with my rather far-fetched *everybody-will-love-postdramatic-theatre-just-you-wait-and-see* hat on, here either. I reckon people would love it in the same way they love Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead or The History Boys.

Young Stalin is a big, broad, often very funny narrative drama offering a fast paced bio-play of Stalin’s life from his first marriage in 1904 to a point sometime after the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London, 1907 (yes, in the church that once stood where that Tesco Metro is now). Like a Shakespeare history the play compresses the action so tightly that you imagine all the episodes it depicts must have somehow fitted into a very busy week.

The stroke of brilliance here is the humour. The piece begins with young Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (Stalin’s Georgian birth-name, innit) giving a speech at his wedding in which he accuses his violent, abusive mother of having slept with every man in the room except his (absent) father. It’s at once cruel, probably based on some sort of painstaking research, and, crucially, very very funny. It’s the sort of bloody-minded sardonic humour and swagger that makes you love a character. Guilty pleasure, sure, but I guess we’re ok because he’s not actually Stalin yet.

Słobodzianek plays an amusing balancing game around the various pitfalls of writing historical plays. The first scene of the second half finds young Stalin in Vienna – he’s chasing across Europe trying to meet up with Lenin. The scene opens in a café with a young artist about to do his exams chatting away to Wittgenstein. Then it dawns on you who the artist is... *Then*, Freud and Jung walk in having a (surprisingly pertinent, ta dah!) conversation about the Oedipus and Electra complexes – which, when you consider Stalin’s wedding speech, is particularly amusing. *THEN!* Karl Krauss, Arthur Schnitzler, and some other guy turn up too... It goes from being maybe an amusing pastiche of Stoppard’s Travesties or a Terry Johnson play to an all out absurdist send up of even embarking on such an enterprise. There’s a tension too between the knowing humour and what we also know about the way the rest of the 20th Century will unfold. All the laughter here, even at pure silliness, is pitch black.

The play also does a good job of sketching the internal struggles between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in Russian Communism. And, what is striking – particularly in the light of seeing The Stone again so recently – is the absolute centrality of class. It is striking that when the Russian communists all sign a loan agreement with a useful idiot American, the majority of their professions is “journalist”. Only Stalin signs himself “robotnik” (worker). Between this and The Stone – and I really can’t praise the dramaturgy of this festival highly enough for putting together so many pieces in dialogue with each other, which are, en mass, really building a sense of Europe, its drama, and its history – one really does get a chilling sense of the sheer horror that can be unleashed when one bloke with a chip on his shoulder somehow manages to claw their way to power. The play also notes briefly Stalin’s concern at the high proportion of Jewish revolutionaries. And again, we hear just that faintest of whispers from history of what was coming, and, worse, the sense of just how powerful that feeling of continent-wide anti-Semitism must have been.

As productions go, Ondrej Spišák’s is remarkably straight. František Lipták’s set is just a roughly painted, three-sided room with the same tables and chairs strewn around for various cafés and meeting rooms across Europe. The performances are wonderful. I have a real soft spot for the intensity with which the Poles apply themselves to naturalism (hell, I’m English, I grew up on intensely applied naturalism, right?), but there are also sly winks to comedy and a knowingness about some of the scenes that impart their stories through jokes about how they’re presenting the history. It’s a really nicely handled, appealling mix. There’s also a fine amount of Georgian-sounding songs and dancing, along with Russian songs, Polish songs, and even an American burlesque of the Internationale.

Indeed, the production is *so* straight that I suspect my smart Polish friends will have their heads in their hands that I liked this so much. I’m sure in the Polish theatre scene this sort of work is seen as entirely reactionary. But, Euro-Kontext again: I’m British, and as such you can get a lot by me as long as it’s got some good jokes in it. And, y’know, for me; rather than coming at the piece from a position of eye-rolling wearniness, it’s all a fresh perspective for me.

What, contextually, we don’t get here in Slovakia, however, and what we wouldn’t get in London, is the building where this originally played in Poland. The Warsaw Drama Theatre is slap bang in the centre o Warsaw, in one of the arms of the “Stalin Wedding Cake”. A vast, monstrous skyscraper essentially built by Poland’s Soviet occupiers as “a present”. And, you maybe don’t get quite so fully that bitterness that the Poles feel against the Russians, who promised that Warsaw Uprising support, and then sat, cynically, on the other side of the Wisła and allowed the Nazis to annihilate them and destroy the city, before sweeping in themselves.

That said, for all that lack of immediate context the final moments of the play are superbly chilling. Stalin has returned to Georgia and is alone in a café apart from three musicians. He is already top dog in his town, people are clearly frightened of him already. And he instructs the band to play. They do, and he just dances. A strange, sad, intense, expressive native dance. Without knowing it’s Stalin it might almost be nothing. And it could be anyone dancing. And in that blurring of possibilities, that’s where the genius is. Maybe it could be anyone.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Bačova žena – Nová Budova SND, Bratislava

[seen 15/06/15]

So this is interesting. I went into Bačova žena knowing next to nothing. I knew the title translates as “The Shepherd’s Wife” and that, like Nevesta hôľ, it was directed by SND artistic director Roman Polák.

I came out desperate to know when it was written. 1928, apparently (the same year as Journey’s End, Machinal, Pioneers in Ingolstadt and The Suicide). Apparently the play has some standing in the field of Slovakian dramatic literature, and, perhaps more pertinent to my understanding of this production (or lack thereof), has a considerable stage history, with productions exploring everything from and ethnographic to “symbolic pure, aesthetically clear emphasis” stagings. I would say Polák’s current production errs more to the latter end of this spectrum.

But. What was most fascinating to me here was just how much I Could. Not. Read. This. Production. Don’t get me wrong, I could see the perfectly serviceable English surtitles. I knew what was happening throughout – woman is told her husband (formerly a shepherd) has died abroad, woman marries again, woman's first husband was not dead, comes back to Slovakia, and has bought the estate on which she lived with him, and now still lives with her new husband (also a shepherd). Chaos ensues. She stabs herself and dies. End – No. It was the actual register of the production itself that was somehow just alien enough to completely throw me. I’ll describe it: on the large-ish stage of the studio (think: the Dorfman) there’s a high black wall only a few metres away from the front row, cutting off the whole rear of the stage. The wall is at a slight angle to the raked seating. Across this wall a slope runs down from left to right. There are guillotine-action doors through which the characters enter and exit. Occasionally retractable rungs glide out of the wall, allowing people to climb the wall.

The performers are all dressed in black and white. The men in contemporary shirts and suits, the women in close-fitting versions of peasant or nun costumes, their heads covered with something suggesting again the middle ages or a nunnery. The paintwork on the slope is scuffed and retouched. Is that a deliberate design idea or unconcern? Did it feel a bit wrong, nit-picking about that detail? Absolutely. I have no idea what SND’s annual budget is. How very Western to worry about a paint-job. But then, we do worry in Britain. This scuffed paint really made me think about sets I’d seen recently. The sheer flawlessness of the shiny glass number for the Almeida Oresteia. It’s all very well to bang on about needing everything you see on stage to be deliberate, but my God, how very spoilt we all are. How decadent to have *budget* being part of what we *read* on stage.

However, let’s leave that confusion aside for the time being, because I was being slightly inaccurate earlier. If I’d known where I was meant to be with the play, then I think I’d have known where I was meant to be with the production. And I did not know. You’ve read the précis, right? The language (at least in translation – so this could be no indication) seemed frank and without subtext. People explained what was going on to each other. The characters move the plot along in front of your very eyes, maybe only ever one step away from actually saying “Wouldn’t it be awful if [thing that happens next] were to happen”. And, for all my scepticism, I did find the honesty about how plots work quite refreshing and relaxing. None of that mad English desire to have everyone talk endless about tea with everything actually happening *in subtext*. Nah. “How do you know your husband died? You never closed his eyes yourself” is what we’ve got here. (Truly, a proper *translation* into the correct period English would have that line as: “Oh dear, Eva, you seem to have forgotten to pass me the marmalade. Don’t worry, I’ll get it myself now...”.)

[the acting, from what I could tell – and I was doing a lot of surtitle reading, don’t forget, so I wasn't always looking at it – was actually very fine. Committed, convincing, never less than entirely watchable...]

But, quite aside from production, dialogue and plot, there’s *meaning* to contend with. What the hell is the play *for*? Why’s it been written? This is something that’s been discussed a fair bit over the last two days, and the inescapable conclusion seems to be just a complete ideological divide between people who think what it says is beautiful, and people who think what it says is actually rather sexist and reactionary. The ending of the play essentially feels instructional. That titular shepherd’s wife, Eva, takes her own life, seems to be broadly smiled upon as a course to take – a lot like Luise Miller’s poisoned lemonade honourable suicide in Kabale und Liebe, a bit like Hedda’s tragic? romantic? pragmatic? desperate? suicide... *Obviously* this is problematic. Like, the poor woman has done *nothing wrong*. There are characters in drama who murder their children and get off lighter than this. She kills herself because she remarried after she was told that her husband was dead. And then he turns out not to be. Frankly, husband number one is a complete prick from the word go anyway, as is husband number two. In terms of where sexual politics are in the world of the play, the most telling scene is perhaps the one where the two blokes meet up to have a chat about which of them the wife should now live with. The wife is not invited to their little chat. I mean, really...? And all this is staged without irony. Or apology. Or any internal self-critique.

The programme of the Festival has this to say in the play’s defence: “This perfectly concentrated tragedy of this Slovak classic has inspired generations of dramatists... This intimate chamber drama features inherent encrypted archetypal elements, the characters are like cut-outs from ancient tragedies or the Bible. The potential of the dramatic template is still a potential discovery for the wider European cultural area.”

And, you know, I feel genuinely sad that I’m on the other side of this mental fence where I just can’t quite do the ideological gymnastics necessary to get over or around the fact that the basic deliberate premises and trajectories of the play are pretty much diametrically opposite to mine. At no point was I bored watching, I don’t even think I could say I disliked it. But at the same time, I was more troubled by- than at home to- the ideas.  I think "the wider European cultural area" might be best advised to ignore this "dramatic template".