Friday 7 October 2016

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]

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