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...

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