Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Eve of Retirement – SNG, Maribor

[seen 21/10/16]

Thomas Bernhard’s Eve of Retirement is a FANTASTIC play. It is toxic and abrasive in ways that I can’t remember any other play that I’ve ever seen being. And it has more to be abrasive about than most. Written in 1979, it is a kind of vicious outpouring of hate about and from Austria’s unadmitted, uninterrogated, unprocessed Nazi past.

It opens with Clara and Vera sitting in their living room. Clara is talking, Vera is sitting in her wheelchair and is described by Clara as deaf and mute. Vera appears to both hear Clara and answer her. It is unclear whether this is really happening, or whether the play is – well – a play. (There is later the apparent option that Vera is “playing a part” – but again, it is ambiguous whether this means actually, or, now *really* deaf and mute in-the-world-of-the-play symbolically in their lives) They are discussing Rudolf Höller (Borut Veselko). It rapidly becomes clear that Höller is an unrepentant former concentration camp commandant who tonight celebrates Himmler’s birthday, an exercise that includes his wearing his full SS uniform.

As with Kroetz’s 1971 play, Wunschkonzert, at the other end of the Festival, there is a certain extent to which the play now feels, in part, like a historical document. It must have felt like dynamite in 1979 when there genuinely were such people, perhaps even sitting next to you in the theatre watching its première.

What is fascinating, depressing, and disturbing, is that in this revival – even with its stylised seventies haircut wigs and wallpaper – it still resonates loud and hard against the growing, ever more loud resurgence of far-right parties across Europe. You sit here, in the middle of Maribor, in the middle of Slovenia, just nestling next to the Austrian border, and you know (even as an Englishman) that there’s no distance that you can put between yourself and these crimes. And the play knows it too. The entire thing, really, is calling out precisely the atmosphere of contemporary post-Brexit Britain, every bit as much as it’s calling out Austria or Germany. I disagree with the theory that historical costumes and/or different countries “let you off the hook”. Indeed, if anything, without wishing to go all Godwin’s Law, if you can appreciate a comparison between where your country is at now and ex-Nazis in Austria, then it’s the exact reverse of feeling “let off the hook”. This is the most urgent and contemporary play I’ve seen all year.

It also helps that Mateja Koležnikz’s production is a kind of perfection. On one hand, a sort of Robert-Wilson-esque barrage of tics and stylised twitching, and at the same time, a clarity and directness of real violence. [Now, I’m told that all her other productions look and behave the same, but a) I’ve never seen one before, b) I don’t mind a director having a style, so at the moment, she gets full credit for what seems to me to be one of the most astonishingly well-realised pieces in Slovenia.] Mojca Kocbek Vimos’s design – a sawn-off room-corner somehow looming off the small (Royal Court-like) SNG stage is also brilliant, complimented perfectly with both Alan Hranitelj’s costumes and Bojan Hudernik’s lighting (mostly a single massive floodlight pointed straight at the room from the right hand side of the stalls – brilliant).

The play doesn’t provide a moving or cathartic resolution. It more dumps a heap of shit into your lap and makes you think about it. It is a play that would fit beautifully – I think – into the new regime Gate Theatre (and, Christ, this production would fit beautifully into HOME, nudge, nudge), but, yes. Possibly I’ve ground some of the edges and nuances off the piece in my enthusiasm, but this is the first Bernhard piece I’ve really *got*, and I now I want everyone to see it.

Prešeren Theatre, Kranj
Première: 26. 9. 2015, Prešeren Theatre Kranj
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes. No interval.

Original title Vor dem Ruhestand

Translator Lučka Jenčič
Director Mateja Koležnik
Dramaturgs Amelia Kraigher, Nika Leskovšek
Set designer Mojca Kocbek Vimos
Costume designer Alan Hranitelj
Choreographer Magdalena Reiter
Author of video Andrej Intihar
Language consultant Barbara Rogelj
Make-up designer Matej Pajntar
Lighting designer Bojan Hudernik

Rudolf Höller – Borut Veselko
Clara – Darja Reichman
Vera – Vesna Jevnikar

Metamorphoses 3º: Retorika – SNG, Maribor

[seen 21/10/16]

It turns out that my last day at  Borštnikovo contained almost all the shows that I actually liked. About half an hour after the revelatory Three Sisters there was the fascinating Metamorphoses 3º: Retorika.

Now, my response to this piece was slightly (unfairly) coloured by some critic-colleagues all complaining that it was “utter bullshit” (or words to that effect) afterwards. As such, rather than getting to just write a nice review saying I liked it, I feel I have to justify my position more, and perhaps even acknowledge that I was letting a few things go unchallenged because it was enjoyable. [And, yes, I could instead write my original review and cover those aspects, but I’d rather record that this is the process.]

What Metamorphoses 3º: Retorika is, is a kind of light and sound installation, for the most part more operated than performed by its human components. They do get to perform as people saying words into microphones too, but for the most part, they’re not “characters” I don’t think.

The first part of the piece – for almost twenty minutes, at a guess – is actually a film. It talks about a Slovenian woman who trained as a lawyer and dressed as a man in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and beyond. It was quite interesting as a film in itself, but even more interesting for having been shown *as cinema* during a piece of theatre (never seen that before. Tick). What follows was characterised by one of my dissenting colleagues as “someone who’s never had all that stuff to play with before in a theatre” – vast piles of mattresses were stacked, restacked, thrown around the stage, and thrown off the stage. Smoke machines billowed. Fake Marshall stack amps were moved around the stage, used to play different soundtracks, and ultimately stacked in a corner. A massive bust (Karl Marx?), was toppled from its pillar and smasked across the stage. Dozens of microphones were positioned and re-positioned. Narrative spilled out, analysis spilled out. Beethoven’s European Anthem (as it now is) played over and over, but never all the way through. Lights shone down in thick beams, traced through the smoke, like columns from the ceiling. Other lights cast long shadows across the stage.

Then, at the end, the actress from the film came on, sang an aria, and exited by the giant iron safety curtain rising to reveal the vast main auditorium of the Slovenian National Theatre’s largest space (imagine basically watching all this sitting at the back of the Olivier stage, albeit one that’s about twice as deep).

I KNOW, I KNOW. That’s just a list of stuff. It just looked nice. It was (too?) episodic (even for me). The fragments of text and where they and the images pointed to was nothing terribly new or original. And many of the images weren’t perhaps in themselves all that new or original either.

BUT. I honestly don’t think *everything* has to be (or even can be) *new*, Every Single Effing Time. I know it’s a walking definition of reactionary, but sometimes it’s genuinely quite nice to see something that amounts to a Visual Theatre’s Greatest Hits album. That the fragments of text didn’t fully add up doesn’t mean that they weren’t offering *anything*. There was feminism, history, the EU, neoliberalism, the clash of ideologies, and etc... I mean, Christ, I hate to harp on about it, but even in this imperfectly realised if hugely enjoyable piece there was a fuck of a lot more going on than in *so much* mainstream UK New Writing (even if less by way of an easy take-home).

To be honest, though, the thing this most resembled was – on some very abstract plain – recent gigs by the Sisters of Mercy. It’s mostly lights and smoke; the material is kinda sludge; but out of sentimental affection for an aesthetic, it’s still somehow quite nice that it’s there. And I ge nuinely enjoy it. As I’ve said many times before, there’s not much you can do about taste, really. [Except lie.] It’s like being taken hostage...

Kud Samosvoj in coproduction with Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture, Kud Pozitiv, Plesna Izba Maribor and cooperation with M.I.K.K. Murska Sobota, Zavod DrMr, KC Mostovna

Premiere: 10. 9. 2015, Katedrala, Kino Šiška Centre for Urban Culture, Ljubljana, Slovenia
International Premiere: 18. 5. 2016, 53. Theatertreffen, Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes. No interval.

Author of concept and realization: Bara Kolenc and Atej Tutta
Performers: Sanja Nešković Peršin, Bara Kolenc, Rebeka Radovan, Jošt Pengov-Taraniš, Matej Markovič
Dramaturg: Pia Brezavšček
Lighting designers: Peter Pivar, Gregor Smrdelj
Sound designers: Jernej Černalogar, Jure Vlahovič
Author of the Rumours Song: Matevž Kolenc
Make-up designer: Anja Cojhter
Technical support: Radovan Jaušovec
Executive producers: Bara Kolenc, Julia Danila
PR: Mojca Zupanič, Rok Avbar

Three Sisters – Salon Uporabnih Umetnosti

[seen 21/10/16]

This. Is. *It*. This is why I spend a stupid amount of time in Europe watching plays. Because, just occasionally, you see something that you couldn’t have seen anywhere else, and it’s amazing.

This production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters isn’t even included in the official competition programme of the Borštnikovo festival. It’s apparently work made with students and was presented here in the apparently abandoned upstairs rooms of what is now the Institute of Applied Arts(?) (or is that just the name of the bar downstairs?). It’s an old, elegant building, just on the corner of one of Maribor’s bigger streets and the old bridge across the Drava. It had served as a casino in the sixties and seventies, and had then been abandoned and left empty until relatively recently. It’s harder to imagine a better found-space for this production. It’s not painstakingly naturalistic, it’s not *just like their house would be*. Instead it’s just a place that captures the essence of what’s needed for this production.

As soon as you walk in the difference of approach and rightness of setting really hits you. The audience are very much *in the same space and time* as the performers. When the performers smoke (constantly, and real cigarettes too, thank fuck) we breathe their smoke. When they boil a saucepan of coffee, they share the spare cups with the audience. They both are and clearly are not their characters. The theatrical transaction itself couldn’t be handled with more simplicity. The surtitles are projected willy-nilly onto whatever wallspace they can find and the performers move the projector about to sort them out. The costumes are modern dress, and are absolutely spot-on.

The casting, too, is perfect. Even though all the actors (bar one) are too young to be their characters – instead, as with the setting, you can imagine them as the early-twentysomething versions of the characters of the play, perhaps playing out what will become of them in some sort of imaginary limbo. Whatever rationale you invent for yourself, it makes the fairly obvious point that all theatre is an act of imagination anyway, and actually the ruptures here are no more or less intrusive than the velvet arm of a chair under your arm as you gaze at a painstakingly naturalistic replica of a Russian cottage populated with actors who are all the *right* age (gender, ethnicity, whatever) which has been rebuilt inside a vast concrete hangar and where everyone is speaking English.

There’s also a freshness to the acting. Almost a kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary style and candour to it. But more than that, perhaps the most exciting thing here is that the actors all talk over each other. It happens so rarely in theatre (but so constantly in life). Also, scenes take place at the same time, when two different conversations take place in the same room – one after the other in the script – they both happen at the same time here. And the surtitles overlay them, too, ensuring we readers have just as difficult a time picking out what anyone is saying.

And then there’s also all the extraneous stuff. The music, the little additional touches and props. The music especially is awesome. And near constant. Whether it’s one of the performers playing the guitar, or the iPhone popped into an empty glass (to amplify the sound) playing an MP3, or another iPhone plugged into a guitar amp, and sung/screamed along to... You’re reminded of the rules of Dogme 95 – and again with all the natural light flooding into the space from the large windows around the room...

And, yes, you *know* that it *is* all contrived too, and so do they, but that doesn’t stop it feeling electrifying to be in the space and watching the play. There’s a feeling of relaxation and freedom even in being an audience member here. The space having not *quite* enough chairs forces actual conversation and negotiation (although I’m sure that hasn’t been planned), so that everyone watching is actually behaving with a degree of responsibility toward everyone else, rather than slotting into allotted seats with numbers and pretending to be part of a society, when in reality you can happily ignore everyone else entirely. And the quiet is negotiated, not enforced too.

There’s also a bit toward the end, where a violin and a piano are used – sort of underscoring a particularly painful point in the play, but also because it feels like those characters/performers are doing it as something they need to do. The music is allowed to nearly drown out the speaking, the speaking becomes shouting, and *doesn’t feel rubbish for being shouting*. There’s even a somehow-tangible sense that the grief that the characters feel really is something that the performers also feel in some indefinable way. Whether identification-with- or sympathy for-, or what, there’s no way of telling, and that doesn’t feel like the point. The point is, this feels like the most remarkably raw, avant-garde, but original, and honest, and text-serving – even while cutting the text, supplementing it, and making it “real” and “relevant” in some way in the C21st without bothering with a load of hideous signposting and freighting with *relevant issues*.

It doesn’t mean I stopped admiring Benedict Andrews’s YV Three Sisters (for instance), with is glacial cool and its clarity, but, in the moment, I could feel my understanding of the play (indeed Theatre) being completely rewired. It takes those tiresome English binaries of “1) how to do classics right (now/period) and 2) whether directors are artists or servants” and exposes them as completely meaningless.

In many ways, this is one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever experienced.

This is a trailer for the production, albeit filmed somewhere other than where I saw it:

Margareta Schwarzwald Institute and UL AGRFT
Première: 30. 9. 2015, Cona 3, Ljubljana
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes. No interval.

Authors of translation and adaptation Maruša Kink and the team
Director Maruša Kink
Dramaturg Nika Leskovšek
Set designers Tina Bonča, Maruša Kink and the team
Costume designer Tina Bonča

Matija Vastl
Daša Doberšek
Lucija Tratnik
Danijel Bogataj
Aja Kobe
Jure Kopušar

izr. prof. mag. Tomislav Janežič

Set design
doc. mag. Jasna Vastl

Peer Gynt – SNG, Maribor

[seen 20/10/16]

Peer Unbelievably-Boring, more like.

Nah. I got nothing for you with this one. It is one of the most excruciatingly boring things I have ever sat through in my life. I quite liked the set (a dual-level grey concrete cyclorama), but even for someone who loves grey concrete, in this context it really didn’t help.

Actually, that’s a lie, it was quite textured; I spent quite a lot of time looking at it, admiring how it had been weathered, wondering what material it was actually made out of, and how much a set like that would cost. Or weigh. And whether it would be more interesting if it wasn’t such a small cyclorama. I wondered about how it would work if it was flat instead of curved. In fact, I think I thought more about the grey back wall of the set and spent more time looking at it and enjoying its visual properties than I did about any of the people wandering about in front of it speaking.

I think this is another of those shows where they’d thrown out the original text and replaced it with some other text. Which, as an approach, I find terrific and exciting. On principle. You don’t especially need to see Ibsen’s words translated into Slovenian and then surtitled in English to enjoy Hitler’s favourite play; I’m just as happy to see what someone else wants to bring to the table. In this instance, what they brought to the table, however, was just a lot of undergraduate musing on the nature of individuality (on which subject I got more from one page of the new Lehmann than hours of this).

It’s striking, writing this back in England the day after the moronic Emma Rice storm, that even this most plodding and pedestrian of Slovenian productions contained more revolutionary ideas than anything discussed or proposed yesterday. I mean, as far as I understand it, they did take the entire text and plot of Ibsen’s play and bin it. And still called the production Peer Gynt, without apology. Sure, the replacement contents and staging weren’t super *in this instance*, but the principle remains energising. [There’s a chance that they *didn’t* bin Ibsen’s text, of course, and just did a production of it that was so stultifyingly dull, you couldn’t even recognise it – although, in a way, this is maybe the most radical path of all... :-) ]

Ljubljana City Theatre and Slovene Permanent Theatre in Trieste
Première: 8. 10. 2015, Ljubljana City Theatre; 6. 11. 2015, Slovene Permanent Theatre in Trieste
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes. One interval.
Translator: Milan Jesih
Director and music selector: Eduard Miler
Author of adaptation and dramaturg: Žanina Mirčevska
Set designer: Branko Hojnik
Costume designer: Jelena Proković
Language consultant: Maja Cerar
Lighting designer: Andrej Hajdinjak
Assistant to costume designer: Barbara Vrbančič

Peer Gynt Matej Puc
Aase/Solveig/Troll-witch/Oriental Dancer/Hussein/Woman in Black Iva Krajnc
Aslak/Dovre-Master/A Voice in the Darkness/Oriental Dancer/Begriffenfeldt/Strange Passenger/ Button-Moulder Primož Pirnat
Mother/Ingrid/Woman in Green/Anitra/Huhu/Sailor 2 Nina Rakovec
Bridegroom/Young Troll/Ugly Child/Monsieur Ballon/Oriental Dancer/Lunatic/Cook/Thin Man Domen Valič
Wedding Guest/Troll-courtier/Mr. Cotton/Oriental Dancer/Lunatic Mummy/Sailor 1 Jure Kopušar as guest
Father/Troll-oldest courtier/Herr Trumpeterstraale/Oriental Dancer/Fellah/Captain Vladimir Jurc

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – SNG, Maribor

[seen 20/10/16]

In comparison to the week I’d been having thus far, this Who’s Afraid... was at least a polite, well-managed, nice-to-look-at, and inoffensive. No one blacked-up; no one commented on any pressing contemporary issue; what toplessness/near-nudity there was was so tasteful and normal as to ordinarily escape comment; no one *tried* to outrage me or bore me. And of course, like a pervert with Stockholm Syndrome, I immediately missed it. How predictable and safe it all was.

In ordinary terms, Martin Kušej’s production, from the Residenztheater, Munich, is – well – ordinary. Ordinary German, so – sure – the stage was a wide white narrow platform and wall suspended in a black void over a stage floor covered in shattered glass – glass which is added to, across the course of the play, as characters throw glass after glass out of their world and out onto the stage.

And the performances were good too. I wasn’t riveted by any means, but you could see that they were performances of style and quality. Even if I wasn’t going for the style, and was being left cold by the quality. They really resembled pretty much exactly what you’d expect English actors to do in the same play, but with less attempt to be funny or trying to make the audience like them. (With the simple result that we didn’t.)

However, the big problem here, as with Cleansed, is that I’m at a massive disadvantage with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Except, whereas with Cleansed I saw the imagination-haunting production this year, with ...Woolf, I saw it in 2001. So, yes, Khalid Abdalla’s Cambridge University ADC production (starring then students Rebecca Hall and Cressida Trew) still remains definitive* for me. It didn’t hurt that that production opened the week after 9/11 and contained the line “no one ever attacked New York” which dropped silence onto an already silent room like you only hear happen maybe once a decade. But even without that sudden, echoing topicality, that production had a fineness, an energy and an assurance that means that I could sit 1,001.7 miles from where first I saw it, thirteen years later, and remember precise positions, movements and inflections, as well as the overall emotional resonance (I mean, it is probably one of the ten most memorable things I’ve ever seen in my life, so...)

Here, the resonances play very differently. The talk of Science professor Nick being involved in some sort of post-Nazi eugenics reads very differently when he’s saying it in German, for example. And I am also a lot older now. Where once I saw George and Martha as some terrible warning about adult relationships, I’ve maybe got a bit more of a nuanced appreciation of them as a pair, now. Perhaps they’re not *just* trapped in some sort of Beckettian alcoholic hell, perhaps they’re also not pissing about or being fatalistic when they talk about loving each other. Perhaps they’re just doing what they need to do to get on with things. There’s a very real sense in which the entire play can be read not as a glimpse into George and Martha’s unremitting personal hell, but simply as the performance of their self-medication and the effective coping strategies that love might entail.

Indeed, without a production bringing in all the bells and whistles of emotional devastation, the audience is afforded the opportunity to sit back and coolly reflect on what Albee has written, how it functions, and what he might be trying to say with it. What I was most interested by, in this respect, what how much it reminded me of the mid-career work of Harold Pinter, albeit set in a more recognisable world, with more understandable characters. But the creeping strangeness of George and Martha’s games with their guests has a dramaturgy all of its own, which goes way beyond the naturalistic ramblings of two childless alcoholics. Albee’s titles for each act are projected on the wall in the blackout which precedes it – in lurid letters for much too long – which on one level felt like an amusing sabotage of Albee’s apparent fondness for insisting that the letter of his script be followed (it isn’t here, it’s been cut to bits – there’s a chance it’s a staging of the film script?) but also points up the overall structure he has in mind.

So, yes. As always, when watching one performance superimposed over another, a strange, inconclusive experience in terms of observing the production at hand; but a fascinating experience of a play over decades, and across cultures.

*No, of course I don’t mean “definitive” really.  I just loved it, and still remembered and thought about that production through the many stillnesses and spaces in this one.

Residenztheater München, Germany
Première: 18. 9. 2014, Residenztheater München, Germany
Running time approximately 2 hours. No interval

Director: Martin Kušej
Set & costume designer: Jessica Rockstroh
Lighting designer: Tobias Löffler
Dramaturg: Andrea Koschwitz

Performers [interesting choice of word]
Martha: Bibiana Beglau
George: Norman Hacker
Nick: Johannes Zirner
Honey: Nora Buzalka

Monday, 24 October 2016

Ubu Roi – SNT, Maribor

[seen 19/10/16]

This production of Ubu Roi contains blackface. Not ironic blackface. Not deconstructed blackface. Just a white actor wearing brown greasepaint to play “Negro” (see cast list).


No further review possible.

SNT Drama Ljubljana
Première: 30. 1. 2016, SNT Drama Ljubljana
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes. One interval.

Director Jernej Lorenci
Dramaturg Matic Starina
Set designer Branko Hojnik
Costume designer Belinda Radulović
Composer and quotations selector Branko Rožman
Lighting designer Pascal Mérat
Choreographer Gregor Luštek
Language consultant Tatjana Stanič
Assistant to dramaturg Katja Markič

Papa Ubu Jernej Šugman
Mama Ubu Nina Valič
Capetain Bordure Bojan Emeršič
Big Priest Jurij Zrnec
Klemen Slakonja Klemen Slakonja
Minister Sabina Kogovšek
Financier Boris Mihalj
Judge / The Big One Gregor Zorc as guest
Negro / The Little One Žan Perko as guest

This is Not a Love Story – Lutkovno Gledališče, Maribor

[seen 19/10/16]

Thank fuck for choreography, frankly. This was, like, the millionth piece I saw at the Borštnikovo festival and – having missed seeing the brilliant Republika Slovenija again because of a timetable clash – the festival was proving *somewhat low on highlights* by this point. [This wasn’t just my opinion, btw. The usual crew of international critics and curators were all looking *a bit grumpy* by Wednesday.] Meanwhile, I was trying to pioneer a new descriptive-not-prescriptive approach to the work, after most of my previous reviews were more tellings offs than reviews. Difficult critical question, that. [See: blogs and trolls, passim.]

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was interesting – really interesting – to see the work, and to observe possible “national tendencies” (nothing conclusive); however, *at the time* when *the actual shows* are often *very boring to sit through* one’s patience *does begin to fray*. So, an hour of very gentle, very wry, very deadpan, very perfectly realised hipster stand-up-choreography was the unexpected answer to exactly what you’d like to see. As a mode, I guess it’s familiar from people like Ivana Müller and Jerome Bel, or maybe imagine a super-chilled Sleepwalk Collective.

In This is Not a Love Story, the two performers basically stand on stage, ask each other questions, walk about in perfect sync a bit, and occasionally do a couple of steps of *actual dance* (the reactionaries!).

It’s nice at the time. And, I think – outside of a festival context; having less to write about, think about, concentrate on – I bet one could dig right into it, and probably come up with a brilliant Trueman-esque reading of what it’s *really* about. (Probably Matt could have done that here too, maybe I’m just lazy.) But as it was, I just let it wash over me. There’s an amusing bit about whales, for example, where the woman interrogates the man about how much he likes them. He opts for b) (of a–c), which boils down to quite liking them, being happy to watch a documentary about them, perhaps, but maybe not going so far as to set a video recorder so he can watch the programme again. This is the attitude the show gives off about itself too. And the one it gets back in return. In this context, even with added gratitude, it’s hardly the stuff out of which life-changing commitments are made.

I refuse to link this response to the show's title in a punning sign-off, though.

Première: 11. 5. 2011, Dansens Hus Stockholm, Sweden
Running time 1 hour. No interval.

Director and author of concept Gunilla Heilborn
Choreograpers and authors of text Gunilla Heilborn, Johan Thelander, Kristiina Viiala
Set and costume designer Katarina Wiklund
Lighting designer Miriam Helleday
Author of music Kim Hiorthoy
Sound designer Johan Adling
Technical coordinator Axel Norén
Managing director Asa Edgren/Loco World

Johan Thelander, Kristiina Viiala

Ondine – SNG, Maribor

[seen 18/10/16]

Blimey. Have you ever seen Jean Giradoux’s 1938 play Ondine? It’s actually quite funny and quite good. I admit I am also massively relieved to discover that it is from 1938, and so all the (text) things I wondered about a bit while watching this production probably were deliberately ironic and/or arch (as I hoped/suspected), rather than just clanging awfulness from the C19th, or something.

The plot is based on a C19th German novel, which itself is based on a medieval German fairy tale. One that’s pretty much exactly the same as The Little Mermaid. As such, *obviously* the entire thing is a clanging mess of chauvinist gender essentialism, but I’m choosing to believe that Giradoux knew what he was doing when adapting it. Indeed, if anything, it’s Janusz Kica’s staging that gets in the way of the C21st here. That is to say, the betrothed of ridiculous knight Hans von Wittenstein (Nejc Cijan Garlatti), Bertha (Urška Taufer), appears throughout wearing a tight, black, see-through dress, while transformed-fish-lady Ondine (Arna Hadžialjević) wears a series of light, wafty chiffon dresses which are also *somewhat see-through*. So, yeah, the costuming looks like it’s come out of the bad-old-days of the UK’s post-censorship, pre-women’s lib. Mainstream (think: a racier theatrical version of Pan’s People or something) ((days from which we’re yet to equitably emerge, if the work of Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish it anything to go by)).

As a result of having seen ...Goga, and more so of having seen ...Molière... previously, I guess I was at the end of my tether for crap being chucked at women on stage. I mean, seriously. It’s the 21st century. Can we stop with the objectification already? (This also applies to UK. I’m not saying Slovenia’s record is significantly worse, although directors might be a bit more used to their decisions going unremarked here...)

Aside from that, it’s a weirdly enjoyable show [yes, sometimes when watching a play, I choose to blot out questionable costuming decisions at the time when I've got 2hrs30 of a play to deal with]. The (English) surtitles were a rather witty and enjoyable translation of the play, I’m not entirely sure how well they related to the Slovenian translation of this French play. I think I got to laugh at more jokes than the native audience, for example. Although maybe that’s just a cultural thing [the English (myself included) do tend to laugh first and think later]. Although the performances did seem to support the comic reading of the scenes where that was relevant (the play itself really switches genres from Wildean humour, to, well, Wildean sentimental pathos really). It’s a very broad, mainstream play, but one that feels entirely tailored to the theatre. It’s got a whole play-within-a-play structure, which seems to emanate from the original text – a text that here *seems* (to me) to have been pretty much followed to the letter (albeit in stylised-modern costumes, and on a fairly 1980s German opera set).

So, yes. Not much to say about it beyond that, really. Quite an enjoyable play, especially if you want to feel like you’ve spent an evening at the theatre in the C19th (the Old Hall of Slovenian National Theatre, Maribor adds to this sensation with its Austro-Hungarian chocolate box auditorium). Basically, I think the play’s totally revive-able, even if I suspect that Katie Mitchell (for e.g.) would probably have to do something pretty severe to it, before she thought it was worth touching. I dunno. What do we do when the whole of history and art up to and including this point in time is just really sexist (and racist)?   I guess binning history and not being sentimental about old plays is probably the only real way forward...

SNT Nova Gorica
Première: 12. 5. 2016, SNT Nova Gorica
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes. One interval.

Director Janusz Kica
Dramaturgs Ana Kržišnik Blažica, Martina Mrhar
Language consultant Srečko Fišer
Set designer Marko Japelj
Costume designer Bjanka Adžić Ursulov
Composerj Arturo Annecchino
Lighting designer Samo Oblokar
Assistant to director Daniel Day Škufca
Assistant to language consultant Laura Brataševec
Assistant to set designer Valentin Tribušon

Ondine Arna Hadžialjević
Knight Hans Nejc Cijan Garlatti
Bertha Urška Taufer
Poet Bertram Matija Rupel
Queen Yseult Helena Peršuh
King Hercule Jože Hrovat
Chamberlain Blaž Valič
Intendant, First Judge Kristijan Guček
Actor, Second Judge Žiga Udir
Eugenie Ana Facchini
Auguste Ivo Barišič as guest
King of Ondinas Radoš Bolčina
Queen of Ondinas Marjuta Slamič
Ondins Medea Novak, Andrijana Boškoska Batič as guest, Andrej Zalesjak

Staging a play: The Glass Menagerie – SNG, Maribor

[seen 18/10/16]

[supplemented notes:]

Staging a Play: The Glass Menagerie turns out to be one of the things that I’ve wanted to see for *ages*. Namely, a performance of a play on which all the text has been muted/interpreted as contemporary dance.

Set on the deep wide stage of the SNG (with the audience also sat on it, in a low deep rake – my God it’s a big stage), the piece has a white off-White floor, a light grey back wall, and in the centre, more brightly lit, a white outline of s room, with the walls rising to about a foot high all the way around, except where there would be doors. The performers are dressed in rehearsal blacks, with their hair tied back as if ready for wigs.

And it’s completely fascinating to watch. On one hand, there’s the radicalism, and possibly even the violence of the gesture *against* Williams’s script. But then there’s also the result, which is evidently gentle, earnest, nuanced and sincere. (And the script/text clearly remains undamaged at the end, as you can see from these copies on Amazon.)

At the same time, it’s not so fascinating to watch, that I haven’t taken out my phone to write these notes [it’s fine, Theatre Police, it’s pretty light in the audience anyway, there’s no one behind me, and the nearest person on my row is about 20 seats away. And looks like they might be asleep.]

The most interesting thing is the way that the piece both creates meaning and relies on pre-existing knowledge. For example, before coming to the theatre, I’d simply picked up my ticket from desk in my hotel room and hurried over to the theatre. I hadn't remembered what the full title of the show was. Just “Staging a Play...” Once the piece had started, after about ten minutes, I furtively and frantically Googled the title to see WHAT PLAY. And suddenly I was in a different critical universe. Because, I’ve seen The Glass Menagerie. I Have Opinions About Tennessee Williams.

Suddenly, also, the set made complete sense to me. At the same time, it gave me a whole unwelcome extra set of tools with which to assess the performance...

[At this point in making notes, there was AN INTERVAL - which was very funny. The entire show is only 1hr30, so we didn’t get to leave, instead we sat and watched a performance of an interval. This consisted of the dancers/performers flopping about a bit round the “offstage” table, and printing out new pages of text. Which is genius. I can’t believe In 20 years of theatregoing I’ve never seen someone print off their script on stage before (although, remembering the printers of my youth, perhaps I do see why this is only just happening now)]

...because, without the knowledge, the contemporary dance – curiously – didn’t make all that much sense as contemporary dance. But with the knowledge of what the script is, one could immediately bring too much interpretation to bear. It’s fascinating though, that they are dancing what at times even feels like the full script. (inc. interval!)

There are voiceovers between the scenes, which offer cute-accented deadpan takes on “being a performer” and/or “making performances”.

The music is very nice.

The lighting is very nice.

The performances are very good.

The atmosphere is very relaxed.

After everything else I’d seen so far this week, nothing could have been more welcome. And, in a way, this is a perfect Festival Show. Fascinating, open, sorbet-like. In theory, the dances here could have been anything, and certainly could have demanded infinitely more attention; but there was something wonderful about the laissez-faire gentle quality. I think you’d have a harder time selling this as a piece of work to all but the most hardcore dance fans if this was shown in the usual one-show-in-the-evening-after-a-hard-day-at-work way. So, is it elitist? No; it’s just the rest of the way we’ve allowed society to be structured that sucks. [But, yeah, the people who work hardest for least money might think you’re taking the piss a bit if you stuck this on at (say) the Liverpool Everyman instead of Ellen McDougall’s version. Even if only a dedicated philistine could deny that it was an interesting experiment.]

After the “interval” – about an hour into the performance – the performers return to the “set” (after performing an intricate outside-of-*set* group choreography) and do the scene where Tom’s mate comes round(?). Now they’re dancing around with the scripts in their hands. And it’s funny because *even the dancing* feels like they’re being *a bit literal*.

But then, with a dazzling change of pace, the scene between Jim & Laura comes out of a blackout and is genuinely lovely. Totally legible, almost fully acted, and just incredibly touching. Attention completely grabbed.

I think this set a new standard and blueprint for what “experimental theatre” can look and feel like (for me).

“I don’t remember if we locked the door. Do you?”

Emanat Institute and Matija Ferlin with partners: Bunker, Ljubljana / The Old Power Station – Elektro Ljubljana, Mediterranean Dance Center - San Vincenti, Croatia, Pre-School Education and Grammar School Ljubljana
Première: 10. 12. 2015, Old Power Station Ljubljana
Running time 1 hour 25 minutes. No interval.

Author of concept and director Matija Ferlin
Performers and choreographers Loup Abramovici, Anja Bornšek, Maja Delak, Matija Ferlin, Žigan Krajnčan
Dramaturg Goran Ferčec
Set designer Mauricio Ferlin
Author of music Luka Prinčič
Costume designer Matija Ferlin
Creator of make-up and hair styling Tinka Pobalinka
Lighting and technical director Saša Fistrić
Designer Tina Ivezić
Photographer Nada Žgank
Organizator Nina Janež
Executive producer Sabina Potočki

Bella Figura – SNG, Maribor

[seen 16/10/16]

What does one do about Bella Figura? Thomas Ostermeier actually commissioned a play by Yasmina Reza. I mean, WHAT? Was it an amusingly kitsch gesture? (Well, yes, but...) Was it his attempt to get everyone to stop taking the Schaubühne so damn seriously the whole time? (Apparently.) In the event, I think I’m right in saying that once he’d commissioned *something* by Reza, Ostermeier was kind of hamstrung by having to stage the result, and the result wasn’t very good. (Even by the lamentably low standards of Y.R.)

Anyway, this production is by Hrvatsko Narodno Kazalište, Zagreb (National Theatre of Croatia, Zagreb). Here’s the English synopsis of the play from the Maribor Festival Website: “Boris is a successful entrepreneur who intends to enjoy a romantic evening with his mistress Andrea, a single mother and a pharmacy assistant. Boris mentions on the fly that the restaurant was recommended by his wife and that small indiscretion causes serious, even catastrophic consequences. “Andrea is furious and doesn’t want to leave the car. When parking the car in front of the restaurant, Boris hits an older lady. After a while, another couple, Eric and Françoise, accompanied by Françoise’s mother Yvonne, join Boris and Andrea. Soon it becomes clear that the two couples are connected by the accident. To make things even more complicated, Françoise is the best friend of Boris’s wife. When Andrea suggests that they all have dinner together, Boris, who is still in shock after the accident, is unable to reject that dangerous proposal. The tension between Boris and Andrea increases and soon everyone at the table is aware of the nature of their relationship. It also becomes evident that due to bad investments Boris’s company is on the verge of bankruptcy. The carefully preserved bourgeois façade of the successful businessman and a good husband begins to crumble down towards an inevitable implosion.”

I mean, I get why Reza is sort-of popular. On the surface of it, she’s carrying on the tradition of Zola, or Ibsen, or Chekhov, if you believe that what Zola, Ibsen and Chekhov did was write mildly amusing bourgeois problem plays. And, after watching Bella Figura without surtitles, there’s suddenly no real reason to believe that it wasn’t.

What’s more worrying about this production is how reminiscent it is of current popular contemporary British theatre; and beyond that, telling of the bland Schaubühnification of all Europe. Indeed, this was almost exactly like a cheaper knock-off of the Young Vic’s Yerma (except, by not knowing what any of the characters were saying (both theatre-text and social-subtext), you at least stopped wanting them all to die. [And of course, since Reza is a woman, she can write what she likes about women, so it wouldn’t have kicked off about the feminism. Even if, at a rough guess, this play by a woman from 2015 was actually less critical and more enforcing of regressive gender norms than Lorca’s 1930s text. But I guess no one ever claimed that equal representation was also necessarily going to be intelligent representation.]

Director Boris Liješević’s production plays on a small platform and the audience sit around it, heads level with the platform’s edge. It is, btw, the best solution to in-the-round theatre I’ve ever seen – have everyone looking up, so the opposite bank of audience aren’t in your fucking eyeline the whole time. Genius. Beyond this, the whole thing happens within a kind of blue tent [which here has been plonked on the main stage of the National] (design: Numen / For Use and Ivana Jonke). It’s basically exactly the same as Yerma, except without those tiresome mirror/not-mirror walls. The cast seem not-bad. Some of the actors are more realistic-seeming than others. None compelling, but then the stakes in the piece are maybe too low for “compelling”.

Obviously the plot doesn’t matter at all. I sat through the whole thing not knowing it, and don’t suppose having done so it would have improved things. Indeed, I think knowing what was going on might have substantially lessened my enjoyment. Probably there were some passable jokes. There’s an amusing mother-figure... Etc.

My understanding is that the play bombed at the Schaubühne. My fear is that is wouldn’t bomb in England, and that – worse – people will think they’re being European by enjoying it. I’m here to tell you, “European” is a meaningless adjective (beyond meaning “from Europe,” which Bella Figura is); at the same time, it’s a hell of a smokescreen for bullshit sometimes.

HNK Zagreb, Croatia
Première: 6. 11. 2015, HNK Zagreb, Croatia
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes. No interval.

Director Boris Liješević
Translator to Croatian Zlatko Wurzberg
Set designers Numen / For Use and Ivana Jonke
Costume designer Leo Kulaš
Music selection Boris Liješević
Lighting designer Aleksandar Čavlek
Assistant to director Arija Rizvić

Andrea Lana Barić
Boris Amette Milan Pleština
Francoise Hirt Olga Pakalović
Eric Blum Dušan Bućan
Yvonne Blum Ksenija Marinković
Voice from off Arija Rizvić

Hunger – SNG, Maribor

[seen 15/10/16]

[not so much a review as a sulk]

I did not like this adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s novel one bit. I didn’t like the set, I found the text [surtitles] stiflingly dull, and I found the lead actor’s chosen performance style – MOSTLY SHOUTING – pretty much unwatchable; every directorial decision was both literal minded and boring. I stayed until the interval (1hr30). Colleagues tell me things did not improve in the final hour.

I read the Wikipedia summary of the novel afterwards (sorry, not read the novel), and concluded that they’d neither given a fair account of more than half the book, nor had they replaced it with or adapted it into something better, or indeed *anything good at all*.

What happens on the stage, if you really need me to justify calling this a theatre review, is that the first-person-narrator shouts his stream-of-consciousness narration at you, from a particularly cramped, scaffolding set, while various characters in appropriate Norwegian period costume periodically come on and interact with him, as he tells us they are doing.

If nothing else, it is a masterclass in how not to do literary adaptations (i.e. to no one’s great surprise, it is *really similar* to lots we have in England).

So, yeah. That. Thanks, but no thanks.

Mini teater Ljubljana and Ptuj City Theatre
Première: 14. 6. 2015, Mini teater Ljubljana
4. 9. 2015, Ptuj City Theatre
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes. One interval.

Author of adaptation, dramaturg and director Janez Pipan
Composer Mitja Vrhovnik Smrekar
Set designer Sanja Jurca Avci
Costume designer Ana Savić Gecan
Lighting designer Andrej Hajdinjak

Marko Mandić
Ylajali – Nina Rakovec
Captain on a Russian ship/Blind Old Man/Merchant Christie/Editor/Police Officer on Duty – Brane Grubar
Pawnbroker/Constable/“Virgin”/Man with Newspapers – Tadej Pišek
Sausage Vendor/Flower Girl/ Bread Vendor/Waitress/Housekeeper – Nina Valič
Ylajali’s Partner/Store Clerk/Newspaper Street Vendor/Girl in Park/Prostitute/Housekeeper’s Servant – Maruša Majer

Thursday, 20 October 2016

An Event in the Town of Goga – SNG, Maribor

[seen 16/10/16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Oath – SNG, Maribor

[seen 17/10/16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Embedding disabled by request, click to watch]

[Embedding disabled by request, click to watch]

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

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

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

Photo: Nada Žgank

Učene ženske po motivih Molièrovih Učenih žensk– SNG, Maribor

[seen 17/10/16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 October 2016

Wunschkonzert – Lutkovno Gledališče, Maribor

[seen 15/10/16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here’s some excellent Jugoslav pop music:

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

Sunday, 16 October 2016

“The Death of the West”

[Sirenos Festival 28/09 – 02/10]

[written 04/11/16]

At the (Re)fresh Young Critics Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the course of one of the free discussions which I was moderating, one of the young critics said something that left me absolutely speechless. I think we were discussing culture or censorship, or some broad, agreeable topic, and this Russian critic came out with something along the lines of:
“Of course, the real crisis facing Europe is The Death of The West...”
They went on to outline that The Death of The West was a phenomenon largely caused by migration from non-European countries, by Islam, by Islam’s War on The West, by Europe’s white, christian population being out-bred by Islamic Migrants. There was even a throwaway remark about how “homosexuals can’t have children – obviously”. And I was stunned. Obviously. It’s not the sort of comment you expect to hear “in a theatrical context”.

Now, as I said in my piece for The Stage yesterday, I don’t believe theatre is “relentlessly left-wing,” and nor do I expect it to be. However, I would be pretty surprised to hear anyone on the mainstream right-wing (or left-wing) of British politics come out with this either. It’s still not the sort of thing you expect to hear expressed so baldly in any European context. (See also: my piece on Latvian director Alvis Hermanis’s “all terrorists are refugees or their children” outburst from December last year.)

I should admit that I regret that the (very short) remainder of that conversation wasn’t conducted in a more equitable manner. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to actually draw out the critic more on what they meant, how they had arrived at that conclusion, and how they supported their claims. But I didn’t. My bad. My mind went blank, and I had absolutely no idea what you did with someone essentially espousing neo-Nazi ideology in the middle of a discussion of whether postdramatic theatre had had its day, or something.

Of course, the view itself was not new to me. I’ve seen Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation and The Milk of Human Kindness, God knows I've done enough late-night internet-wormhole research of my own too into the far-right. Christ, in my early thirties I even used to knock about with the New Culture Forum “think” tank out of curiosity [so, yes, I’ve had nights out with Douglas Murray and this year’s UKIP candidate for London mayor, Peter Whittle – who, to be fair, are both much better company than you might expect, given their views]. But, yeah. I’d heard it all before.

I am curious, though, given the progress of ideological control in some mainland European countries, and the apparently increasingly febrile atmosphere nationalism here in Britain (which could well ust be a chimera we are being fed by a not disinterested press, fuelled by a hard-core of only a few hundred), how soon it will be before this is a viewpoint that is forced into one end of our Overton Window.

In an op-ed piece in this week’s Stage, Time Out theatre editor Andrzej Lukowski writes:
“I think back to a couple of letters The Stage has published recently – complaining about colour-blind casting, letters that colleagues of mine have haughtily dismissed as the work of elderly cranks – and I wonder if they’re not harbingers of some sort of wider change.
“Obviously, the arts have always been a hotbed of liberal do-gooding [I’m just going to let that go, as it’s clearly a comically-phrased exaggeration], but for the last 19 years the government of the country has been run by people who at least pay lip service to those same values. Now that it isn’t, I worry that things might be about to get interesting.”

Meanwhile, in his editorial from the same issue, Stage editor Alistair Smith concluded:
“Dismissing opinions you don’t agree with out of hand is not the route to greater understanding and progress. As we have learnt to our detriment in the wider political sphere.
“The arts would do well to learn a lesson from Vaizey, and from the events of the last few months, and realise that there is a much wider variety of opinion in the world at large than we see in our theatres or on our Twitter feeds.”

I worry about the implications of this final stanza. Should we in Britain brace ourselves for a flurry of (more) plays catering to the opinion the “The West is under assault from Islam”? That “Britain is a ‘white’ country and should fight to stay that way”? Should we accept intolerance as an opinion, precisely because of our own reverence for tolerance?

It strikes me that rather than simply seeking to accommodate other opinions the reverse is true. We need to work out robust defences of our own positions and promote the things we believe more effectively. The point of having a belief in something isn’t so one can point weakly at it once in a while, as it languishes in the corner like a cake-drunk possum, as if to indicate “that’s my opinion”.

In the face of opposite, wholly incompatible, competing beliefs, The aim isn't to “try to get along”. The point is to win the argument. By having the best argument and by being right. “Well, I accept your point of view, too” isn’t actually much good in the face of what Britain seems to be up against, at the moment. Two opposite things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. For fuck’s sake, if all oncologists did – to draw a none-too-subtle analogy – was to try to arrange peaceful co-existence. Well....  I’m not saying I’m “right” and "the other side are definitely” the cancer. But they do think that; and there’s never any “proof” of a belief. And I’m fucked if I think that “giving some Nazis a fair hearing” is ever going to improve Europe.
[Sure, I think there’s a place for listening to them, and not dehumanising them, and trying to reason with them, but when all that fails, what then?]

Of course, given the way the world seems to be going, I might be outnumbered. Perhaps the majority of Britons really do want to see first the end of immigration, and then the beginning of forced repatriation, and then...

And, perhaps those same people would like to see theatres either closed down, or playing some sort of work that vindicates this course of action. It’s been done before and it could be done again.

The gathering of people in one place “to all feel something together” is not an intrinsically “left wing” or “progressive” thing. Indeed, one of the most compelling reasons that post-war German theatre has been the way it has for so long is precisely because of Hitler’s belief in exactly those virtues. I know left wing critics who deplore any attempt at this sort of conciliatory, inclusive, sharing kind of atmosphere, because they see it as being symptomatic of fascism. This is part of why I find it very easy to argue against the spectral belief that theatre is somehow inherently “left wing”.

So, what should theatre be doing now? As ever, I don’t have answers, only opinions and questions. I have severe doubts about theatre’s ability to change anyone’s mind. I claim people will see things through their own lens, and – potentially – either find their own beliefs affirmed by “work that holds the opposite point of view” (how do we define that? I don’t know) or find their belief in theatre’s prejudice against their viewpoint vindicated, and therefore easily dismissed. Shouldn’t theatre just get on with being theatre? Rather than sacrificing aspects that its artists find intrinsic in order to make it serve some sort of “healing” or “conciliatory”social or press function, might theatre not defend itself more effectively *as art*?  As often in the UK, that the premises of far too many positions of the right have been accepted as the agenda and the accusations against which we should defend ourselves.  We should, as ever, get better at rejecting the premise of the question.

I will end with three contradictory pieces of “art”. The first is Brecht’s poem, Die Lösung (The Solution), which feels so much more disquieting now, and less ironic, than it did in its original context:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The second is the entirely offensive, disquieting, neo-folk anthem The Death of The West, by the band Death in June, who, at the very least, pretend to be Nazis to be provocative. At the very least:

The third is Nicholas Ridout’s conclusion to Theatre & Ethics, that:
“the event of theatre [should be] approached with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront... [T]hat theatre [currently, normally] justif[ies] itself in terms of its contribution to an ethical life, might be the very thing that prevents any theatre from meeting such a demand. Theatre’s greatest ethical potential may be found precisely at the moment when theatre abandons ethics.”

["cover photo" shows the poster for the Hebbel-am-Ufer Theatres' autumn season, themed around the refugee crisis, displayed as a banner outside HAU2 in Kreuzberg, Berlin -- I assume they're "being provocative" and/or satirical

Postcards from Vilnius – the politics

[Sirenos Festival 28/09 – 02/10]

Do you know much about what’s going on in Europe at the moment? No reason you should, it’s hardly ever written about, and we’ve got our own troubles, right?

Last month, I was invited to co-moderate the teatro kritikų konferencija „(re)FRESH“ in Vilnius. Young critics gave a series of (excellent) papers, and my Estonian colleague Ott Karulin and I moderated discussions of them. It was an incredibly rich few days, having dozens of young critics from all over Europe (from Russia to Turkey, an many, many point in between) bring their perspectives to the table, and discussing them. And, as often happens, the main surprise is the number of similarities between diverse national situations, and much as the differences.

What was striking this year, however, was that there was one subject that stood out head and shoulders above the others; that of censorship.

In the summer, following an attempted coup, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, enacted a purge of press, teachers, academics, and civil servants and brought in a raft of repressive measures. Amongst these was an effective “ban” on foreign literature being produced on Turkey’s stages. “State theatre companies are no longer allowed to produce shows based on plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and Dario Fo. At this moment, only Turkish plays are welcome” says International Association of Theatre Critics President, Margareta Sörenson.

A little over a year ago, the Polish people elected the Law and Justice party, with the first overall parliamentary majority since independence in 1989. one of the first things that the party did upon gaining power was to put all state-funded media (essentially the Polish-equivalent BBC) under government control. “We’re paying for it, why should we allow it to criticise us? We are the people’s choice” was, in effect, their rationale. This instinct for control has also spread to theatre. Poland already had a troublesome history with censorship, with a combination of Catholic Church condemnation and neo-Nazi rioting, several high-profile “controversial” productions have been shut down. Now, the Law and Justice Party is swiftly acting to remove “troublemakers” from artistic directorships, and are threatening funding withdrawal from festivals that have previously commissioned controversial work. All this in little more than a year.

In Hungary, the Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orbán, has been in power since 2010, while the third largest party in the Hungarian parliament is the far-right Jobbik party (“in 2014, the Supreme Court of Hungary ruled that Jobbik cannot be labeled ‘far-right’ on any domestic radio or television transmissions, as this would constitute an opinion because Jobbik has refuted the ‘far-right’ label... Jobbik describes itself as rejecting ‘global capitalism’, European integration and Zionism... The movement is described by some scholars and media outlets as ‘fascist’, ‘neo-fascist’, ‘Neo-Nazi’, extremist, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic, although the party rejects these claims.”). As in Poland, Fidezs has radically reduced arts funding, particularly to companies that are critical of the government, using the same mantra of “We’re paying for it, why should we allow it to criticise us? We are the people’s choice.”

The situation in Belarus is more entrenched. There has been state-censorship in place since it became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it was fascinating to learn that this state-censorship is now more relaxed, and the situation in the country is far less fraught, than when the artistic directors of Belarus Free Theatre fled the country in 2010.

And, well, the situation in Russia isn’t super either, is it? Perhaps the most frightening feature of the Russian situation is just how much widespread public support Putin and his policies still command. Indeed, it would not be fanciful to imagine that the policies for which Putin is most widely criticised in the West (and also admired, in certain circles) – his homophobic laws, his censorship – are matters on which he is personally indifferent, but which have been enacted as a populist sop to a largely bigoted constituency.

Meanwhile, in Croatia, the country narrowly elected a pretty far-right coalition(?) government in January this year. By June (I think) it had entirely collapsed. The Culture Minister of that regime,  Zlatko Hasanbegovic, was a particularly controversial extreme-right figure, who had written articles praising Croatia’s Ustaše past (if you’ve never heard of the Ustaše, that Wikipedia article is worth a read). Following the collapse of the government in the summer, Croatia held a new election in September. The same result was returned, and the right-wingers are currently having another stab at doing the people’s will, and forming a government capable of government.

In Slovakia, the country is also enjoying a far-right, nationalist government, although, miraculously, a friend there tells me that so far they’ve not really suffered censorship in the theatres, perhaps because their arts minister has an arts background himself, or perhaps, she said, because theatre is seen as too marginal to constitute any real threat, no matter what gets said.

Now, what’s interesting (to me) about all these instances of censorship in the EU countries mentioned above (so, excepting Turkey, Belarus and Russia), is that all this censorship and repression is being enacted in full view of the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights, with nothing more than the odd mildly worded letter being sent. Moreover, the countries involved are not using secret police forces to do their dirty work, they are doing it in fulll public view and, in many cases, increasing their popularity by doing so. This is censorship, in line with popular opinion, enacted by government, often backed-up with the threat of rioting football fans, skinheads and (less intimidatingly) Mary Whitehouse-style grannies.

This is Europe in 2016.