14th Europe Theatre Prize
12th Europe Prize New Theatrical Realities
Despite recent signs of fragmentation, European newspapers, magazines,
and web sites support a critical apparatus whose job it is to think about
"culture." For these people, "culture" is a lively, ongoing, surprising,
delightful and dangerous enterprise that warrants acuity and not just
product, another million-dollar production of "Swan Lake" or a $135-million
movie about a guy with toilet paper stuck to his shoe—although,
of course, culture is that, too.
- Jim Nisbet, San Francisco poet and novelist
(East Bay Express, Oct. 2010)
A hotel room, a taxi ride and a ham sandwich: that's how one of the Beatles recalled a country he'd visited on a hectic tour; I thought of this remark in St. Petersburg during the April theatre festival week that hinged on the awarding of the prestigious 14th Europe Theatre Prize, which comes about because the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council are interested in its happening, and which is otherwise supported and organized by the Union of European Theatres and the European Theatre Convention in association with the leading international and European institutes and associations, including those of the UNESCO culture sector, to honor sustained cultural impact on an international level—that is, a long and important theatre career—as well as of a Special Prize for unique contribution, and the 12th New Theatrical Realities Prizes for excellence in emerging trends—that is, new and exciting careers—along with a breathless program of press conferences, theatre productions, special events, receptions, interviews, talks, panels, meetings and discussions, all attended with hundreds of critics and members of the theatre community, both international and local, in a veritable moveable feast of conversations held while running or busing from venue to venue, and barely punctuated either by meals inhaled and missed, or by sleep; this massive undertaking having been organized by Italy's Premio Europa per il Teatro in conjunction with St. Petersburg's own Baltic House Theatre-Festival, whose director, Sergey Shub, had convinced the City of St. Petersburg of the importance of offering its support with the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, and resulting in what Romanian critic Cristina Medreanu called "total immersion in European contemporary theatre for all participants"—a great theatrical convergence that was a kind of extended European Oscars event requiring the stamina of an Olympic athlete. Not a hotel-taxi-ham-sandwich visit: this was a theatre, a buffet and another theatre.
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The shows aside, the event itself was pervaded with a certain theatricality: St. Petersburg opened its city and an important part of Europe's theatre community poured in; the temporary administrative centers set up to optimize their makeshift sites, like Potemkin's villages of efficiency, masking every glitch and staffed by the intrepid Italian production team members, impeccably dressed and pushing themselves to the limit on everyone's behalf. Every scene was full of suspense: could the next theatre be more stunning than the last one? Would the tickets arrive on time, would the troops get fed and moved to their next theatre location, would the schedule change (and would one know if it did)?—with the stakes getting higher as the week went along. The climax was the awards ceremony; the dĂ©nouement, the last meetings and promises to be in touch, and then the stark dismantling and packing of the administrative sites, the staggered sharing of taxis back to the airport. One day, after standing in line behind a festival attendee who had freely expressed his displeasure about something to one of the heads of the Italian team, I said to her sympathetically that there was bound to be a certain amount of chaos, and that people could be short when they were tired. "Yes," she replied politely. Then, like a juggler who gets his satisfaction from the success of the whole circus, she broke into a deeply happy smile: "But I love it." Spoken like a true woman of the theatre.
* * *
I find that it takes a different set of perspectives to watch the shows at distant festivals. I tend to watch in broad strokes, letting the basic contours come to the fore: What do I see? What do I hear? This return to first principles, as it were, dovetails well with some of the lesser-noted realities of festival attendance. Aside from the jet lag, of course, the productions are typically in languages I don't know, so my access to the dialogue comes from a bare outline in the program, from a screen with supertitles, or from simultaneous translation. It also seems only fair to watch with an especially forgiving eye, since many of the performances are on stages the actors don't know, and we can only guess what adjustments they are making moment-to-moment to approximate what they're supposed to be doing. We are also seeing each traveling production cut loose from its own social context, and from the public that knows its director, its actors and its themes.
My what-I-see-and-what-I-hear approach certainly makes a virtue of necessity; at the same time, the adjustments I make in my watching invariably overlap with what I do as a teacher. I arrived in St. Petersburg some days early, to teach a master class in Voice at the St. Petersburg State Academy of Theatre Arts, where I had given a lecture and taught in the advanced Directing studio in 2010. So that although I am trained as a theatre critic, and attended the festival with the International Association of Theatre Critics, I also saw the shows from my perspective as a teacher who prepares actors and directors for the theatre. This combination made for delightfully rich spectatorship.
"Honey," by Tonino Guerra, dir. Yuri Lyubimov. Venue: Lensoveta Theatre.
The productions by the three most prominent directors proved to be among the most puzzling for me; for that reason, my thoughts keep wandering back to them, to scratch at the tracks they left. The first of these was directed by the venerable Yuri Lyubimov. I had grown up with this name, and knew it in conjunction with the greatest directors, actors and playwrights of modern Russian theatre. Lyubimov's Taganka Theatre! Of Moscow! I knew of his theatre's problems with the Soviet authorities, his exile from Russia in the 1980s and his return after the country opened up. Lyubimov's production here was his staging of Honey, a poem by a friend, Tonino Guerra, the Italian screenwriter known for Fellini's "Amarcord" and Antonioni's "Blowup," among many others. The staging featured a series of enacted images related to the rift between two brothers and their meeting again in old age in their native village, where the population has dwindled to nine inhabitants. To stage this, Lyubimov took perhaps two lines of the poem at a time and showed us both their literal and abstracted or emotive equivalences on stage; in this way, the poem took 58 minutes to tell. The set was made up of simple screens, flats and flies that could be imaginatively re-combined to create different moods, and there were props meant to evoke small village life: a goat, a bicycle, a wheelbarrow, etc. We saw a group of actors, clearly trained for ensemble work, skillfully sketching in rather generic "eccentric" village folk—each actor with a chance to show off his or her special talent at a musical instrument or singing or some form of movement. It seemed to be a charming project that had grown out of a close friendship, and I envied those who could enjoy its best qualities; if I'd been able to, I expect I would have found in it themes of memory, loss, home, age, regret, forgiveness and appreciation of the wonders of life to be found in the smallest things (the "honey" of the title). However, the only thing I knew of the poem was what I saw in quick flashes of subtitles, where the text had been translated into English that was by turns impenetrable, hilarious and execrable. This was apparently the work of Tonino's Russian wife, and there seems to be in this some moral about not letting one's personal feelings interfere with one's artistic purpose. Really, it was hard to imagine how the success of all that planning and work had been allowed to hang on such careless translation work. In any event, there was nothing here that I saw or heard that made up for the poem's poem-nature—by which I mean that, for me, the piece never rose above its descriptive essence to achieve the forward movement and inter-connectedness of elements needed to make a stage event dramatic.
Lyubimov is in his 90s, and some critics suggest his time may have passed. You certainly couldn't tell that from the hanging-from-the-rafters audience that attended his interview-talk the next day. Here, he was truly "living history"—gracious and fierce, quick with the telling anecdote and the theatrical wisdom. The young people in the audience pressed him with questions and he answered them with energy and respect. Four days later, he received his Special Prize from one of Europe's most impressive juries, in front of a packed house: "…for his undisputed artistic stature and decisive role, along with the Taganka Theatre, in the delicate phase of perestroika, which marked the transition of the Soviet Union to the Russia of today." Six weeks later he resigned from the theatre he had founded in 1964, after an argument with his actors over money. In the online newspapers, readers' comments were split over whether he was a fuddy-duddy who'd long been holding up their theatre's progress with his aesthetic from another era, or a beloved artist who has helped keep Russia on the world's theatrical map through decades of turbulence. I saw intimations of both sides of Lyubimov in St. Petersburg.
"Three Sisters," by Anton Chekhov, dir. Lev Dodin. Venue: The Maly Drama Theatre.
Lev Dodin is known simply as the leading director in St. Petersburg, and since St. Petersburg is known as the "cultural capital" of Russia, and sometimes even of Europe, that's saying a lot. Tickets reserved for his Three Sisters at the Maly Drama Theatre started disappearing before the people who'd reserved them could even pick them up! As an Israeli critic said to me, everyone felt this was a chance to see "real" Chekhov—to see what we'd all been missing in the texts all these years. And in this respect, even looking at the production in broad outlines, there was certainly much to see. Firstly, the locale: this was not a sophisticated Moscow home that had been wishfully approximated in the country; these people lived in the sticks, in a plain wooden structure that reminded me of the 19th century houses of the Russian peasantry (no doubt a Russian spectator would instantly know how it was similar and dissimilar) or at any rate, in the kind of simplicity an American might associate with the Amish. In this stark setting, we understood how truly the three city girls were stranded. This fish-out-of-water feeling was underlined by the fact that what we could see of the house was behind them—initially upstage, and moving farther downstage as the play went along—so that they spent virtually all their time, displaced, in front of their house. The only interior space of the house was a very long dining table we could see just inside its front wall, which was broken up with openings for wide doorway and window-less window frames large enough and low enough to use for seating. People perched here, or sat restlessly on the front steps, or stood restlessly with no place to sit; they came together in stiff, full-front configurations that soon broke apart—groupings as temporary as so many of their important relationships. Secondly, there was lust. Textual hints at longing were fully embodied in what one British critic called "the snogs." Olga was young and pretty—she was not played as a "spinster," but simply as an unmarried woman—and shared a kiss with Masha's schoolmaster husband, Kulygin, that had them rolling together on the ground; the sardonic Solyony kissed Irina with vehemence, and she slapped and kissed him; and Irina's kiss with the earnest Tuzenbach also took them to the ground. The lovers Vershinin and Masha shared a long farewell kiss, observed not only by Olga but also by Masha's husband. When we first met Natasha, the awkward country girl who marries the sisters' older brother, the failed academic, Andrey, we knew she was already pregnant under her green belt. From the play text we know that Natasha is having an affair with a mucky-muck in the town, but here we learned later on that her two children were not even her husband's.
There was a great deal of clarity in these aspects, and surely it would be a pinnacle of anyone's creative life to be involved with such a production in any capacity. But truthfully, I missed the music of the lines I am used to hearing in Chekhov—bombast intercut with tinkling, halting alternating with rushing, chord clusters breaking down into lone voices. I've heard such music in Chekhov played in numerous languages, as well as in masterful Soviet and Russian films. In this production, I never knew why the lines were spoken with so little pitch variety, or in a clipped manner, as if the show were being prepared to transfer to video, or as if they'd made an unexplained choice to work against the long rhythm of the Russian language. I felt that the fire scene in particular suffered from the blandness of the voices. (Could they have been speaking a country dialect of some kind?—that could have been interesting.) Likewise, I am partial to seeing fluidity in the blocking, so I was put off by the static stage pictures: again and again the actors stood strangely still, facing front, not looking at one another even in close conversation, striking poses as if they were having their photographs taken with an early camera and couldn't move. And small technical things bothered me: the top Irina got for her birthday was spun on the stage floor where the actors could see it but not the audience; the tiny blades Fedotik shows her on his pen knife were also blocked form view. Sometimes I couldn't see where a line of dialogue was coming from, and finally located the speaker inside the house, where the faĂ§ade rendered an actor invisible for some stretch.
The things this production taught me about the script will change and deepen my understanding of it for the rest of my life. But the combination of the flat voices and the static blocking left me unmoved by the family's story. This is a new production; a critic who has written extensively on Dodin's work promised me that if I saw it again in two years, it would break my heart. For now, to the extent that I liked the production, I had to wonder whether I liked it better than Chekhov would have.
"The Broken Jug," by Henirich von Kleist, dir. Peter Stein. Actor: Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Venue: Baltic House Theatre-Festival. © Rosetti@Phocus
The production of Kleist's The Broken Jug (1806) allowed me to see a play I am fond of, directed by the eminent Peter Stein, starring the incomparable Klaus Maria Brandauer and acted by the legendary Berliner Ensemble. It tells the comic story of the judge who is himself guilty of the crime he is judging: the breaking of the pitcher (read also pun: the attempted seduction of the village girl). The production we saw was done strictly as a period piece, all periwig and rustic gathered skirts. The verse was expertly and charmingly spoken—the English subtitles were taken from a published translation and were excellent. The plot was always clear; even the smaller characters were cleverly drawn. With so much being so right, and with Brandauer giving such a powerful performance, it was hard to see what was making it kind of dull. But there it was: the playing area appeared as a long, narrow triangle, with its narrow point on a slant moving away from us. This meant that the actors had to move and play left to right on this long, long set. This wide, angular space was beautifully lit in Dutch fashion, with sun filling the wooden interior, but its shape seemed designed to drain energy out of a comedy. I wondered if the festival had booked them into a larger space than they would have liked to play in, but some explanation for the set came out when the explanation of the judge's crime came out: he jumped out the window, the entire back wall of the set rose and there he was, running like a fool up an enormous snow bank, which had been waiting behind there during the whole show and taking up about two-thirds of the stage's depth in the meantime. A delightful surprise, a striking image—the lone figure in the black robe and the grey peruke moving upward against the frozen white hill—but it didn't seem quite worth the trouble it caused for the rest of the play.
The next night, Peter Stein was given the award we had all come to see him get: the Europe Theatre Prize. He seemed pleased. Behind the scenes, it was widely felt that the award was somewhat belated in view of Stein's long and influential career—and it was noted that he arrived at the festival very late and, prior to the ceremony, made himself scarcer than many in the press had hoped. On the other hand, Stein made himself available after the long ceremony to give a reading from sections of Goethe's "Faust," accompanied on the piano. In the break before this final offering of the night, many left the theatre and missed seeing Stein throw a doozy of a hissy fit, storming around on stage and shouting in German English at the Russian tech team that was trying to set light and sound levels for him. This would have been shocking and distasteful whether he'd been the night's award winner, or a director working with technicians, or a guest in someone else's theatre—but since he was all three, this will doubtless have a place in the annals of Admired Famous People Behaving Badly.
"Faust-Fantasia," from J. W. Goethe: voice, Peter Stein, piano Arturo Annecchino.
Venue: Alexandrinsky Theatre. © Rosetti@Phocus
But Stein's one-hour reading from Faust was a reminder that the badly behaved can nevertheless produce art to rock one's world. Here was the rapturous vocal work I never stop longing to hear in spoken text: crystalline diction, dynamic melody, tonal color that registers emotional shifts at even the most nuanced level, an unimpeachable interpretation. Here was Goethe's language as he must have hoped it would be heard, and Peter Stein deserving his honors.
Then it ended, Stein aimed a nasty crack at the tech booth and left the stage, the air still ringing with both his gargantuan talent and his tantrum.
* * *
In addition to celebrating established work with the Europe Theatre Prize, the festival opens its doors wide to newer work with its New Theatrical Realities prizes. As a spectator, this means getting to see really different work, from a range of countries, and of varying degrees and kinds of accomplishment. The winners this year were Viliam DoÄŤolomanskĂ˝, Czech Republic; Katie Mitchell, United Kingdom; Andrey Moguchiy, Russia; Kristian Smeds, Finland; Teatro Meridional, Portugal; and Vesturport Theatre, Iceland. The directors mostly came with one or two works: some were multi-media or anthropological, featuring elaborate or high-tech sets or having essentially no set; some were based on famous works or created improvisationally; there were children's theatre, experimental theatre and updated versions of old texts; there were theatres that featured their directors, and others that underlined their ensemble work; some were more professional and others more exploratory.
"Faust," after J. W. Goethe, dir. Gisli Ă–rn Gardarsson. Score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Venue: Molodezhny Theatre on Fontanka. © Rosetti@Phocus
Everyone couldn't see all the shows—schedules conflicted, or tickets were sometimes limited—but among these prize-winners' shows that I saw, it was Vesturport Theatre's piece based on Goethe's Faust (dir. Gisli Ă–rn Gardarsson) that had the most of what I look for in a show. Set in an old people's home, an elderly actor, in love with his nurse, gives readings from Faust; he enters into the text, and the text also parallels, overlaps and influences his life. This approach allowed for the language and the acting to shift between contemporary and classical styles, while showing points of contact between them, so that the meanings of the parallels continually expanded. Mephistopheles entered through a tiny opening in The Actor/Faust's mind where a germ of regret festered and then, Faust having given him less than an inch, Mephistopheles took much more than a mile. When this glam-rocker Mephistopheles and his decadent groupies imposed their addled you-can-have-it-all world on the drab hospital common room, the stage full of beige plaids and wheelchairs exploded into hot pinks, velveteen, smeared lipstick, dribbled blood, flesh and high-heeled boots. The flat, wide playing area now extended out towards the audience; the head-levels of the devilish crew rose to the top of the piano, then to a tacky, suspended night-club window frame of lights, then to an aerial net hung over the stage and audience, so that scenes of wicked fun did seem to grow and materialize in the air—to offer flight to the pathetically earthbound. The gorgeous language of Faust's text was met with the soaring riffs of Mephistopheles' electric guitar. And where all too many productions falter after achieving a striking visual world, this one continued to push forward with themes unfolding and developing, expressed in new emotional tones and startling visual metaphors. The tempting sexual frolicking degenerated into the bleak S&M routines of broken dolls; The Actor/Faust clutched at a tinsel cross salvaged from a sorry Christmas party in the "home"; a young Faust spun in aerial bliss with his love, backlit by a star filter—an image that was part saccharine Disney and part celestial loveliness.
"Daniel Stein, Translator," by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, dir. Andrzej Bubien.
Venue: The Theatre on Vasilievsky Island. © Rosetti@Phocus
There were also two current St. Petersburg shows on the festival program, both of which created unusual visual worlds that absorbed me but in which I didn't know what happened. Daniel Stein, Translator (dir. Andrzej Bubien, Poland) was based on a 2006 novel about a Polish Jew who worked for a Nazi officer and died a Carmelite monk in Israel. Last year, the leading actor, Dmitry Vorobyev, was an exceptionally nuanced John Proctor in Miller's "The Crucible." The characters in Stein's story each had a separate area of a large sand pit surrounded by enormous hollow figures, like looming ancestors, or memories that have hardened and are waiting for new life to fill them. Apparently, from the sequential monologues we heard a story emerged, as well as themes about religious tolerance, but neither the fitful simultaneous translation nor the monotonous vocal work revealed much. This disappointment was mitigated by the chance to be in that theatre again—a late 1800s "People's House" that originally had a reading room, a music conservatory and a painting studio on consecutive floors; the inviting, mid-sized theatre hall up the graceful steps has survived the revolution, the war, several incarnations and a reconstruction.
"Moscow-Petushki," by V. Erofeev, dir. Andrey Zholdak.
Venue: Baltic House Theatre-Festival. © Lissa Tyler Renaud
The other current Russian show was Moscow-Petushki (dir. Andrei Zholdak, Ukraine) based on a well-known Soviet-era dissident prose poem: an intellectual takes an alcohol-infused train trip and offers his critique of history, politics and life in the USSR. The year before, I had seen the leading actor, Vladas Bagdonas, in a highly-abstracted (four hours plus) Lithuanian "Othello," and "Moscow-Petushki" gave him a chance yet again to handle surreal, fragmentary, mostly non-verbal material—the director called it "dream splinters." My son and I were the only people we know who stayed to the end—just shy of four hours. At the reception afterwards, the director graciously thanked his actors, and acknowledged that it was asking a lot of them to carry his difficult production. But once again the theatre venue more than made up for the challenges of the theatre event: the Baltic House Theatre manages to provide Russia with significant cultural leadership, and to play an incomparable role in Russia's cultural relations with its Baltic neighbors and internationally, while remaining welcoming, playful, collegial, celebratory and committed to cultivating the theatre and its artists—an unimaginably delicate balance achieved with elegance and great good humor.
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Critics from over 50 countries, as well as countless press and media teams attended conferences with all the directors of all these shows—but it made a big impression on me that these meetings were nevertheless not "press conferences." That is, the festival gave each director a platform for talking in their own terms about what they do, interviewed by people who liked them, in front of audiences who were interested in their work. True, the promotional materials for the festival had been sadly influenced by the American reflex to pile one exhausting, impossible adjective on top of another, so that every show was sure to be "artistic perfection" and "extraordinary" and "daring." But once the directors hit those conference stages, sometimes accompanied by their theatre groups or other colleagues or scholars, there was a noticeable lack of the sound bite, the pre-fabricated reply, or the ad-speak endemic to too much of the miniscule arts sector the U.S. actually promotes. Indeed, American protestations that art is necessary to a healthy society are too often barely disguised pleas for money; shows are too often talked about in the language of the grants that support them; "discussions" are too often replaced by exchanges of the kind of pumped-up jargon that makes its way into the press. In St. Petersburg, these artists were well-spoken rather than just polished; they strove to do good work rather than to "make a hit"; they tried to answer questions thoughtfully, even if it was awkward, rather than using studied interview "techniques." Above all, there didn't seem to be any assumption in the room that a worthwhile production was one that made a lot of money. Not that anyone would spit on money. But the productions talked about at those meetings hadn't been selected because they were "big money-makers" in terms of "box office receipts." Nevertheless, they have integrity, and they are shows to which audiences come; they talk about what they see, or they leave when they want or come back, or they don't come, and they talk about why not, and the critics and the various media weigh in, and foster this shared conversation about creative work whose product is quality of life.
Of course for every critic who thought a show was a "highlight," another thought it was the low point of the offerings, and vice-versa. A director whom one critic dismissed as woefully inarticulate was a model of authenticity to another. And whereas Vesturport was certainly the object of much unbridled enthusiasm, there were some critics who found their "Faust" disappointingly superficial in comparison to the enormous reach of the original text. But an important feature of all this multi-national, mutual evaluation is that it will continue. It will not vanish into the vacuum left by a new "news cycle," and it won't lose momentum although long distances are involved. At the next Europe Theatre Prize, it will play an active part in how the shows are viewed. What we see and hear will be informed by what we have seen and heard. Goethe wrote: "The history of knowledge is a great fugue in which the voices of the nations one after the other emerge." That history of theatre knowledge shared among nations is what the Europe Theatre Prize keeps making possible, and what the city of St. Petersburg achieved this year.
A Buffet at the Baltic House Theatre-Festival. © Lissa Tyler Renaud
Note: For my perspective on the culture of the international theatre festivals, see Margolis and Renaud, The Politics of American Actor Training, Routledge 2009/2011; for more on the 2010 Baltic House 20th anniversary theatre festival in St. Petersburg, see my essay, "EarWitness: Some Theatre Voices in Eastern Europe" in the international Voice and Speech Review, August 2011. Also, Scene4 included an important overview of St. Petersburg's theatre festivals by Grigor Atanesyan in its April issue.
Cover Photo: Europe Theatre Prize Award Ceremony
Winner: Peter Stein (center stage)
Venue: Alexandrinsky Theatre. © Lissa Tyler Renaud