Europe’s Apogee

For the first time Russia hosted the festival that accompanies Europe’s most prestigious theatre awards ceremony, “Europe for Theatre” (presented to maestros), which has a complementary award titled “New Theatre Reality” (presented to younger directors as well as to theatre companies that have created their own theatre language and style). This year the winners included two Russian directors: Yuri Lyubimov (the special “Europe for Theatre” Award) and Andrei Moguchy (“New Theatre Reality”).

The Awards were presented at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, which lays claim to being the most beautiful theatre in the world. Thanks to the preserved cash books, we can know for certain which seats in that theatre were used by Pushkin, Turgenev, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky – authors, whose works remain Russia’s greatest contribution to the world.  Current winners had the honor to sit in the places of geniuses. 

Peter Stein, who during the “dashing nineties” gave us back the faith in the psychological theatre that we nearly lost, ended up in Suvorin’s box, from where Chekhov used to watch the performances. Yuri Lyubimov was offered Dostoyevsky’s seat in the middle of the parterre, and he was the only one who received a standing ovation.  Britain’s Katie Mitchell, who has warm memories of her collaboration with Lev Dodin, Anatoly Vasiliev, and Inna Soloviova, was given Turgenev’s box. Gogol’s place in the sixth row was taken by the creator of the “Farm in the Cave” Theatre Viliam Docolomansky of Slovakia

The seats in the fifth row, where Lermontov was once spotted, were given to the actors of Iceland’s Vestuport Theatre.  Vestuport, which was created in 2001 by a company of young actors as an alternative to Iceland’s official theatres (City and State), is creating quite a stir in Europe.  Icelanders are performing in careful English (globalization, you see, no getting around it) and in the universal language of circus and plasticity: here love makes Romeo fly, Woyzeck is choking in his water prison, Gregor Samsa finds himself in another dimension.  This is a very spiritually young theatre, and Iceland in general is the youngest theatre state (their current eighty-year-old theatre luminaries are the country’s first professional actors). 

The second row, where Pushkin used to sit, was given to Portugal’s Teatro Meridional, a rightful representative of Portuguese-speaking countries (one of the productions they brought with them is, in fact, titled “Cabo Verde” – a sultry, languid and melancholy mix of songs, dances and simple stories from the ocean shores). 

The third box in the first circle, where Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim once held a season ticket, was now occupied by his compatriot, Finnish director Kristian Smeds.  And the seat at the director’s desk (Meyerhold’s invention, created, in fact, at the Alexandrinsky Theatre) was given to Andrei Moguchy.  He presented his premiere within the framework of the festival by turning to one of the main sacred cows of the Russian theatre – “The Blue Bird”, even though his “Happiness” has very little to do with Maeterlinck’s play.  Children’s theatre, theatre’s eternal Cinderella, here appears as a beautiful princess.  Fantastic visual excess (video projections, giant puppets, cardboard people, and shadows leading a separate life) easily goes hand in hand with true theatre democracy (the Alexandrinsky luminaries act in a children’s play).  As well as with a clear, piercingly delivered message about the birth of a soul inside an infantile, egoistical child.   

There was yet another greeting from Meyerhold – the curtain from the production of “Masquerade”, full of splendor and tragic forebodings (its opening night coincided with the Revolution of 1917: there was already shooting on the streets, when the opening night audience in diamonds and evening dresses was leaving the theatre).

The audience unconditionally named “Mister Vertigo”, a play by Kristian Smeds about a boy who was capable of levitating (walking on water and floating in the air), as the Festival’s chief discovery. It is a play about the path to art – through suffering, humiliation, through the vulgarity of theatre’s seamy side, through a great number of temptations, through an unrestrained and risky jump from one’s own consciousness into images and roles, where an actor resembles a somnambulist tightrope walker: call him, and he’ll fall to his death.  About a path, where one cannot turn back (orphan Walt, who finds himself with Master Yehudi’s travelling company, is given a piece of chalk by his teacher and tempter in order to draw a door, through which he could leave).  Smeds places his audience on a moving turntable of a stage, amidst candles and jazz musicians, and gives them a true vertigo effect: the action unfolds in the very heart of the theatre, amidst its insides (panels, projectors, lifts).  All that in order to open for us in the final moments of the play an astonishing view of an empty theatre hall, where the Artist is seen floating over the velvet chairs like the spirit of the theatre. 

Actors from Iceland’s Vestuport Theatre likewise did not wish to walk on the ground in their production of “Faust”.  “In the beginning was the Word.  Or maybe a desire?  Or action?” this is the question asked by a certain famous actor, who is finishing his days in an old people’s home, where a charming nurse Gretchen and her simple-minded trainer brother Valentin are caring for the old folks. The actor played all the roles that he wanted, and only the role of Faust remained his unfulfilled dream.  On Christmas Eve he is overcome by melancholy: on her brother’s order, charming little Gretchen gives him back the present he gave her; his neighbor, who was just visited by his son and the son’s girlfriend, dies in a wheelchair.  And so the actor resolutely ties a string of tree lights around his neck, asserting his final freedom – the freedom to be master of his own life.  This is when the explosion happens.  The newly minted dead man rises from his chair a Mephistopheles and calls the actor Faust.  All sorts of evil spirits crawl out from under all the floors and out of all the cracks and begin shooting firecrackers. The audience finds a circus safety net above their heads, and the action swiftly shifts from a horizontal plane to a vertical one.  Actors fly on safety cords and wheelchairs, tearing off their masks-faces layer by layer; and in the midst of this madness an old actor, who has become Faust and received the body of a young athlete, is painfully trying to find himself.

Peter Stein, winner of the fourteenth Award, and Lev Dodin, winner of the eighth Award, were representing the good old psychological theatre at the Festival. Stein brought “The Broken Jug”, based on a comedy by Heinrich von Kleist, with the legendary Klaus Maria Brandauer as the deceitful judge Adam, who broke the proverbial jug during his nightly pursuits of a respectable girl and in the morning found himself in the position of having to investigate his own crime under the supervision of a visiting judicial inspector. Peter Stein’s production is so defiantly old-fashioned and traditional that in today’s world it comes across as a gauntlet thrown at the radical compatriot directors. It looks like an Old Dutch master’s painting come to life (future actors are being taught to recreate the course of the depicted events based on that painting).  The lively Adam, performed by a remarkable actor, is so charming, natural and defenseless in his own way that the audience’s affections quickly shift to this rogue, who tries to take a stand alone against the entire world that revels in its righteousness.   

Dodin presented his latest production of Chekhov – “The Three Sisters”.  The Prozorov House – a windswept shell of a house – is sliding toward the foreground with every act, as though pushing Chekhov’s protagonists off the very stage of life.  Even Natasha, sister of the Coming Boor, huddles up closer to these unfortunate people to avoid feeling her loneliness so keenly; the loneliness that neither Bobik with Sofochka nor the mythical Protopopov have the power to combat.  A premonition of the collapse of this world permeates Dodin’s production, much like a thirst for life – a need to keep on living while there is still some space left for the game of life, even if   that space is the most miniscule one.

Peter Stein: “I am a servant of others – I serve the author, I serve the actor.  I can’t say that I am proud of my productions.  I am not the way people see me.   I am a boy of about six.  I founded nineteen theatres, even though other people are living there now.  The atmosphere there was always wonderful.  And I am also proud that I managed to collect money for our Schaubühne.  After several years under my direction its budget has increased greatly – up to 26 million marks.  Nobody gave such amounts of money before I got there.  So I can do more than the so-called art.  I wanted to be an actor – I had to earn the money for “Faust” on other projects (a one-man show performed by Stein – ed.).  I am proud that I give work to people.  And that my translation of a Classical Greek tragedy was recognized as the best (I was simply bursting with pride).  I dreamed of translating Sophocles since I was only thirteen years old. 

Everybody kept telling me that in a theatre one person should decide everything.  But our Schaubühne is built on democracy – the board decides all the issues: from titles, directors, and casts of characters to cafeteria. And if you tell me that it’s impossible, I will tell you – try again: you may have lost one battle but not the entire war.”

Andrei Moguchy: “Once I staged a show for children – a very bad one.  Even though we tried our best, and the kids liked it, I was horrified, because I knew that nobody should like THAT!  It is a very dangerous moment that the Youth Theatre’s artistic directors are usually not aware of, when they say: “Well, at least the children like it.”   This is the motto of a drug dealer, who also claims that the children like it.   

A year ago, though, I dared to do this again, because working for a children’s audience is a true blessing.  This show is especially important for me because I learn from them.  Many of the lines in our “Happiness” have simply been invented by kids.  Children don’t know who I am, what my last name is and whether or not I have an award for Best Director.  They couldn’t care less, they have no context, and that is wonderful.   

This production has therapeutic value for me and for them.  I invited all kinds of people to the rehearsal, including psychotherapists and psychoanalysts.  One of them dramatically changed his view of his own profession. And that was a man who went through Beslan, Chechnya, Osh, worked with children who faced real death.  Another person, a boy, told me after the performance that he will no longer be afraid to sleep alone in his room.”  

 

Olga Foux

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