Latvian Stories

The Latvian Theatre Showcase-2011 brought young experimenters and patriarchs of the Latvian theatre together to show off their productions.

A review of the best Latvian theatre productions has been held in Riga every spring since several years. It is organized by a competent and dynamic team of young theatre managers from the New Theatre Institute of Latvia – a nonprofit nongovernmental organization that was created in 1998 and is responsible, among other things, for organizing the famous Homo Novus (an international festival of the latest achievements of European theatre). Organizers of the Latvian Theatre Showcase, who work at the NTIL, are at the same time selectors of the program. The productions that are included into the program of the Latvian Theatre Showcase, year after year, reflect, to a certain extent, their own personal tastes and conceptual approaches. And since the women organizing the showcase are approximately of the same age (nearly all of them are about thirty-years-old) and have Europe-oriented tastes, they are focused on young theatre art and experimentation. Thus, the program, almost always, alongside the indispensable Hermanis, features productions, performances and actions by absolutely unknown directors, dancers and multimedia specialists. This balance between Latvia’s principal theatre newsmaker and experimentations of theatre debutants, fully defines those who organize Latvian Case as people who trust in Future of their national theatre.

The 2011 program featured, as it’s supposed to be, two productions directed by Alvis Hermanis, in his Riga New Theatre: “Black Milk” and “Graveyard Party”. The latter production was a real hit in Riga, contrary to its experience in Moscow, where it was presented at Stanislavsky Season Festival. “Black Milk”, which was based on documentaries and interviews with the country’s farmstead residents, is a requiem for agriculture that is collapsing along with the last generation of farmers. Actresses of Riga New Theatre in brightly colored silk dresses with fake breasts and enormous heels are playing both old women in kerchiefs and mournful cows with bells on their horns. Everyday stories are being told: about a cow that threw herself at an electric barbed wire fence because of an unhappy love; about an elderly couple that was abandoned little by little, first by their children, and then by animals, until they were left all alone; about the descendants of farmers that were exiled to Siberia by Soviet regime. But these purely verbal snippets (when two or three actors, like in the production of “Shukshin’s stories” in Moscow Theatre of Nations are just sitting around on wooden benches and telling funny or tragic stories from their lives) alternate with fabulous scenes full of spectacular movements. A thick rope is lowered from the ceiling onto the empty stage floor, and the women-cows in their fancy dresses dance out their rather lyrical monologues around the dangling rope in such a way, as though this really were their last asylum.

For us, who live in a country where agriculture has almost disappeared as a way of life, it is hard not to understand irony and longing of Hermanis’ play. But “Black Milk” also has its local specificity: After all, Latvia was for a long time a “network” of isolated farmsteads. Its people lived on subsistence farming, in large families, leading a secluded way of life that barely allowed for friendships even with their neighbors. And nowadays it is very easy to reproach the 20- or 30-somethings who would rather work in Ireland than stay on a farmstead. But we must understand that this is how life is now in European Union’s Latvia, and not only there.

A production by Regnārs Vaivars, a representative of the generation of the now 40-somethings, who once made a brilliant performance in the Latvian theatre arena, is directly relevant to the non-urban way of life and the problems associated with it. His “Aija after Jaunsudrabiņš” (Daile Theatre) is based on a novel written in 1911 by the Latvian classic Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš. Vaivars retained the plot of the original story: a love triangle that is twisted into an intricate deadlock and ends with a suicide. But he switched the setting to a Latvian suburb, just all the same as nearest Moscow suburb, where beautiful Aija (Kristīne Nevarauska) lives in a standard house typical for rural settlements. A young man with a backpack, Aija’s old boyfriend (Gints Grāvelis), shows up quite unexpectedly on her doorstep and, despite the wishes of her jovial, brutal neighbor (Artūrs Dīcis), who had long been hopelessly wooing the lady of the house, begins an affair with her. The action of this hyper-realistic play unfolds in a natural setting, recreated in great detail by the set designer. Here the characters eat, drink Christmas mulled wine, bathe, and “truly” love each other with frenzy and hysterics that are, perhaps, a bit too much for an everyday story. In the last scene, the main protagonist slits his wrists and hides his hands in a tin basin under a blanket to avoid early detection. And it instantly becomes clear that the Latvian way of life was a backdrop for a bloody melodrama. And the most interesting part is how the director and three wonderful young actors immerse a century-old story into the modern reality. If the original source clearly had Freudian underpinnings at its essence, today it was the social environment that took center stage, for, in the end, it was that environment that sealed the hard fate of the three characters.

Mārcis Lācis’ puppet production of “Eve of Life: The Summary”, presented at the New Stage of the Latvian National Theatre, explores the loneliness of old people in today’s Latvia, much like Hermanis’ “Graveyard Party”. The trick here is that all the different stories from the lives of very different people are being told by puppets, carefully mimicking a former champion in artistic gymnastics at one moment, and an elderly spouse, peacefully drinking on the grave of his long-dead wife, at another. The champion does a somersault on parallel bars; a lonely man with a cat drinks tea at his old table; the husband gets drunk and falls asleep on a bench next to the grave. The production charms the audience with these little details: it becomes clear just how fruitful the very idea of a “documentary theatre” can be in all kinds of different formats and genres. Yet, somehow, the “puppet” monologues don’t come together in a captivating kaleidoscope; for some reason its internal dramaturgy loses to the very same “Graveyard Party” or the old “Latvian Stories”. And it is not that Hermanis is the sole and principal player on this field. It is because working with “life material” is as difficult as with a classical play. There are specific rules, and they don’t always work. Nevertheless, this does not detract from the originality of the idea of “Eve of Life” – the puppet “verbatim” turned out to be an entertaining and fascinating production.

The Latvian Theatre Showcase program always features productions from outside of Riga as well: usually, from Valmiera and Liepaja, two cities with good theatre traditions and solid theatre companies. A young director by the name of Viesturs Meikšāns is actively working in Valmiera, while Liepaja has J. Jillingers, who brought his production of “Hanana”, based on a play by a Samara author German Grekov, to the latest “Mask Plus” (a “New Play” program). The geography of the comparatively small Latvia is such that something equally important might be happening outside of Riga, and the program selectors take that fact into account. And even though the showcase has very little money, and independent groups have fallen on hard times these days – in Latvia only a handful of theatres receive government subsidies -- it appears that domestic talents are treasured here, and young directors (not to forget contemporary dance!) are given their opportunities, however small. And, certainly, no one limits their freedom of self-expression.

Although admittedly, it was the production of “Othello” at the New Riga Theatre by a not at all young maestro of the Latvian theatre, director and professor of acting Māra Ķimele that became an almost main event at the showcase. A witty and touching two-act game of love, jealousy, male and female friendship has completely won over the audience. And the reason is not the modernization of a classic as such, even though Ķimele manages somehow, in some imperceptible way, to make the old text completely original and have the well-known circumstances of the Shakespearean tragedy become kind of unfamiliar as they unfold before your eyes. It is about sensitive and lively acting; it is about the director’s analysis of the play made in such a way that new wine is being poured into an old wineskin, and we no longer see Othello, but a leading actor of the New Riga Theatre, the blue-eyed Andris Keišs, covered in dark paint, with hands loaded with rings and with gym shoes on his feet. Ķimele’s “Othello” is an honest game of theatre, with self-deprecating humor and the goofing around on the part of the actors. And it is an example of a psychologically accurate look at history through the eyes of today’s man or woman. At the end, when Keišs rocks the fragile little Desdemona to death in a huge canvas cradle, lowered from the ceiling, the audience grunts uneasily, and the women sniffle.

The Latvian Theatre Showcase is a right place for theatre managers, who are looking for something fresh, new and original for their festivals. Or for a new Hermanis. But the way things worked out was that, thanks to the taste and open-mindedness of selectors, this showcase turned into something more: a mini-festival with its own recognizable face, a constant revolution of “young talents” and a more or less constant presence of masters. Though, admittedly, the latter are such that their productions are always eagerly anticipated.

Kristina Matviyenko


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