Baltic Drama Forum and Spelmanu nakts (Performer’s Night)
in Riga, Latvia, November 2017

Matti Linnavuori*

In Riga, everything is different from 2011, when I last visited. In 2011, the street view was dominated by men in black leather jackets, but, now, either the fashion has changed, or the ways to distribute wealth in society have evolved. In 2011, the three Baltic countries, in turn, invited productions from their neighbours, but, now, the Baltic Drama Forum is content to showcase artworks of the host country. In 2011, the focus was on reclaiming national history, still struggling after the five-decade-long Soviet occupation, but, in 2017, theatre has become very much a director’s art (http://www.critical-stages.org/6/baltic-theatre-seeks-to-define-rather-than-depict-history/).

All the more surprising, then, that the best-known Latvian director, Alvis Hermanis, and his New Riga Theatre are absent from the selection. Also, in 2017, most festival productions are directed by newcomers; the generation of 2011 cannot be much older than forty, but, still, they have been passed over for brightest recognition.

The politicians of Success Story, from left: Daiga Gaismiņa, Uldis Siliņš, Jānis Vimba, Romāns Bargais Photo by Agnese Zeltiņa

Baltic Drama Forum coincided with Spelmanu nakts, which is the annual parade of the best productions on Latvia’s stages. Many shows were presented in both capacities: as prime examples of Latvian writing, and as contestants in various “best of” categories.

Foreign guests were asked to vote for the best Latvian play, and I chose Success Story, written by Janis Balodis and directed by Valters Silis, produced by Latvia’s National Theatre. It is a journalistic account of the machinations behind Latvia’s economic crisis of 2008. Who did what, why, and what did he conceal from the public? Details escape me, but I recognize the style and the necessity for theatre to assume tasks which used to belong to investigative media. The basement of the National Theatre building houses the stage for four men and one woman, in suits. The acting is precise and delightfully subdued.

The mother of Small-birches (Maija Doveika, left) addresses the servant Trine (Dita Lūriņa). Photo by Kristaps Kalns

Voting for Success Story probably was much too obvious a decision, but I say in my defense that the tough nuts of the program, Trine and Fire and Night, require quite a bit of local cultural knowledge to be fully appreciated.

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Trine (1897), by the classic Latvian writer Rudolfs Blaumanis, was directed for the National by Elmars Senkovs in a most non-reverential way. The set was that of a puppet theatre, and the actors performed as if they were puppets, shouting and shrieking included, and gloriously aided by the gaudy costumes (by Reinis Suhanovs). The mere fact that a classic is given such a radically hilarious reinterpretation proves that national self-confidence has now reached the heights of self-irony, or, to put it differently, that the concerns of 2011 are a thing of the past.

In Fire and Night, the mythical hero Lāčplēsis (Uldis Anže) is forever stuck with Spīdola (Guna Zariņa). Photo by Kristaps Kalns

Fire and Night, another classic, by Rainis (1905), is a drama in verse about nation-building myths, where the symbols of traitors and freedom, among others, struggle eternally. The Viesturs Kairišs production for the National Theatre was beautifully stylized, with a significance-carrying color scheme in the costumes (by Krista Dzudzilo) and lights (designed by Oskars Paulinš). Guna Zarina, guest-starring from New Riga Theatre, showed a majestic range from composure to rage as Spidola, the ambiguous symbol of freedom, whose presence means much more to the male hero (Uldis Anže) than his girlfriend (Maija Doveika) can ever hope to achieve.

The productions of both Trine and Fire and Night abound with allusions, often very fleeting ones. I am left wondering about the abundance of classics in a seemingly contemporary drama festival. Why they are in the repertoire, that much is self-evident, given that, in 2018, Latvia celebrates her one hundred years of independence: the eight professional theatre companies of Latvia produced one hundred Latvian texts in 2017.

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Rehearsal clip

By far the most intriguing performance at the National was Chekhov’s The Seagull, directed by Elmars Senkovs. It was not Kostya’s story but Nina’s and Arkadina’s. Agnese Cirule was wonderful as Nina with the slightest of gestures, eyebrows, micro movements of her head, when she listened to Trigorin, and never said a word, but managed to convey all the hopes and future disappointments of Nina. And, in the end, desperate and drenched with rain, Cirule’s Nina was all the while utterly conscious of the power of her acting skills on Kostya.

In The Seagull, Jakov, the servant (Mārtiņš Zariņš), also serves as a musician. Arkadina (Maija Doveika) looks on at Nina’s (Agnese Cīrule) performance. Photo by Kristaps Kalns

Masha (Liene Sebre) hid her alcohol in a jogger’s bottle in the first act, then in a baby-feeding bottle, and brilliantly, in the final act, she had left booze altogether, whereas her husband the teacher (Arturs Kruzkops) had a cast on his leg, broken during drunken antics.

Maija Doveika’s Arkadina basks in everyone’s attention in The Seagull, but she is, simultaneously, ill at ease with meeting the demands of her fans. Photo by Kristaps Kalns

Maija Doveika, mentioned above in connection with Fire and Night, showed her versatility as Arkadina. Doveika’s Arkadina suffers from a phobia of physical contact, which makes changing the bandage on Kostya’s head a real ordeal for her. Doveika approaches the back of the seated Kostya several times, trying to keep her aversion in check, before she manages to produce an act of motherly concern for her son. Also, on the small stage of the National, Doveika’s grand gestures serve to keep others at a distance. Even her impressive eyewear makes Trigorin’s kisses all but impossible. With Doveika’s commanding presence Arkadina takes every situation under her control; Arkadina regards it her duty as an actress.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s interpretation of A Town Nearby; the eventually deadly sexual-geographical contact between both spouses and cities. Photo by Kristaps Kalns

Visiting Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, in detention in his homeland at the time of this writing, made the most of A Town Nearby by the Lithuanian Marius Ivaškevičius, always remembered for his Madagascar. The text of A Town Nearby strains itself to suggest more than it really does, and Serebrennikov’s visual jamming was an honorable solution to its thinness.

Tom Treinis directed Blue, written by the Latvian Gunars Priede during the era of socialist realism in the early 1970s. In a morning seminar, the question was raised whether any revival should explain the Soviet context. To me, Blue, seemingly about an indigenous blue-colored breed of cow, resembles a cow’s digestion; endless chewing.

In Beastly Love, characters meet to let out the animal inside. From left: Ivars Krasts, Marija Linarte. Photo by JānisAmoliņš

Dirty Deal Teatro was the other featured company of the event. A small theatre, its down-to-earth productions were far from the aesthetics of beauty so essential to the National. Beastly Love by Janis Jonevs and Anete Konste, directed by Marcis Lacis, begins with a sexual encounter between two strangers eager to perform an animal role in the meeting. From then on, three characters take on varying animal behaviors to highlight the complex relationship between animals and humans. With a wig or a gesture the actors become snails, iguanas, dogs, whatnot. The performance is sweaty, it litters, it never ceases to surprise, but the surprises serve the philosophy rather than the mere thrill.

The other Dirty Deal production, What will Tomorrow Bring by Janis Balodis, is his account of Facebook contacts, to whom he presented the question of the play’s title. I have no patience for well-intentioned but fumbled everyday phrases in broken English, but I realize my position may well be becoming obsolete; to individuals who have grown up with social media, the process of communication may be more rewarding to follow than a well-considered result.

Jose (Artūrs Skrastiņš) and Carmen (Ilze Ķuzule-Skrastiņa) at the fountain, where she burns the money he offers her. Photo by Mārtiņš Vilkārsis

Dailes Theatre certainly baffled me. In Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, directed by Dž. Dž. Džilindžers, there were nineteen people on stage, and, in Carmen, twenty four. Carmen is a dramatization of the opera by the Russian Dmitri Minchyonok, directed by the Lithuanian Rolandas Atkočiunas. In Martins Vilkarsis’ set and Jevgeni Vinogradov’s lights, Carmen looks like a gorgeous parade of beautiful men and women. But Minchyonok’s version has far more blood, death, insecurity and ambiguous sexuality reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last film Querelle (1982), than what we saw.

With Bunny Munro I was left gaping: what is the relevance of a British working-class dropout’s rock-star lifestyle on a Latvian stage? The info given to visitors says it is a personal thing for the director. One may envy (and congratulate) him for having the big stage to realize his thing.

Half of the actors of Anniversary ’98 sit at the table facing the auditorium, from left: Jim (George Steele), his girlfriend and the celebrating family’s daughter, Julia (Jeļena Ņetjosina), Grandma (Žanna Lubgāne) and the terrible father, Edvin (Jurijs Losevs)

The only Russian-language show of the selection, Anniversary ’98, from the eastern city of Daugavpils, was rather surprisingly awarded as the best small-scale production. Justine Klava adapted the play from Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish film The Celebration (1998), adding a foreign guest to the family gathering, a black man engaged to a daughter who is making a career for herself overseas. Fine-tunings aside, the pedophile father’s birthday party is, as I understand it, a vehicle for actors to demonstrate their psychological plunge. Paula Plavniece’s direction could not help the static situation, but, to her credit, the production concentrated on socio-political rather than individual ramifications. 


*Matti Linnavuori wrote theatre criticism between 1978 and 2013, for various newspapers and weeklies, in his native Finland. In 1985, he worked for the BBC World Service in London. Since 1998, he has presented papers at numerous IATC events. In the 2000s, he wrote for Teatra Vestnesis in Latvia. Since 1992, he has written and directed several radio plays for YLE the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In 2016, his stage play Ta mig till er ledare (Take me to your leader) was produced by Lilla teatern, in Helsinki.

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