Ιan Herbert*

Viafest, Varna, Bulgaria, 1-11 June 2019
The poster of the latest edition of Varna International Festival

Viafest is the shorthand title for the International Theatre Festival Varna Summer, now in its 27th edition. For eleven busy days, at the beginning of June, the popular Black Sea resort welcomed a varied procession of theatre, music and dance from Bulgaria and abroad. Its main programme consisted of performances from leading Bulgarian theatre companies, including a specially chosen showcase selection. A smaller international section brought examples from Italy, Belgium, France and North Macedonia, plus a couple of filmed shows from Russia (Timofey Kuliabin’s Onegin) and Great Britain (Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra). Viafest visitors could also benefit from Intermezzo, a selection of shows in the Varna International Summer Music Festival, including the Metropolitan Opera’s transmission of their Aida.

An Attempt at Flying. A production of Sofia’s National Theatre. Photo: Stefan N. Shtereff. Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

The main programme began with Sofia’s National Theatre production An Attempt at Flying, by Yordan Radichkov (1929-2004), one of the most important Bulgarian playwrights of the last century, equally known for his short stories, many of them set in the small village where he spent his early years before it was destroyed to build a dam.

Radichkov featured further in Viafest, thanks to the Sfumato theatre laboratory from Sofia. Their process is to devote a year’s research to a particular playwright or topic. Radichkov was their subject in 2003, when Sfumato’s two directors, Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev, each developed a show based on his stories. Last year, they returned to Radichkov. Mladenova chose to revive her original show, Crazy Grass, now more primly titled Herbs of Madness. Her energetic cast built and rebuilt their village from a random collection of trestles, weaving in and out of them as they told their tales in the shadow of its impending destruction. Dobchev used many of the same stories (one of them repeated in a dozen different versions) in New Bible, his new look at the author’s work, more realistic in its setting and costumes but less successful in conveying the rustic poetry of Radichkov’s texts.

Herbs of Madness, a Sfumato theatre laboratory production. Photo: Yana Lozeva. Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

Elsewhere in the main programme, the selectors have chosen largely crowd-pleasing, boulevard work featuring favourite actors. The Bulgarian Army Theatre from Sofia offered Yasmina Reza’s Bella Figura, while Sofia Theatre itself had Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s The Libertine. Vazrazhdane Theatre showed a Hungarian hit, Zsolt Pozsgai’s Because That’s How Mum Likes It, directed by my favourite Bulgarian director, Liliya Abidjeva—sadly, after I left Varna.

Yasmina Reza’s Bella Figura, presented at the Festival by The Bulgarian Army Theatre from Sofia. Photo: Ivan Donchev. Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

Theatre 199’s Pleasantly Scary, Yana Borisova’s gently fantastical study of burgeoning friendships brought back again in Galin Stoev’s 2010 production, was certainly a crowd-pleaser. Staged in a setting that was not much more than a few rostra, it involved more than a little directorial showing off, with odd interludes of song and dance—even a demonstration of ribbon-twirling—breaking up the dreamy musings of its star cast.

Vyrypaev’s The Drunks. Photo: Simon Varsano, Pavel Chervenkov. Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

I was very dismissive of Ivan Vyrypaev’s The Drunks when I saw the original version in Moscow. Watching a bunch of sharply dressed Muscovites drink themselves into oblivion, while complaining loudly that life is shit, had little appeal. Javor Gardev’s production for the Little City Theatre “Off the Channel” changed my view. Gone was the air of elegant boredom; instead, we saw ordinary people in scruffy casual costume bringing depth to Vyrypaev’s pessimism. His other thesis, that we have lost touch with spiritual values, was no longer fashionable cant but a truly moving critique of our vacant, godless lives. Like several other shows in the festival, it used minimal scenery: because of the difficulty of bringing it to Varna, or a sign of austerity in today’s Bulgarian theatre?

Brain Store Project’s Made for Happiness. Photo: Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

I doubt that Vyrypaev’s drunks would have benefited from one of the more curious items in the Varna showcase, Brain Store Project’s Made for Happiness. Entering Varna’s Puppet Theatre, we are presented with squeezy stress balls, one of the many paths to happiness demonstrated at tedious length by Iva Shvestarova and Willy Prager. They plant flowers, drink champagne, attach themselves to electric tension-relievers and spend much of the show’s hour emitting toe-curlingly robotic, forced laughter. A karaoke session was their last offering, by which time most of the audience were seriously unhappy. The final invitation to throw our stress balls at the actors was met with enthusiasm—I had been restraining that impulse for some time.

A more successful attempt to relate to festival-goers was Christian Bakalov’s Eternal, last in a trilogy of installations he has been developing since 2009. Blindfolded visitors are led by gentle, guiding hands through a maze of light and fabric, with soothing music helping to achieve a sense of relaxation. Half an hour passed pleasantly enough, but the five hours planned for the entire trilogy might be a little too long.

Video 1

Bakalov has worked with Jan Fabre, choreographer of the international programme’s The Generosity of Dorcas. His regular collaborator, Matteo Sedda, has made this solo role his own after the female dancer with whom it was created left Fabre’s company, one of many women to accuse the director of sexual harassment. Sedda drifts seamlessly between genders and moods in this dance evocation of the good woman restored to life by the Apostle Peter, against a rainbow installation of glass tubes, plucking the long needles that hang from them to use as props.

The Concertgebouw band from Amsterdam and veteran rock singer Madeline Bell paid tribute to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Photo: Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

Extra pleasure came from two visits to Intermezzo, the first a concert by the big band of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, joined by veteran rock singer Madeline Bell, in a programme of numbers made popular by Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. The 1000-seater concert hall of Varna’s Festival and Congress Centre was packed for this event. The following evening saw it half empty for a different but equally satisfying evening: on the big screen was a great French silent movie of the 1920s, Jean Epstein’s La Belle Nivernaise, a beautifully realised version of Alphonse Daudet’s novel. On one side of the stage were the French pianist Francois Raulin, leading his jazz trio in his score for the film, while on the other were Ilya Mihalyev’s Great Voices of Bulgaria, lending their own rich commentary to the film’s poignant moments.

Calderon’s Life Is a Dream, directed by Dina Markova: one of the highlights of the Festival. Photo: Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

I have left till last the Viafest showcase production that most impressed me, Dina Markova’s staging for her Song Theatre of Calderon’s Life Is a Dream. From the moment two actors in figure-hugging striped leotards, one male one female, stepped lithely on to the almost bare stage (in the capacious attic of the town’s Art Gallery), a frisson of professionalism swept the space. Markova’s adaptation of the Spanish Golden Age classic stripped out its romantic subplot to concentrate on the central story of the prince kept imprisoned from the world until his sudden, fatal exposure to it as heir to the royal throne. Exciting costumes, minimal but crucial scenery (a few ladders, some buckets and a great, swinging globe), well judged lighting from just a handful of sources, and, above all, some powerfully physical ensemble acting made this an experience to treasure.

Calderon’s Life Is a Dream. Photo: Courtesy of Varna International Festival, 2019

At the centre of the performance was Boyan Arsov’s athletic Prince, physically and emotionally dominating the stage, but still anchored as part of a superbly drilled ensemble. It is impressive to note that both Arsov and his director, Ms Markova, were fellow students in Sofia’s drama academy just a couple of years ago. With such talents on hand, Bulgarian theatre has a bright future ahead of it. 


* Ian Herbert, Honorary President of the International Association of Theatre Critics, is the founder and now Consulting Editor of Theatre Record, the archive of the contemporary U.K. stage since 1981. He has written for theatre journals worldwide and is at present a language editor for Critical Stages.

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Drunks, Dreamers and Dancers by the Sea
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