Mark Brown[1] and Matti Linnavuori[2]

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Sight 2011, an annual Baltic theatre showcase, November 2011, in Riga, Latvia.

The three Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania take turns in organizing an annual showcase of their theatres. Each country is invited to select two of their best productions for performance.

The Riga event took the concept into a new dimension. The festival invited not only performances, but also young critics, seasoned critics and theatre researchers from various countries, and arranged a conference alongside. This bringing together of potentially quite different views became a unique and enriching meeting.

Scottish theatre critic Mark Brown and his Finnish colleague Matti Linnavuori, (both members of the editorial board of Critical Stages) attended the festival; Matti as a member of the festival jury, and Mark as monitor of the International Association of Theatre Critics’ young critics’ seminar.

In the following correspondence, Mark and Matti share their impressions of the work on offer.

Dear Mark,

Yes, the festival has a jury. Even though the Baltic countries share their shows in a most amicable atmosphere, the festival is, nevertheless, a competitive one, where national pride may influence judgement.

Kristine Nevarauska as Aija in Dailes Theatre, Latvia, and Arturs Dicis as her love interest make wild moves on a small surface.
Kristine Nevarauska as Aija in Dailes Theatre, Latvia, and Arturs Dicis as her love interest make wild moves on a small surface.

The Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries, from 1944 to 1991, continues to be a topic in their theatre, e.g. On the Banks of Spirits’ River, after the memoirs of Melanija Vanaga (1905-97), about the experience of deported Latvian women in Siberia.

There are many who would like to move on from this therapeutic or traumatic theme, and I pick examples from the festival which attempted to reclaim national history. It must be said, however, that certain historical topics become unavoidable in the art of any particular country; otherwise these topics would be denied their necessary and resonating voice. Naturally, it may frustrate a small nation that it is not a history of its own making, but, rather, something that an outside power has forced upon them, which defines the image of their nation worldwide.

To reclaim history one can reinterpret national classics to show that culture has more vitality than any military conquest. In this vein the Latvian director Regnars Vaivars updated Aija, a story by Jaunsudrabins (1877-1962), about a rural woman with two lovers. The actors threw water, foodstuff and other objects on the tiny stage floor to such an extent that I admired their ability to move around without slipping. Apart from that, however, it looked like a Hollywood movie where the female lead (Kristine Nevarauska was awarded as the best actress of the festival) is controversially rebellious but endearingly sexy.

The dangerous female charm was also the main thing in The She Devil, an Austrian play by Karl Schönherr (1914), this time directed by Dž. Dž. Džilindžers for the Latvian Liepaja theatre.

Another and, perhaps, intellectually more noteworthy way of reclaiming history is the strand of theatre about the great men of the nation. They really tend to be men, unless their origin is fictional, such as Aija’s.

The Lithuanian production The Girl Whom God Feared combined pre-war aviation and modern-day video games.
The Lithuanian production The Girl Whom God Feared combined pre-war aviation and modern-day video games.

One example is Antanas Gustaitis (1898-1941). He modernized the Lithuanian air force in the 1930s and was shot dead after the Soviet army occupied the country. Gustaitis is featured in Gintaras Grajauskas’ (born 1966) play The Girl Whom God Feared, directed by Jonas Vaitkus (born 1944) for the Klaipeda state drama theatre.

Ird, K. by the Estonian playwright and director Ivar Põllu (born 1974) is a highly dramatized lifestory of Kaarel Ird (1909-86), who as a Soviet theatre maker got snared in a few webs too many. And to explain and justify all this, the New Tartu Theatre performance runs far too long. The same goes for Ziedonis and the Universe at New Riga Theatre by the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. In his play Kaspars Znotins and a mighty wig play the part of the Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis (born 1933).

Hermanis has a donkey on stage alongside with Ziedonis. This is a funny reference to his Kaspar Hauser(2002), where Hermanis placed a pony on stage. In both cases, I, as a spectator, expected the animal to defecate, which – until it happens – makes me totally oblivious to the production’s other artistic merits.

Yours,

Matti

Dear Matti,

I beg to disagree with your commentary on Ziedonis and the Universe, which contends that the production is (like, you say, Ird, K.) “far too long”. On the contrary, I thought Hermanis’s piece was far and away the strongest work on offer in the Baltic showcase in Riga. Indeed, so disappointed was I by the other work on stage that I came to the (admittedly sarcastic) conclusion that the other five pieces had been selected purely in order to elevate the work of Hermanis and his New Riga Theatre (who are, of course, considered internationally to be the greatest theatrical export of contemporary Latvia).

Nero Urke as the enigmatic and tempestuous Estonian theatre boss Kaarel Ird in Ird, K. by the New Tartu Theatre.
Nero Urke as the enigmatic and tempestuous Estonian theatre boss Kaarel Ird in Ird, K. by the New Tartu Theatre.

I can’t agree that the show was “far too long”. To my mind, the piece is a clever, touching and endearingly playful take upon the life and work of Imants Ziedonis, the 78-year-old author who is considered to be the father of modern Latvian poetry.

The shifts, back-and-forth, between the poet’s personal, national and universal reflections are beautifully achieved. We see him, first, with a motorcycle; a young man intent on “breaking through” like Jim Morrison of The Doors. Soon, however, unable to carry the weight of the vehicle, let alone ride it, Ziedonis is relieved of the bike (which is raised on a chain at the back of the stage for the rest of the performance) and given, instead, a very gentle donkey (which also remains on stage, and which he feeds periodically throughout the show).

All of this has its roots in Ziedonis’s poetry, which Hermanis and his company treat with a delightful combination of irreverence and respect (I understand that Ziedonis himself is very happy with the project). I particularly enjoyed the scene in which an actor donned a large, grey beard and stood atop a set of ladders, becoming a living statue of Jānis Rainis (the great Latvian national poet who died in 1929). As he looked down, comically observing Ziedonis’s progress, he could have been any classical national poet observing his modern successor.

Kaspars Znotins as the Latvian poet Ziedonis in Alvis Hermanis’ production Ziedonis and the Universe; the brief moment when the poet seems to be in control of the motorcycle.
Kaspars Znotins as the Latvian poet Ziedonis in Alvis Hermanis’ production Ziedonis and the Universe; the brief moment when the poet seems to be in control of the motorcycle.

Throughout the play, the short sections are introduced with titles which are sometimes contemplative, sometimes humorous. We have ‘Ziedonis and Suicide’, ‘Ziedonis and the Opera Toilet’ and, even, as the first act ends, the lovely ‘Ziedonis and the Intermission’. Can we not agree, dear Matti, that Hermanis is, at the very least, dealing with the national self-image of modern Latvia (by alighting upon its contemporary national poet) with an intelligence, sophistication and comedy which is, simultaneously, thought-provoking and generous (in stark contrast with the belligerence which so often attends nationalism or considerations of national identity)?

In closing, I must agree with your less-than-enthusiastic reception of the other Latvian production, Regnārs Vaivars’s Aija pēc Jaunsadrabiņa. Aside from my sharing your admiration of the actors’ ability to save themselves (and their audience) from injury as the bacchanalian scene became ever more extreme, I, too, found the characterisation of the wayward, but inevitably attractive, Aija somewhat predictable. Likewise, I found that the play’s apparent project – to face relatively cosmopolitan and prosperous Riga with the harsh economic realities of the Latvian countryside – was, like the characters’ tawdry, distressed party, too loud and, ultimately, too hollow.

Yours,

Mark

Dear Mark,

It is becoming increasingly difficult to claim a rediscovery of and to establish historical national heroes in small countries, because their competition is international pop stars. Fortunately, the Baltic playwrights rewrite history with a touch of irony. And when the occasion arises, the heroes are given an over-the-top performance by actors, such as in Ird, K. Even though all this does not rid their characters of the bittersweet taste of hindsight, it compels the spectators to consider just how much hindsight there is in their own understanding of historical truths, myths and beliefs. All this makes the characters identifiable in a way which is more intellectual than emotional. But, when these productions go long into their third hour, one feels that they cross the fine line between imparting myth-building information and boring self-indulgence.

von Krahl is an Estonian theatre group, which, since its inception in 1990, has had as its trademark a highly independent, punk spirit. The group disbanded briefly only to come together again for The End. The theatre has since continued its activities.

The End begins as a chant with candles and plenty of new-age atmosphere. The smile on my lips dies, because the obscure ceremony takes far too long to be a parody. Instead of exploding into a parody, it dissolves into kitchen sink realism, where the actors prepare a meal and eat it, while discussing their artistic motivation in an off-hand manner.

The six actors on stage wrote the text and directed themselves. The women are Mari Abel, Tiina Tauraite and Riina Maidre, the men Erki Laur, Taavi Eelmaa and Juhan Ulfsak. Toward the end, they share with each other their last wishes, the one thing which so far has remained unfulfilled.

In theory, I respect their audacity. Why indeed resort to historical heroes, when you can declare yourself a mythical figure. It is perfectly fair that the new Baltic independence should have grown new cultural heroes and role models. And more importantly, in von Krahl they are not founding fathers; in The End, women carry equal artistic weight. In practice, I must say that actors are not always philosophers or even playwrights. But because I have seen several von Krahl productions over the years, I take an interest in whatever phase they are going through, hoping it is not really the end.

Yours,

Matti

Dear Matti,

I am glad that you were able to engage with von Krahl’s The End in the context of the body of their work as whole. For me, encountering their theatre for the first time, it was an experience of growing irritation, culminating in near nausea.

The new age of the Estonian von Krahl Theatre’s performance is called The End.
The new age of the Estonian von Krahl Theatre’s performance is called The End.

At the outset of the show, I was hopeful that the ritual was ushering the audience into a work of genuinely sacred, tragic theatre; only the modern training shoes visible beneath the characters’ gowns undermined the sense of timeless spirituality. However, as the play shifted to a dreary kitchen sink scene (a sort of trendy, youthfully dysfunctional version of soap opera), and onto a (no doubt tongue-in-cheek) depiction of sci-fi futuristic apocalypse, I was increasingly astonished by the sheer extent of the company’s self-indulgence and naivety (to say nothing of my amazement at the tremendous enthusiasm for the production which was exhibited by the Estonian critics in attendance).

We are living, Matti, in times in which – in some parts of Europe, at least – the role of the playwright is seen as secondary, if not irrelevant. The idea that actors, as artists, can replace the playwright, collectively devising their own texts, is one manifestation of this; the ‘director’s theatre’, in which the directorial vision often eclipses the play itself, is another. Coming from the British context, in which devised work is still struggling to find its place in the theatrical mainstream, I am more than prepared to be excited by the approach of von Krahl (after all, I am a great admirer of such companies as Teatr Piesn Kozla from Poland, Akhe from Russia, and Victoria from Belgium, all of whom specialise in devised work).

However, von Krahl’s piece seems to me to lack dramaturgical discipline. The company’s fascination with themselves appears to be so boundless that they have become insensitive to and ignorant of the audience. Consequently, as you say, the opening, ritual scene is too long to be parodical; but also, I suggest, too flippant to be spiritual. The kitchen scene, despite its pretence to emotional and psychological weight, seems like the banal whining of pampered adolescents. Finally, the sci-fi apocalypse is so badly costumed as to seem like a music hall satire of Star Trek or Buck Rogers. Yet, there was, within its performance, no comic movement or dialogue to support that reading. On the contrary, von Krahl appeared to take themselves more seriously at this preposterous point than any other moment in their execrable work of self-indulgent postmodernism.

Yours sincerely,

Mark


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[1] Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald and a theatre and performing arts critic for the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph. He teaches in theatre studies and theatre criticism at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, for which he is also adjunct director of young critics’ seminars. He is a member of the editorial board of Critical Stages and English-language supervisor for the webjournal Prospero European Review. He is editor of the book Howard Barker interviews 1980-2010: Conversations in Catastrophe (published by Intellect Books).

Livanuori
[2] Matti Linnavuori (born 1955) edits the Performance Reviews Section for Critical Stages. He is a free lance theatre critic for Finnish newspaper Satakunnan Kansa. He has also written and directed radio plays for YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company.

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Baltic Theatre Seeks to Define Rather than Depict History