Draama, Annual Showcase of Estonian theatre, Tartu, September 2012.
The final performance in this year’s Draama festival in Tartu was The Avantgardist, a curious ritual devised by Johannes Veski in which two bowler-hatted gentlemen in cutaway suits took a very long time to hang various items from the steel frame of their stage. Prominent among these items was a large cross, to which a bible was ceremonially nailed. One of the men was then stripped, washed, and helped on to what might be another cross, where he ‘preached’ through a TV set put over his head. Bread was distributed to the audience. Finally a third character arrived, a naked alien riding a makeshift spacecraft, on which he took the naked human away in a shower of sparks. The ‘alien’ had a tube leading from his backside to his reptilian mask of a face, suggesting that he might be talking through his arse. A short exposure to some of the shows in Tartu led one to wonder whether this might be a metaphor for the state of Estonian, and perhaps Baltic theatre today.
My small knowledge of Estonian theatre tells me that it includes two cutting edge groups, No99 and Von Krahl, and some interesting playwrights such as Jaan Tätte and Martin Algus. I have much respect for its fine directors, including Elmo Nüganen and Priit Pedajas. It was good to see several of these names appearing in the programme selected this year by the distinguished actress and translator, Anu Lamp, under the title ‘In Focus: the Actor’. This, plus the opportunity to see work from the two other Baltic countries in the parallel Baltic Theatre Festival, were what persuaded me to attend.
In the event I was only in Tartu long enough to catch half of the shows on offer, a situation aggravated by the tight programming that put some shows alongside one another rather than sequentially. On my first, long day it was possible to see only two productions, because we were driven first for more than two hours to the Saueaugu Theatre Farm, deep in the country, to see Sounds of the Plains by Jaan Kruusvall, who died this year. Saueaugu is an interesting example of Estonian summer theatre, a converted barn that is apparently stiflingly hot in the season but was extremely cold for our visit. The play, an honest attempt to examine the emptiness facing much of rural Estonia, as its population leaves for work in the city or abroad, won an award from the Estonian Culture Fund last year, but to the less concerned outsider seems at times as empty as the landscape it depicts. Chekhovian in style – even to the extent of almost directly quoting Sonja’s closing speech from Uncle Vanya – it makes much of the unspoken relationships and longings of its characters, but those characters are insufficiently drawn to engage us, and in the play’s second half undergo an increasingly ludicrous series of catastrophes that destroys all hope of serious reaction.
Another long drive then took us to Tallinn’s Old Town, where in one of the small, finely furnished houses that make up the City Theatre we saw Elmo Nüganen’s elegant production of J B Priestley’s 1937 time-play, Time and the Conways. With its two time-settings, just following one World War and preceding the next, there is a political shadow overhanging the play that Nüganen is not slow to note, but the real joy of the play lies in its rich cast of fully worked characters, here beautifully delivered by the City theatre’s young actors, who developed from a rather shrill first act to show their full range over the evening’s twenty-year span. Set and costumes, by the top Latvian team of Andris Freibergs and Kristine Pasternaka, are unashamedly local, with the 1919 scenes dominated by a very Baltic stove that gives way to central heating in 1937. But the play remains universal, a welcome reminder of the power of the well made play that gives its actors every opportunity to shine.
On our bus ride we were shown extracts from one of No99’s recent pieces, the sprawling Big Feast, a collage of improvisation set around the preparation, consumption and evacuation of an enormous meal. I think I might have more enjoyed No99‘s actual contribution to the festival, a restrained delivery (I’m told) of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. I did see a work in progress in which the group’s director, Tiit Ojasoo, is preparing a take on Anton Makarenko’s Pedagogical Poem with his students from the Estonian Academy, for presentation in Perm in October. The students showed great discipline, teamwork and predictable energy in what without translation seemed little more than a series of powerful rehearsal room exercises, but it will be interesting to discover how it is received by the Russian audience for whom it is destined.
It was a pleasure to see Von Krahl back in action after a short self-imposed break. Their offering was an unashamedly theatrical version of Lorca’s Dona Rosita, hell-bent on style, exemplified in both its acting and its exotic sets and costumes from Laura Pählapuu. This has brought Rainer Sarnet’s production brickbats from the Estonian critics, but I loved its colour and energy, especially in the more extrovert and successfully poetic first act, in which the young Rosita, singing beautifully, leads her parasol-wielding companions up the steps of the Alhambra in a graceful dance to Mauno Meesit’s music. Rosita’s transition from red-blooded youthful passion through white-clad waiting to the drooping hopelessness of old age is finely played by Mari Pokinen, though she was let down by the director’s (or designer’s?) decision to make her a stooping crone in the heart-wrenching final act.
It was the Estonian and Latvian contributions to the parallel Baltic Festival, which is supposed to present the best theatre of the year from each of the three nations, that aroused my doubts about the direction Baltic theatre is taking today. The Blossoming, presented by the Estonian Drama Theatre, suggests that the usually reliable Martin Algus has fallen victim to the ‘whispered theatre’ of modern Japan, or perhaps the muttered theatre of late Martin Crimp and Jon Fosse. It opens with a couple decorating their new summer home. They paint a couple of frames. What follows is little more interesting than watching that paint dry. A series of short, disconnected scenes shows all too clearly the urban ennui of a group of friends who are busy cuckolding one another, then abruptly moves into another world of complete fantasy. The opening scenes are made more bearable by their soundtrack, a walk through the vinyl collection of DJ Ingomar Vihmar, and it comes as a pleasant if irrelevant surprise when the play finally degenerates into a rather competent singalong from the suffering cast. Something tells me (perhaps it was the appallingly dull set and its jumble sale furnishings) that this is an attempt to assign the woes of present day Estonia to the effects of living under Soviet control. There are surely better ways of doing this.
The Latvian National Theatre brought us another piece of self-absorption in The End, in which a group of perfectly competent actors allowed themselves to be cruelly gulled by their director, Elmars Senkovs, into making total prats of themselves. Over the period of a couple of months in which they were creating the show—a loose collection of devised sketches that would be laughed off the stage by most amateur groups—they allowed themselves to be filmed as they gave their opinions about the process of creation, their fellow cast members and the world in general, with a few thoughts in particular about ‘The End’, and what it meant to them. The filmed results, interspersed among the sketches, are acutely embarrassing to the actors, revealing them to have all the ego and ignorance that can be expected of most average members of the profession. On stage, surrounded by a plethora of furniture, props, wigs, costumes and all the aids that an actor can hope to have for support, they perform perfectly adequately and just occasionally very well indeed. On film, they are simply there to demonstrate that it is not a great idea to let most actors loose without the aid of a text, or at the very least a sympathetic and creative director. Anu Lamp’s theme for the Drama Festival was In Focus: the Actor. This production sadly shows how wickedly revealing that focus might be.
 Ian Herbert is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he edited and published from 1981-2003. He edited the technical journal Sightline, 1984-91. He writes regularly for theatre journals worldwide, including a fortnightly column in The Stage newspaper. President 2001-2008 of the International Association of Theatre Critics, he is now an Honorary President. A board member of the Europe Theatre Prize, he is also past Chairman of the Society for Theatre Research in London and a trustee of the Critics’ Circle. He is a visiting professor of three US universities and has lectured in many countries of the world.