16th Europe Theatre Prize Festivities in Rome, Italy, December 12-17, 2017
Attending the theatrical productions of the 16th Europe Prize festivities, I was less intrigued by the acting than by the scenic and costume choices. Yet, too often, I felt that these elements—as impressive as they were—did not comfortably meld with and enhance the productions. An example was the first play presented at the festival.
Awarded the Europe Prize in 1994, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti returned with his play Re Lear
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s treatment of William Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy was set in modern times, with the characters arrayed in sport coats, slacks and gowns in bright crayon colors by Francesco Esposito, responsible for set and costumes designs. Furniture was lowered on ropes from the fly space above the stage; platforms and tall metal bridges with stairs were wheeled on and off stage for characters to climb.
Most arresting was Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s introduction of “post avantgarde” videographics in Re Lear. An example: a huge back wall projection of Lear’s two daughters lying down, each pointing a leg at the audience as if they were twins conjoined at the hips. Lear makes his entrance through an opening in the screen at that sexual apex. I recognize that Barberio Corsetti was providing an “interpretation” or “meditation” on King Lear, but as a student and teacher of Shakespeare for over thirty years, I longed for madness and redemption rather than midlife crisis.
Video was present in other plays as well. Indeed, the performance of the Münchner Kammerspiele production of The Virgin Suicides, directed by Susanne Kennedy, that I saw was so technologically overburdened that the curtain was delayed for an hour due to “technical difficulties.” The program listed Rodrik Biersteker as responsible for “video.” Teresa Vergho’s wild costumes had the boys in the story dressed as manga dolls in white nightgowns and masks with large blue eyes and elaborate hair. Timothy Leary was invoked for “a journey out of your mind.”
Video provided one of the repeated enactments of Robert Wilson’s reincarnation of his 1986 production of Heiner Müller’s elusive Hamletmachine (1977). Müller has, however, given us an inkling of what he was up to:
My texts are written so every or every second sentence shows the tip of the iceberg, and what is underneath is nobody’s business. Then the theatre people put on their wetsuits and dive down looking for the iceberg or building their own.
Luckily, according to Müller, one director has used his dramatic scuba gear to delve for the iceberg the most successfully. Müller called Wilson’s mounting of Hamletmachine “the best production ever” because, “Wilson never interprets; a text is simply there, and it is served up, and not tainted in any way and not explained. It is there.”
“Being there” was also important in Italian Alessandro Sciarroni’s choreographed performance piece paradoxically called UNTITLED_ I will be there when you die. Four young men toss juggling clubs into the air and catch them in ever more complex patterns—accompanied by an electronic soundscape. Sciarroni has explained, “In this [juggling] repetitiveness, the time we give ourselves is extremely stretched out so to leave space for meditation.” I found that the time being “extremely stretched out” came dangerously close to boredom.
Shakespeare was better served in renowned German director Peter Stein’s Teatro Metastasio di Prato production of Richard II. Though seldom performed, the play has a fascinatingly flawed central figure and beautiful passages of poetry. Again, the acting did not impress me as much as the scenic design by Ferdinand Woegerbauer and costume design by Anna Maria Heinreich. Director Stein positioned his richly clad actors with the precision and balance of a Renaissance painter. The aborted jousting scene offers a fine example. Richard and his entourage were seated behind a cutout in the dark backdrop overlooking the field of combat. A rich tapestry hung beneath them. Flanked by opulently appareled heralds, the Lord Marshall stood in a white robe, black sleeves and a long sash over his left shoulder. The combatants wore two marvelous sets of chain mail and armor, and carried massive lances. Shakespeare had Richard stop the combat before it began, but Stein, understandably, had the participants lunge at each other twice before the King stopped the proceedings. It was a memorable scene.
To play King Richard, Peter Stein chose his wife, the excellent actress Maddalena Crippa. She presented a powerful and focused King Richard, but I did not find the self-centered, impetuous, poetic king that I think the first part of the play calls for. The actress was better, I thought, in the scenes that followed Richard’s deposition. Her rendering of the captive Richard’s final speech before being assassinated was touching. There was strong support from Alessandro Averone (Bolingbroke), Laurence Mazzoni (Aurmerle) and Graziano Piazza (Bishop of Carlisle). But Stein’s production of Richard II was three hours long with intermission, and some audience members became restive. The performance deserved better.
The last production was a rollicking, yet heartfelt, musical revue designed—on the classical model—to entertain and educate. Roma Armee, by Israeli playwright Yael Ronan and her ensemble of actors at Gorki Theatre in Berlin, had a compelling European immediacy with actors from Austria, England, Germany, Kosovo, Romania, Serbia and Sweden. The subject is the Romani, or Roma, the landless itinerant people concentrated in Europe and the Americas but widely spread around the world. In English, they are known by the often-derogatory term “Gypsy,” related to the misbelief that they originated in Egypt.
The Romani have no homeland or origin story or written history. For centuries, they have wandered, connected by the Romani language and by Romanipen, a complex mix of culture, spirit and law that features an ideal of freedom. Roma often meet resistance from the natives of the countries they inhabit and their lives teeter between maintaining their ethnic identity and assimilating with their neighbors. Roma Armee gives them a voice.
Powerful feminist spokeswomen for the Romani people, sisters Sandra and Simonida Selimović, provided “a collective act of self-empowering artistic action” with director Ronen to develop the play. A fantasized backdrop map emblazoned “Gypsyland Europa”—designed by the late Damian Le Bas and his wife Damiane—was variously highlighted during the opening musical number. The company of eight (six Roma and two gadjé—non-Romani) were costumed by Delaine Le Bas and Maria Júlia Ubaldino Abreu in riotous outfits that often suggested gender ambiguity and fluidity. Vocalists Riah May Knight and Lindy Larsson brought Broadway and the Met in their duets. The Selimović sisters rapped in what I am told was a Serbian punk rock style. Yaniv Fridel and Ofer Shabi were responsible for the rousing rhythms. This musical history of Roma discrimination, oppression and exclusion swirls with confessions, denunciations and demands for change. No one can deny the sincerity of their insurrectionary message.
*Barry Gaines is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of New Mexico, where he taught Shakespeare from 1979 to 2009. He reviewed theatre in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, for fifteen years, and is the former Administrator of ATCA, the American Theatre Critics Association. He is currently editing a volume for The Complete Works of Thomas Heywood for Oxford University Press.