20 Groundbreaking Directors of Eastern Europe: 30 Years After the Fall of the Iron Curtain

Edited by Kalina Stefanova and Marvin Carlson
247 pp.  Palgrave Macmillan  

Reviewed by Ian Herbert*

Recent years have seen a growing interest in the theatres of those Eastern European countries who stepped out from under the stifling cultural influence of Soviet Russia after 1989. In this book, Kalina Stefanova and Marvin Carlson have gathered a set of assessments, by local critics and scholars, of some of the directors who have emerged over that period to acclaim in their own countries and beyond.

In a wide-ranging introduction, Stefanova, a Bulgarian critic, lets us meet many of these figures through vivid accounts of her own experience of their work. A preface by Carlson, an American scholar, is more modest: “I have unfortunately not seen a great number of the productions discussed in this informative collection,” he states, “but those I have been privileged to see I count among the most memorable of my international theatre experience.”

The aim of the book, says Stefanova, is “not to present a detailed analysis of the theatre in each and every country of the region . . . the directors included here have been major catalysts for a change in the face of Eastern European theatre at large during the last three decades.”

These introductions are followed by twenty essays on the directors, in alphabetical order, with two final chapters in which the subjects talk first about their major influences and then about the issues contemporary theatre faces today. Their reactions vary from one-line apothegms to serious and detailed responses, which each in their own idiosyncratic way give further clues to the directors’ true selves.

I would strongly advise against reading the essays as I did, in alphabetical order. Those interested in the work of a particular director will no doubt go straight to their entry. Otherwise it is perhaps more useful to look at them in chronological order. Here the book doesn’t help, in that many of the contributions do not give their subject’s date of birth. Some detective work establishes that these range from 1943 to 1979, with the earliest  (Andrei Serban and Kryztian Lupa 1943, Silviu Purcarete and Wlodzimierz Staniewski 1950, Rimas Tuminas and Eimuntas Nekrosius 1952) more heavily exposed to Russian influence, positively  (in that country’s superb tradition of theatre teaching) and negatively (in the scarring struggles for their own country’s political and cultural voice). This older generation has directly or indirectly influenced the younger directors who follow all the way down to the two Czech directors, born in 1978 and 1979 respectively.

I must declare a personal interest here, in that much of the period spanned by the book coincides with my own exposure to the riches of Eastern European theatre—in festivals, in the celebrations of the European Theatre Prize and even in its subjects’ far too occasional visits to my own country. (I was one of the two British critics who were there to be stunned by the visit of Gardzienice to London in 1992, with Grzegorz Bral in the cast of Avvakum and Carmina Burana). On many of these occasions, I had the pleasure of the company of Ms Stefanova herself. The result is that I found myself wanting to argue with many of the contributors’ choices of their subjects’ major works and longing for a full listing of their productions—which, I accept, would have made the book unwieldy. And, of course, I wanted to see other directors covered: why only two Hungarians when that country has been just as fortunate as Poland (six) in its wealth of significant directors? Where are the Estonians, like No 99? The Serbs? The Slovaks—my idol, J. A. Pitinski?

Carping aside, what shines throughout the book is the enthusiasm of those who have written about this powerful group of theatre influencers. Their approaches are varied: those covering committed, controversial directors such as Oliver Frljic or Jan Klata naturally spend time on politics, national or theatrical. Michal Zahalka sets Daniel Spinar firmly into the context of contemporary Czech theatre, a useful approach to those unfamiliar with the scene since the days of Havel.

Others look more closely at directing techniques, relationships with actors and what goes into the making of a production. Some describe a few individual productions in depth, others discourse on a complete career. The role of collaborators (designers, dramaturgs, composers) is highlighted in some accounts, sidelined in others. Others clutter their descriptions with long lists of actors, most unlikely to be known or needed in a broad international context.

It can be interesting to look at the varied treatment of the six Polish directors. You can trace the development of Song of the Goat from its origins in Gardzienice, or you can look at the influence of Lupa on the directors he taught in Krakow. Lupa’s arc is perhaps more conventional, while the first two directors are more in the tradition of Polish experimentalists such as Kantor and Grotowski, who figure in the careers of other directors in the book. The essay on Jarzyna devotes a lot of space to his collaboration with Warlikowski in Teatr Rozmaitosci. The Warlikowski piece gives Jarzyna barely a mention.

It has to be said the while nearly all of the contributions are well written, carefully researched and full of interest, one or two of them could have benefited from closer editorial scrutiny—they read as stilted translations. And the editors have been very poorly served by Palgrave Macmillan’s proofreaders: there are more errors than one expects in a serious scholarly work. For instance, one might have expected almost anyone involved to notice that Nekrosius’ dates are given in Rasa Vasinauskaite’s second line as “1952–1918.”

The book, which looks at the consequences of the world-shattering events of 1989, was itself mostly written at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2021. Both events colour the thoughts of the directors on the future of theatre itself and their own place in it. The last word should probably well go to Romanian-born Andrei Serban, still producing thrilling work after more than fifty years in the business:

Who am I? Who are you? And why are we doing theatre? These questions that I had as a young artist are the same now. I want all of us to get more interested in what is essential—beyond politics, style, beyond everything which becomes a cliché, which becomes old tomorrow. 

*Ian Herbert is a former President of the International Association of Theatre Critics. A past Chairman of the U.K.’s Society for Theatre Research, he is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he founded in 1981 as London Theatre Record. He was its editor and publisher from 1981–2003. He also edited the technical journal Sightline from 1984–91 and several editions of the International Theatre Institute’s publication World of Theatre. He has written extensively on stage design and served as a jury member for both the Prague Quadriennal and the biennial exhibition of World Stage Design. He was European Editor for the two volumes of World Scenography. He is currently a board member of the Europe Theatre Prize and a trustee of the U.K. Critics’ Circle.

Copyright © 2021 Ian Herbert
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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