A Promising Restart: The “Mini” Showcase of Bulgaria’s National Theatre

Savas Patsalidis*

Abstract

In an era of seismic change, what is the role of a national theatre?  To whom is it addressed and with what material? How is it domestic and / or foreign? These are the basic questions which the new artistic administration of Sofia’s National Theatre addressed in their first mini showcase in March. This report aims to provide a critical overview of the entire event with short analyses of each of the five productions, three of which bore the signature of a foreign director, a choice which a few years back would have caused endless rows. However, this is not the case now: change is clearly underway.

Keywords: National Theatre, Sofia, Robert Wilson, Timofey Kulyabin, Jerneij Lorenci, Galin Stoev, Diana Dobreva

The National Theatre of Sofia “Ivan Vazov” has chosen to celebrate its 120th birthday by introducing a mini showcase of selected performances from the last two years, largely as a result of its decision to redefine its goals as a National Theatre. What are or should those objectives and priorities be? In an era of seismic change, what is its role? To whom is it addressed and with what material? How is it domestic and / or foreign?

 The argument of local connoisseurs of Bulgarian theatre is that since the fall of the communist regime in 1990 until recently no radical breakthrough has been attempted to bring the country’s largest theatre closer to the rapid socio-political changes which define the era. With this in mind, the new management of the theatre, under the leadership of Vasil Vasilev, believes that now is the time for such a breakthrough; now is the time for a national theatre of greater and more systematic extroversion through various projects, such as the Mini Showcase under discussion, conceived as a platform to promote high-quality domestic productions from among the existing repertoire of the National Theatre. To this end, a new department of international relations was established, under the direction of Mladev Alexiev; whose purpose is to initiate and enhance constructive, systematic and outward-looking exchanges with cultural groups whose theatre communities are highly evolved.

The National Theatre “Ivan Vazov”. Photo: Web/Wikipedia/Creative Commons. Attribution: Plamen Agov • studiolemontree.com

In this first festival edition, from 27 February to 2 March 2024, five major productions were hosted; three of these bore the signature of renowned foreign artists, thereby indicating the intentions of the new artistic administration. As members of the National Theatre noted, such a decision in the past would have provoked a storm of reactions from stakeholders arguing that policies like these bypass and ignore domestic artistic potential. Of course, there were still tensions and disagreements, mainly on social media, about the fact that in the present Showcase more foreign as opposed to local directors were featured, even though local artists participated, including Diana Dobreva, a leading Bulgarian actress and director and Galin Stoev, the famous director who lives in France.  However, the discussion of foreign versus local was more attenuated this year, and thus bodes well for the future.

Miscellanea

The inauguration of the first professional theatre in Bulgaria dates back to 1904 with the company “Tears and Laughter” (Salza i Smyah), the group that established itself as the official company of the National Theatre,  now located in the centre of Sofia, the capital city, next to the most prominent buildings of the city, such as the parliament, various ministries and large banks.

Like other national theatres in Europe and elsewhere, the Bulgarian National Theatre “Ivan Vazov” occupies a dominant position in the spatial hierarchy of the country’s dynamic institutions: it is visible and imposing. As the artistic “home” of Bulgarian identity, it has always made its presence strongly felt. It has four stages, a large one with 700 seats and three smaller ones, from 135 seats to 50. These venues host 10 new productions each season, and as is the case with all repertory theatres, especially theatres in former Soviet countries, the performances are not discarded once they run their planned course; they are rather stored for many years.

Currently, the National Theatre of Bulgaria attracts about 150,000 spectators per year, and employs 70 permanent actors and two permanent directors. Significantly, in Bulgaria, unlike many other countries, theatre professionals cannot direct in State theatres unless they have earned a director’s diploma.  In the following section, highlights are provided of the productions hosted at this first showcase edition.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Robert Wilson, who was invited to direct Shakespeare’s play, needs no introduction, especially to European audiences, since most of his artistic career has been developed in Europe. In the 50 or more years he has been directing, he has staged 186 productions and many revivals, and has distinguished himself as a director with a very recognizable stage language. In each of his performances, rhythm, musicality, precision of body and stylized hand movement, timing, and white face makeup are crucial to the development of his stage world. For him, the stage clearly differs from reality. He believes that an actor trying to act naturally on stage “is too artificial…. If you accept that it’s fake, then in the process it feels more natural.”

Plamen Dimov and Veselin Mezekliev in The Tempest. Photo: Gergana Damianova, courtesy of the National Theatre

Within the limits of this form, the actors in his performances call our attention not so much to their human elements as to the service they offer, points of reference in a very complex and rigorously mapped world of images and choreographies. They are no longer the privileged centre, the beginning or end of action and discourse; neither is the author’s text, which is similarly defocused. The actors are treated as performative material among many other types of material, such as sound, colour, light and objects, all composed to create a dreamlike stage world. This technique allows and sometimes forces viewers to attempt their own hermeneutic assemblages, even if they are unable to fully grasp the meaning of the symbols, historical references and relationships featured in the performance.

The Tempest. Photo: Gergana Damianova, courtesy of the National Theatre

The Tempest is Wilson’s fifth engagement with Shakespeare (preceded by: King Lear in Frankfurt 1990, HAMLET: a Monologue, performed by Wilson first in Houston 1995, A Winter’s Tale 2005, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets 2009 at the Berliner Ensemble). The work of German dramaturg Jutta Ferbers succeeded in simplifying somewhat the intricate plot network of the original, placing more emphasis on some of the negative elements of the human character such as greed, malice and wickedness.

With this performative text in hand, Wilson covered the story with an aura of a fairy tale, inhabited by strange beings who introduce themselves to us before their dream-like adventure starts. They appear, one after another, with an emphatic grotesque look, lest they be plucked directly from the bowels of the Cabaret tradition. Immediately after, in a most impressive rendering of a raging storm, Wilson performs his characteristic small miracles with lighting, the “tool” he uses to create space and character. Without light there is no space, he claims. Light, in his aesthetics, is the most important element because it enables us to listen better and to see things more clearly. It is no coincidence that the lighting is handled almost exclusively by him. As his collaborators say, in any one of his performances, Wilson can require up to 2000 lighting cues. 

In The Tempest, his first work on Bulgarian soil, Wilson uses light and color to emphasize the unreal dimension of the performance. He allows no traces of naturalism, no psychologisms to penetrate and disturb this “unreality.” It is all about time, place and form, the showcasing of the art of theatre as an other place, but also the depiction of reality as a permanently elusive location, that suggests the perpetual play between truth and lie, light and fog that goes past Shakespeare’s times and embraces the world.

The Tempest. Photo: Gergana Damianova, courtesy of the National Theatre

In this heterotopic and ever-present environment, Veselin Mezekliev’s Prospero, without posing, without babbling, without wasting energy on indifferent issues, succeeded with ease and skill in bridging the gap between fairy tale and reality, the then and now of history and the here and now of the performance. His dramatic persona conveyed wisdom and generosity but also projected solemnity matched with a keen sense of humor.

Zhaklin Daskalva embodied a Miranda-child that radiated joy and sweet innocence. Vasilena Vincenzo, in the ethereal role of Ariel, left her distinct imprint on the action. And the young Yavor Valkanov’s Caliban made his mark very precisely, indicating his wild nature with moderation and controlled projection of the grotesque.

Overall, the management of body and gesture displayed the strict geometry of Wilson’s stage aesthetics. Density, symmetry and physical synchronicity were predominant, all in accordance with the strict structure of the formalistic concept of the entire performance. And humor was there, an indispensable element in all Wilson productions. To their credit, all 15 actors in the cast performed with gusto and dedication this reading of The Tempest. They performed in a constructed stage cosmos without psychologisms and make-belief.

In such a stage universe of magic and precision, one can’t help but mention the staff of collaborators with whom the director constructs these stage worlds. That said, the decisive work of both the visual artist Marcello Lumaca and the costume designer Yashi was crucial in creating a particular set of images on stage; they skillfully depicted the director’s loyalty to Prospero’s dictum that we are made of the stuff of dreams.

Wilson has been called a pioneer and an avant-garde, yet what is worth mentioning is that he discovered the avant-garde through the classics. And this is clearly the case with The Tempest, which may not have offered anything new in terms of Wilson’s stage language, yet it incorporated all the key elements that distinguish him as a major figure of the theatre in the present era.

Sasha Denisova, The Hague 

The Hague, by Ukrainian-born playwright Sasha Denisova, premiered in Poland in February 2023 and shortly thereafter in Boston before joining the repertoire of the Bulgarian National Theatre. Situated between documentary and dramatic theatre, the play aims to illuminate various aspects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine while exposing the grotesque, deliberately distorted portraits of leading figures involved in the war, such as the now-deceased Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen Ramzan Kadyrov.

Radena Valkanova and Kremena Deyanova in The Hague. Photo: Boryana Pandova, courtesy of the National Theatre

The action is set in the Hague tribunal, where Russian President Putin (played by Radena Valkanova) is on trial for crimes against humanity. The main story events occur in the mind of a little girl, who has recorded all her war-related experience and trauma in a diary. Her emotional world defines the non-linear structure of the events, the order and sequence of the images. The play could therefore be seen as a theatrical fantasy, a postmodern fabrication that combines, in a deliberately disorderly fashion, harsh reality with fairy tale, and dream with nightmare.

The young actress Kremena Deyanova, in her role of the little girl, delivered a well-balanced performance, convincing and moving. The efforts and enthusiasm of the entire cast were also commendable. They showed skill and faith in what they were called to do, yet the play overall needed further development and refinement in order to obtain more compact and readable performative stage dynamics.

Radina Kardjilova and Hristo Petkov in The Hague. Photo: Boryana Pandova, courtesy of the National Theatre

Galin Stoev, one of the best known Bulgarian directors, commenting on his involvement with this play, said that this was the first time he has directed a play so close in time to the dramatized events.  So from the beginning he set the goal to achieve “the best possible coexistence between the political elements of the play and the more poetic ones, between the elements of  myth and current news.”  He did a noble job, but not to the point of achieving the longed-for harmony of the play’s components. As briefly mentioned above, his performance text still needed further directorial editing in order to better integrate its individual elements and thus acquire a denser flow and a clearer focus and thread of continuity.

Moby Dick, based on the novel by Herman Melville

Inspired by Herman Melville’s novel of the same title (1851), with the signature of Alexander Sekulov, the performance had many strong and commendable points; however, as a whole, I felt it somehow failed to maintain throughout a strong organizing principle to help us understand the absurd and utterly selfish struggle of Captain Ahab. We did not clearly see the dimensions and connotations of this confrontation between man and nature, the sea and the whale, nor did we fully understand the captain’s motives which led him on such an arduous and deadly voyage.  Instead, we were left wondering where his stubbornness and suicidal selfishness came from.

Pequod, Ahab’s ship and the chorus of women waiting to hear the bad news about their men who are on board. Actors: Paraskeva Dzhukelova, Bilyana Petrinska, Vyara Tabakova , Eva Tepavicharova, Albena Stavreva, Elena Ivanova, and Martina Peneva. Photo: Alexander Bogdan Thompson, courtesy of the National Theatre

Nevertheless, there were many virtues, especially stagecraft, in this demanding performance directed by the talented Diana Dobreva. Petko Tanchev’s excellent wave-like images with the continuous projections and Yavor Karagitliev’s soundscape, Ilya Pashnin’s atmospheric lighting score, and Marina Raychinova’s impressive costumes also created a strongly felt dynamic, an apocalyptic feel which would have been even more effective had they more fully converged with the story itself, a story with lofty but unclarified intentions.

Dobreva’s direction was more focused on the visual elements, a choice which I believe detracted from the human element, the personal vision and dream, the question of how far someone is willing to go. In other words, the inner agony of the quest was not strongly felt. In this regard, one could claim that technology turned out to be the measure of all things, mostly at the expense of the human element.

In any case, the virtues of the performance outweigh any weaknesses one can claim in terms of story, and this is enough to recommend it without reservation. It is, in its own special way, a rich and mesmerizing experience.

Moby Dick. Promo trailer
Orpheus

Slovenian director Jerneij Lorenci’s intertextual and intratextual Orpheus (dramaturg, Matic Starina) is a continuation and development of his impressive work with the Iliad undertaken a few years ago. The director displays great ingenuity and inventiveness in his poetic treatment of the myth of Orpheus and his descent into the Underworld in search of his beloved Eurydice, which he enriches with references to poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke and music by Christoph Willibald Gluck. He nicely weaves together and delivers a cluster of performative texts, subtexts and micronarratives with great subtlety and skill, focusing on the basic motifs of the ancient myth, such as death, love and the search for the unknown.

Orpheus’s opening scene. The dead body takes center stage. Actors: Deyan Donkov, Darin Angelov, Dimitar Nikolov, Valentin Ganev. Photo: Stefan N. Shterev, courtesy of the National Theatre

On a stage with a few chairs, a piano, a projection machine, microphones and scattered objects used by the actors during the performance, we witness a world of myth and reality unfolding before us. Colored with the personal stories of the actors, this world is ours, yet it is unknown; it is bright, but at the same time dark and threatening; it offers joy, but at the same time imposes sadness and sorrow as well.

The first scene takes place in an unspecified time and location. It is deliberately violent, and functions to encapsulate the suffering of every war, anywhere, anytime. Center stage an actor is lying on a divan, covered by a huge piece of meat into which the soldiers frantically nail their arrows. This extremely violent image, immediately reinforced afterward by another image of the actors placing the meat in the blender, denotes the meat grinder of war.

The next scene depicts the wedding of the young lovers, which mingles with the personal (postdramatic)  and mostly improvised reflections of the actors. After Eurydice is bitten by the snake, the question of what happens to the body when it dies enters the rationale of the play’s text. We then learn that Eurydice is pregnant as we hear the beat of the baby’s heart through ultrasound. The irony is quite obvious: a dead body is still carrying new life. With this image we arrive just before the break when Orpheus’ ritual preparation to descend to Hades begins. Actors close his mouth (Plamen Dimov) with tape and douse him with blood. At the end of the performance, and after several deviations from the original narrative, Orpheus’ body is rotting and his head is covered in clay, as he calls out the name of his beloved in vain.

The set design of Branko Hojnik, the music score of Branko Rozman, the choreography of Gregor Lustek and the costumes of Belinda Radulovic enhance the production with captivating stage and acoustic effects. This performance offers a complex, demanding and inviting interpretation of the particular myth that revolves rhythmically and ceaselessly around the divine and the human, the visible and the invisible, the beautiful and the terrible, life and death, the beauty of well-being and the nightmare of war. We witness fifteen dedicated and gifted actors who invest all their energy in a difficult performative challenge, demanding yet joyful and exhilarating, a work worthy of the name of this charismatic director who always finds a way to charm us.

Nora after Henrik Ibsen

Forty-year-old Timofey Kulyabin, a very popular Russian director, presented a superb stage interpretation of Ibsen’s (1879) masterpiece, featuring a Nora of our time, similar to the woman next door.

Without alterations or cuts, Kulyabin transformed most of the live dialogue of the original into an online catfight of exchanges on WhatsApp, thus successfully highlighting further the loneliness of the modern-day Nora in her dollhouse, where she has been imprisoned by her patriarchal husband Torvald.

The performance unfolds on the versatile premises of a trichotomized space, created by Oleg Golovko’s sets, where each part functions independently yet also relates to the other two parts as a counterpoint. For example, one set of spaces features a restaurant, a beauty salon and the dance centre where Nora learns to dance the tarantella.  Another space depicts Torvald’s office, where business is conducted as usual; at another moment, the same space becomes Krogstad’s office and finally, the couple’s home, where the most intense and heart-wrenching scenes unfold. For example, the guests celebrate in Torvalds’ living room while at the same time, Nora is tormented by her own daemons in the bathroom. In another scene, the couple’s child sleeps with his nanny in one space that represents a bedroom, while in another space depicting a second bedroom, the couple struggles with their own problems. In this way, the director, by creating three spaces,  manages to project three different narratives in terms of style, mood and intensity, yet also complementary.

Radina Kardjilova (Nora) in the bathroom of her house sending messages to her husband. Photo: Stefan N. Shterev, courtesy of the National Theatre

Above the stage, the dialogues are projected from WhatsApp. In a series of scenes with no audible oral speech, the only sound to be heard is that of a message being sent. While this technique functions to remove the head-on conflict from the Ibsenic original, it also allows the director to underline with chilling precision the evolution of human relations, slowly depersonalized even as they become more violent, heartless and uncontrollable. The couple is rarely seen in the same place, and in those few instances when they are adjacent to each other, they communicate with each other through their mobile phones; this form of communication clearly leaves its imprint on the actors’ stage behavior.

In drama schools, actors are called upon to create functional body chemistry in one-on-one interactions with other actors and react to the presence and speech of others. In Kulyabin’s production, however, this form of body communication does not apply; instead, each actor must react individually to the messages of the dialogue posted online. Thus, actors whom we saw playing in the previous performances of the Mini Festival in completely different roles, we see returning here, in a performance completely different and technically very demanding, each of them demonstrating readiness and impressive acting flexibility in the face of new performative data.

To illustrate the atmosphere of detached hostility created on stage, I turn to an apocalyptic scene close to the end of the play, when the couple and their child are in the same room. To prevent their child from hearing what they are saying, they exchange a carousel of unpleasant messages through their mobile phones as the child, unaware of their confrontation, is happy and carefree as he plays with his toys. At this moment, Nora announces to her husband that she does not want to serve anyone but herself: she has made up her mind to leave. Neither of them shouts because neither hears the other’s voice. The climax of their conversation occurs during the famous finale of the play, where Nora, in the original, forcefully slams the door in her husband’s face and leaves.

 Some critics might describe this scene as a deafening inauguration of modern theatre, while others view it as the birth of the so-called New Woman; both characterizations are apt.  In Kulyabin’s production, there is no sound of a door closing, but rather a sobering visual internet message, “I’m leaving you,” and silence which implies mystery and terror. The ending of this production differs from that of the original, with the abrupt and noisy closing of the door, in that the message, while silent, will continue to shock the recipient: it is permanent, lacking the transience of the first, and cannot be erased, remaining on the internet forever.

To appreciate this important directorial innovation, one must try to imagine it as a young person would see it; that is, as a “digital native,” as opposed to “digital immigrant.” After the performance, fellow critics among the older “internet immigrants” observed disapprovingly that the intensity of human relationships in the original was missing in Kulyabin’s production; I would agree that the vitality of live communication was absent. In fact, there were moments when online communication caused a kind of mental paralysis, yet I think that was exactly the point: powerful technology has come between people and has defined the style and manner of their coexistence. I could not imagine a more powerful and cruel yet modern interpretation of the play than this one.

 All those who contributed to this exemplary performance of a modernized play were outstanding, particularly the actors. Radina Kardzilova’s interpretation of Nora was excellent, as a fragile and airy young woman, enveloped in an aura of melancholy. Ivan Yurukov’s portrayal of Torvald, the patriarchal figure of the family, was equally impressive: selfish, and self-interested, he displayed a singular and obsessive interest in his career and his good reputation amongst his social milieu.

All in all, dramaturg Roman Dolzhansky and Kulyabin presented a revolutionary Ibsen in the age of sweeping high technology with its communication dynamics and also chilling and distancing effects.

I would strongly recommend this performance to anyone who has the opportunity to see it. It is a theatre experience that speaks to now.

Conclusion

Overall, the first edition of the Mini Festival of the National Theatre was quite successful, and the performances had the quality worthy of a large subsidized national organization. It will be interesting to see the follow-up to this first event, and its impact on the physiognomy of Bulgarian theatre in general. 


*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year.  In 2022 his latest book-length study Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter, was published by University Studio Press.  He is on the Executive Committee of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics  and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2024 Savas Patsalidis
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