Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Really Happened in Lutsk?

I was privileged to be the guest of Wandering Hanger Theatre Festival in Lutsk, Ukraine last month. As it was part of my brief, I tried to write some reflections, but they were not always good - sometimes nonsense. This naturally happens when you write criticism of theatre that is in a language you don't understand. The result is more like an impressionist painting than an accurate reflection.

To supplement my own writing, below is the perspective of Kiev art critic Olha Velymchanytsi, who, in contrast to myself, was able to comprehend all of the performances (with the exception of the Georgian group, whose language was understood by relatively few), and who generously allowed me to translate and publish her writing.

Her thoughts will also be published (in Ukrainian) at Kino-Teart magazine #1, 2014 -

Wandering Hanger

by Olha Velymchanytsia

The International Festival Wandering Hanger, was held in Lutsk from 27 to 29 September for the first time. It featured a strong and cohesive team of organisers – the theater-studio Garmyder - and, importantly, a clear concept - "theatre outside the theatre".
The theatrical exploration of different city spaces began with the Opening Ceremony, which took place at a children's railway. Drums beat and cameras flashed to welcome to the station a train crowded with festival participants – independent theatres from all over Ukraine and abroad, anticipating a full program of theatre and art and a city not yet known. Participants followed “Mandrishak”, a walking clothes rack - the symbol of festival.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

With just how little can one make a piece of theatre? With a word? An empty space? An agreement? Perhaps a single metaphor is enough.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was written in 2010, one year after the 'Green Revolution' that swept Iran, by an Iranian playwright who cannot leave his own country. It takes the form of a part appeal, part wide-ranging monologue from its narrator, writer Nassim Soleimanpour, employing the voice and body of a different actor each night, who has never read the play - on Thursday night played by dramaturg and Israeli national Ariel Nil Levy.

House lights on, and somewhat awkward introductory formalities over, the actor opens the envelope and begins to read. We are immediately addressed by the author of the play - lamenting his English skills, describing his surroundings, and giving occasional instructions to the actor.

Cue a suite of meta-theatrical devices, shaped in a kind of 'load the gun, fire it, repeat' loop, which call attention to how theatre functions whilst acting as loose metaphors for the context of the writer.

Given that the writer lives in Iran, it's a surprisingly amicable text. Where it would have been perhaps accurate, given, say, the brutal crackdown in the wake of the 2009 protests, to offer the audience a violent silence - we get a surprisingly generous monologue, hinting at some ideas relating to human behaviour under oppression, occasionally calling on the audience to participate, ever-careful never to put us offside. Occasional precarious moments - a list of the methods of suicide and the prevailing metaphor of the 'red rabbit' - are never left long enough for the audience to dwell on them. Essentially, it's a series of set-ups, a cycle of call and response, wheeled out one-by-one throughout the course of the evening.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Guest Criticism - London

I've never been able to understand London's theatre scene. It seems like less fun and more cut-throat business.

I reviewed two shows for the website a Younger Theatre, a Macbeth puppet show in a gorgeous theatre in Islington, and a verbatim piece, The Act, about the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Day 3 - Wandering Hanger Festival

I am Lucky, by Leonid Kaganov
Former factory
Deep Theatre, Lugansk, (Ukraine)

The twin drivers of human progress during the 1800s – the Science of the Age of Enlightenment and Productivity of Industrialisation – broke down at about the same time. The endpoint of Science was the atomic bomb, that pinnacle of scientific achievement that brought in the option of wiping out entire cities with the push of a button. Efficiency and productivity were taken into unintended territory by Nazi Germany, when they were applied to ethnic cleansing and forced labour camps – transforming the unclear blob of humanity into an efficient mass, and cutting away the 'excess'.

Both of these events showed just how far the human being had departed from rationality and ethics in a quest for progress by which just about anything was justified. When they both collapsed suddenly, there was now this giant spiritual vacuum, a lack of direction for the human project.

Happily, we had a neat replacement, neo-capitalism, with its key objective of resource exploitation and growth coupled with an illusory endlessness, perpetuated by a mechanism of manipulative fabrications commonly referred to as consumerism, promising to fill that void with escapism, fantasy and sensation. These two drivers are our new gods, (combated, albeit, in retrospect, a bit hopelessly, and at times itself appropriated by its big brothers, by a broad movement called ‘humanism’, which took shape in arts and culture).

But, naturally, these two prongs have weaknesses. And what happens when the party’s over?

There are two ways artists can address this spiritual gap, a quickly looming train wreck. They appear, on the surface, to be very similar, and they often involve going back to basics.  Who needs consumerism anyway? We can have Butter-bread! Together! We can share it with each other! Quick, break it in half and give it to your neighbour! Just like we used to when we were kids! Isn’t this beautiful?

So what’s the difference?

Critical thought. I claim.

Insulting for who?

It appears that the festival has come under attack for staging Antigone in the ruins of the church within the Castle grounds - which you can read about here.

International readers will be familiar with this narrative. There is certainly an argument for consultation with community groups prior to performances in found spaces, when there is the potential to accidentally transgress. On the other hand, it is incredibly hard, and incredibly special, to perform in a found space.

I found nothing insulting or sacreligious in the staging of Antigone, a fairly classic, stylised interpretation of a classic text, in this space. It is obvious to me that the counciler in question did not see the play, and so just how he is qualified to comment based on the totally incorrect perception that "the performance brought the theater that presents itself as postmodern, and this is inherent in the fundamental disregard for the holy things" (bad Google translation but you get the idea).

I admit to not understanding the full context of the comments, but I can't help thinking that this is a reactionary response from a counciler looking to shore up conservative support. It shows a totally naive knowledge of postmodern art, emerging as it does out of a spiritual vacuum, and a lack of information about the play itself (which actually I would not have classified as postmodern art).  If you're hanging Sorrano's Piss Christ, I agree with you. This was not that.

It is an insult to all of the volunteers and workers who made the festival so special.

That, to me, is sacred. 

Mr. Vitaly Sobko should retract these comments immediately.

Day 2 - Wandering Hanger Festival

Lutsk Castle 
Chamber Theatre "Zhuky", Donetsk (Ukraine) 

Day 2 held a fair dose of five shows in one day (clearly too much for this critic), and the first of these took us into the ruins of a church in Lutsk Castle.

This was a heightened ritual performance, belonging firmly in the classic Greek theatre tradition, laden with gesture and symbolism. Two actors (a business suited Chistokletov Evgeny, probably mostly occupying the role of Creon, and Olga Chistokletova as Antigone) took us through the story of Antigone’s defiance of her role and the state.

Photo - Pavla Berezuka

The subtleties of the text being (clearly) lost on me, I was left to focus on symbolic elements. These were a scope of timeless metaphors – sand pouring from a bowl, a lit torch, and it was, as far as I could tell, falling clearly within the traditions of Greek theatre – with the clarity of its universal symbols guiding the focus, and providing some stark moments that illustrate clearly the hierarchy of gender and power.

NOTE: A small scandal has emerged regarding this play's location in the ruins of the church, which I explain a little here. Suffice to say - it makes for sad reading.

Orchestra, by Jean Anouilh
Night Club
Studio Theatre "Soglasie", St. Petersburg (Russia)

Orchestra sat firmly in the realm of farce, blending exaggeration with ridicule. The target here was apparently gender relations, though I left thinking it hadn’t quite hit the mark.

"The Incident (or the Case in Subway) by N. Bayer
‘The Bronx’
Theatre-studio Splash, Kiev (Ukraine)

Photo - Pavla Berezuka