Review: Ziedonis And The Universe at the Baltic Theatre Festival, Riga

Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis was the star of the Baltic Theatre Festival in Riga, discovers Mark Brown

Ziedonis
Ziedonis and the Universe. Photo: New Riga Theatre

To speak of Latvian theatre in the early 21st-century is to speak of the acclaimed director and theatre maker Alvis Hermanis and his company, the New Riga Theatre. So it was at the recent Baltic Theatre Festival (held in the Latvian capital, Riga, from November 19 to 23). In fact, so disappointing was the other (often shallow, postmodern and trashy) work on offer in this showcase of new theatre from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, that one could have been forgiven for concluding that the programme was designed with the sole purpose of promoting Hermanis’s piece, Ziedonis And The Universe.

Hermanis is the director of Long Life, the award-winning production which played at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2006. A deeply humane, fabulously inventive piece about the neglect of the old in the new, post-Soviet, democratic, capitalist Latvia, it was memorably touching, humorous, sad and enraging.

Ziedonis And The Universe (which centres upon the 78-year-old father of modern Latvian poetry, Imants Ziedonis; played beautifully by the much younger actor Kaspars Znotiņš) is a very different proposition. Playing in the New Riga Theatre’s splendidly unrestored, art deco playhouse (which is hidden within an unostentatious tenement building), the drama consists of a series of interconnected short scenes reflecting the personal, national and philosophical nature of the poet’s work. The vignettes carry an array of titles, ranging from “Ziedonis And Suicide” to “Ziedonis And The Opera Toilet” (even the first act ends with the cute “Ziedonis And The Intermission”).

With a script built from Ziedonis’s poetic and other writings, the piece sees the poet arrive on stage with a motorbike. Reflecting the young Ziedonis’s desire to “break through”, Jim Morrison-style, the vehicle is soon too heavy for him to pick up. The bike is taken from him and hung, vertically from a chain at the back of the pared-back set. In its stead he is given a donkey (a brilliantly behaved creature, which remains quietly, and symbolically, on stage throughout).

The play is not perfect in structure and pace, but there is great pleasure to be derived from its depiction of Ziedonis as a Latvian Everyman. It is as if Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck had been rendered less tragic and more approachable.

This Ziedonis (who multiplies, symbolically, at times) is, simultaneously, a lonely individualist and a national icon, a man of profound thought and of witty observation. The occasional appearance of a stern Jānis Rainis (the grandfather of both Latvian poetry and, arguably, modern Latvian national identity, who died in 1929) as a living statue, represented by a fake-bearded actor standing on a ladder, is, like so much of  this production, wonderfully comic and gently irreverent, without ever mocking. One could easily imagine a similar image on the Scottish stage, with a statuesque Robert Burns observing the progress of the late Makar, Edwin Morgan.

Without question, Hermanis’s show is most meaningful for Latvians, who, 20 years after their nation’s independence from the Soviet Union, are still working through the implications of an extraordinarily turbulent modern history. However, it is the genius the New Riga Theatre that such a quintessentially Latvian theatre work manages to assume, and seemingly effortlessly, a universal character.

If Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills can encompass Latvia within his themed programming in the coming years, he could do a lot worse than introduce Scottish audiences to Ziedonis’s universe.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 27, 2011

© Mark Brown

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