Reviews: Varna Summer International Theatre Festival

The summer theatre festival season has started in earnest, as Mark Brown discovers in Varna, Bulgaria

Varna - Medea, My Mother 1
Medea, My Mother: photo by Simon Varsano

It is almost two months until Scotland’s capital city hosts the biggest arts festival on the planet, but here in the charming city of Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, the summer theatre festival season has started in earnest. As with Edinburgh or any other great festival, one of the joys of the international programme they call – with refreshing simplicity – ‘Varna Summer’ is to be able to take in more shows in one day than some people see in a year.

So it is that I begin my sojourn in Bulgaria’s “summer capital” with three shows back-to-back. The most interesting of the trio, by a distance, is the disquieting Medea, My Mother, written by Ivan Dobchev and Stefan Ivanov, and performed by Theatre Laboratory Sfumato from Sofia.

Combining a wild, highly literate fantasia with angrily direct social commentary, the piece explodes within the mind of a man who lies close to death in a hospital bed following a road traffic accident. Numerous human figures – some apparently real, some surreal, others ethereal – surround his bed and (for reasons which are, possibly, connected with the injured man’s childhood) assail him with stories of orphaned children.

Lives of orphans neglected, abused, trafficked, criminalised, prostituted and raped are laid out repeatedly in a series of monologues. These intersperse the more imaginative scenarios in which a bleak, well-read and witty apparition talks to the bed-ridden protagonist, connecting the modern world to the ancient by reference to Goethe, Shakespeare, the Bible and Euripides, among many others.

There is a scintillating, wild intelligence to the production, which makes it all the more disappointing that, in its documentary moments, the piece wears its political heart so polemically on its sleeve. The two elements of the drama never achieve any kind of synchronicity; it is as if an episode of Panorama had gatecrashed an epic play co-authored by Sarah Kane and Tony Kushner.

By comparison with Sfumato’s play, Return, a dance-theatre work by acclaimed Spanish choreographer Chevi Muraday, is an altogether gentler experience. Combining poetic texts on the vicissitudes of love – somewhat idealistically, from initial exhilaration, to painful conflict, to profound resolution – the choreographic metaphors are, too often, lacking in subtlety.

By far the most impressive factor in the piece is the performance of renowned Spanish movie actress Marta Etura, who dances, as she speaks, with equally immense skill and sensuality. Even when the meanings of her movements are proclaimed gratuitously, the actress-turned-dancer performs opposite Muraday with an intensity which stretches beyond the limitations of the choreography.

One of the features of Eastern European theatre which is most refreshing for drama lovers from the West is the high regard it has for puppet theatre. It was disappointing, therefore, to see – in the Sofia Puppet Theatre’s show Holy – a 75-minute work which over-indulges itself by at least half-an-hour.

Dutch-Brazilian director Duda Paiva explores familial and generational tensions at the strange birthday party of an ageing bourgeois woman. Some promising and bleak puppetry (a butler serves the family members a meal consisting of miniature versions of themselves) is undone by needlessly prolonged point making and a heavy-handed, instructional use of music.

Three shows in an evening, bringing varying levels of satisfaction. From Varna to Edinburgh, the festival experience is agonisingly and delightfully similar.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 9, 2013

© Mark Brown

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