Review: FIAMS international puppet theatre festival, Saguenay, Quebec, 2017

No strings in Quebec

From existential human drama to the wonders of the childhood imagination, Mark Brown acclaims the FIAMS puppet theatre festival in Saguenay

Scottish theatre audiences know the theatre of Quebec. We have for many years delighted in the work of Quebecois theatre luminaries such as Robert Lepage, Michel Tremblay, Jeanne-Mance Delisle and Catherine-Anne Toupin.

However, we are barely acquainted with Quebec’s strong tradition in puppet and object theatre. Indeed, it is only thanks to the annual Manipulate festival in Edinburgh, and to children’s theatremakers such as Shona Reppe and Andy Manley, that Scotland can hold its head up in the international puppet theatre community.

The place to see Quebec’s puppet theatre (and puppet work from France, Brazil, Norway and elsewhere) is Saguenay. A tranquil, well-heeled city with a population of around 145,000 (similar to that of Dundee), Saguenay is the home of FIAMS (the biennial Festival International des Arts de la Marionette), which ends its 14th edition today.

Some five hours north of Montreal by road, through the extraordinary Canadian wilderness (I had the good fortune, I kid you not, to see two black bears together as we sped along the highway), Saguenay is not the kind of city one might typically associate with an international theatre festival. Yet here it was that I encountered the world premiere of the exceptional show Memories Of An Hourglass.

A co-production between La Torture Noire (from Quebec) and Luna Morena (from Mexico), this piece is, like more than half of the FIAMS programme, aimed at adults and teenagers (rather than younger children). A poetic meditation on time, and, I think, on the special precariousness of the current human condition, it is full of powerful visual metaphors.

Memories Of An Hourglass

A woman is tied to threads that suspend a series of clocks in the air. In her hand is a spinning wheel around which the threads of time are woven, and in which an unfortunate man finds himself caught up. It is, surely, an image inspired by the early scene in Akira Kurosawa’s great 1957 Macbeth movie Throne Of Blood, in which a mysterious old man (standing in for the witches) spins time while offering fateful prophecies.

In another scene, there is a grotesquely comic play on the kind of public dissections of the human body that were common in Europe in the 19th-century. From this emerges, as if created by a latter day Dr Frankenstein, a half-man, half-puppet.

Struggling on crutches at first, he finds his feet, and even engages romantically with a female dancer, before he, quite literally, loses his head and falls apart. However, when his limbless torso is opened, another puppet, in the shape of a boy, emerges.

Such images are repeated again and again in a work which collides the analogue (an old gramophone player) with the digital (the show’s computer technology is wheeled across the stage, becoming a player in itself). Are we, the piece seems to ask, subsuming the corporeal and the tangible (indeed, our essential humanity) in the burgeoning virtuality of our increasingly digital existence? As the play (which would, surely, be a fine addition to the Manipulate programme) ends with the sound of a ticking metronome, it feels like the sort of work Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would make for the 21st-century.

If the Quebecois/Mexican co-production was the highlight of the opening days of the festival, it was not the only show to impress. Landru, by French theatremakers Yoan Pencole and Cie Zusvex, combines various forms, including shadow puppetry and lifesize, representational puppetry, to consider the continued fascination with the serial killer Henri Desire Landru, aka “Bluebeard”.

Landru’s disembodied head finds itself transformed from a sculpture into the live subject of a court trial. There, the judge speaks from within a picture frame and the prosecution lawyer has no head. Bleakly humorous and startlingly inventive, the piece is testament to the possibilities puppetry offers to the visual imagination.

Likewise Nomadic Soul, another piece making its world premiere in Saguenay. Created entirely in monochrome, it is performed solely by its creator, Quebecoise artist Magali Chouinard.

The work is mindful of the nature-oriented belief systems of the First Nations peoples who populated this land long before European colonialists labelled it “Canada” or “Quebec”. The images of the raven and the wolf appear as aspects of Chouinard’s own human character. So, too, do female figures in old age, middle age and childhood.

Indeed, assisted by puppets, sculpture, projected film and animated illustration, the performer puts herself within the extraordinary masks and costumes of all three female figures and the wolf itself. It is a highly original, aesthetically exquisite and movingly humane piece of theatre.

A Heart In Winter. Photo: Michel Pinault

Children are by no means neglected at FIAMS. Much of the programme is dedicated to young theatregoers, including The Heart In Winter, by Quebecois company Theatre de l’Oiel. A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Snow Queen, this charming play transforms the ill-fated boy Kai and his friend Gerda into modern day Quebecois kids, represented by delightful little puppets.

Also for young children, French company Le Clan des Songes offer Bella, a lovely exploration of the childhood imagination. Superb use of light to illuminate the puppets, but not the puppeteers, clashes a little with some kitsch elements in the representation of clouds and rain.

From a little French girl getting lost in a daydream to a deep rumination on 21st-century humanity at the existential crossroads, the FIAMS festival is testament to the immense potential of puppet theatre. May Scotland’s puppet theatremakers take heart.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 30, 2017

© Mark Brown


Review: Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre 2015

A Tempest, Three Sisters… and a travesty

Mark Brown takes in a visually fascinating Shakespeare, a touching Chekhov and an irresponsible play about Hitler in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi

A Tempest, by Silviu Purcarete
A Tempest, by Silviu Purcarete

Georgia’s historic capital city Tbilisi is not only the impressive metropolis where Scotland’s national football team suffered a recent, deeply damaging reverse, it is also home to the excellent Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre. I was pleased to be invited, for a third time, to a festival which incorporates work by some of the world’s leading theatre makers, as well as a showcase of Georgian stage drama.

My pleasure increased when I discovered that this year’s international programme included A Tempest, presented by the Marin Sorescu National Theatre of Craiova, Romania and directed by the great theatrical auteur Silviu Purcarete. The Romanian director is no stranger to Edinburgh International Festival audiences, having staged his acclaimed productions of Faust and Gulliver’s Travels in 2009 and 2012 respectively.

His rendering of Shakespeare’s last play is, thanks to an outstanding stage design by Dragos Buhagiar, characteristically memorable in its visual conception. The wood-panelled island cell of Prospero, self-taught sorcerer and deposed Duke of Milan, is a derelict, but once opulent, room from the eighteenth century.

Every piece of furniture, from the grand bed to the three-legged armchair, is a broken and dusty shadow of its former self. The creaking wardrobe at the back of the room becomes a magic portal through which Prospero conjures all manner of events, objects, people and supernatural beings.

Purcarete behaves like Prospero himself, reshaping every character as he sees fit. The sorcerer’s beautiful daughter Miranda, for example, is played by a strapping, six-foot tall, male skinhead in a paper dress opposite a female Ferdinand, prince of Naples.

Prospero’s magical sprite Ariel is a wigged fop who could have stepped out of the court of Louis XVI, while the buffoonish, drunken conspirators Stephano and Trinculo are a bowler-hatted comic double act in the Laurel and Hardy mould.

All of which is interesting and visually compelling. However, one can’t help but feel that Purcarete’s “director’s theatre” has descended here into unaccountable self-indulgence. What logic, for example, is there in the actor who plays Miranda doubling up as the enslaved island dweller Caliban?

More problematic still is the director’s puzzling decision to kill Prospero off before the final scene. His great final speech is made to an empty room, then repeated to the assembled characters by the magician’s disembodied ghost.

Visually fascinating, with superb use of music, this Tempest is, for all its flair, not classic Purcarete.

If even an imperfect production by the Romanian master demands one’s attention, so too does Three Sisters, a “choreodrama” (that’s dance to you and me) based upon Chekhov’s play by the Vaso Abashidze theatre company of Tbilisi. Performed to affecting music by Alfred Schnittke, the piece is an often beautiful, wordless rendering of a play of yearning and disappointment.

The costume design is excellent. The titular siblings wear splendid white dresses, the soldiers formal, beige uniforms. The simple set is less impressive, being dominated by somewhat ugly chairs, made mainly of canes.

The choreography, by Konstantin Purtseladze, is similarly uneven. A hip-swinging motif, for the sisters in their happier moments, is repeated more often than it deserves.

The company itself is decidedly mixed, with some performers being noticeably more comfortable dancers than others.

Such shortcomings notwithstanding, there are moments in which the piece articulates the anguished essence of Chekhov’s play. This is particularly true in the beautifully, and painfully, choreographed moment in which Masha is literally caught between her departing lover, army officer Vershinin, and her forgiving husband, the staid teacher Kulygin.

Although the festival is, in general, a good deed in a naughty world, the selection, and indeed special recommendation, of 1945, by  Nodar Dumbadze Professional State Youth Theatre of Tbilisi, has left me astonished and outraged in equal measure. A play aimed at young audiences, this devised work, created by young director Nikoloz Sabashvili, is the most misguided, irresponsible and offensive reflection on the life of Adolf Hitler one could possibly imagine.Tbilisi - 1945

A work of astoundingly vulgar cod psychology, it suggests that more than 15 million people (six million of them Jewish) died in the Nazi Holocaust as a consequence of Hitler’s difficult childhood and youth.

His father (a violent drunk) terrorises him. His mother takes a Jewish lover who is nasty to him. The Jewish girl he falls in love with marries another (Jewish) man. Hitler goes mad with grief and resentment.

Just what Sabashvili thinks Jewish audience members, or, indeed, any decent theatregoers with a sense of political and historical perspective, are supposed to make of this garbage is anyone’s guess.

It is extraordinary that, during this play’s development, no-one in a position of responsibility within the company put a stop to it. It’s more astonishing still that the Georgian critics and showcase selectors thought fit to recommend and programme it.

As the piece comes to its end and (I kid you not) stage smoke is used to stand in for the Zyklon B gas used in the Nazi death chambers, one wonders if this horrible piece has any more awful ideas to offer. Sadly, as, in another moment of dreadful historical reductionism, Hitler transforms into Stalin, we find that it does.

It is genuinely terrifying that anyone could believe that such a dangerous and erroneous account is a good way to educate young people about the Holocaust. I am still shocked that it has appeared in Tbilisi, a city which is deservedly renowned for the quality of its theatre.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 11, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Festival de Almada 2015, Portugal

The Berliner Ensemble’s Brecht cabaret was the highlight of the opening days of Portugal’s biggest international theatre festival, writes Mark Brown

As the Edinburgh Festivals, not least the enormous Festival Fringe, approach like a speeding cultural juggernaut, it can be instructive to visit other summer festivals. A flick through the brochure of the 32nd annual Festival de Almada, the largest international theatre festival in Portugal, shows a programme which has intriguing similarities with the live drama on offer in the inaugural programme of new Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan.

The EIF boss’s decision to include tried-and-tested homegrown work (as opposed to a single world premiere representing Scottish theatre) and his programming of more of the kind of work that might be described as “fringe theatre” might seem radical to some. The Almada Festival – which is held in the city of Almada on the south bank of the River Tagus and across the water in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon – has been programming in this way for years.

The Berliner Ensemble. Photo: Thomas Eichhorn
The Berliner Ensemble. Photo: Thomas Eichhorn

The 2015 Almada programme boasts the kind of big, international names that have graced EIF stages over the years. From the famous Berliner Ensemble, to great German director Peter Stein and acclaimed Swiss theatre maker Christoph Marthaler, the Portuguese festival’s 14-day, 27-show programme holds its own against its better known cousins in Edinburgh and the French festival city of Avignon.

However, just as Linehan has opened the EIF to more leftfield, devised theatre (notably in the shape of Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified sinner by Stewart Laing’s currently, and shamefully, unfunded company Untitled Projects), Almada is host to a plethora of experimental and fringe productions.

One example is Joana Craveiro’s A Living Museum Of Small And Forgotten Memories. An attempt to grapple with the continued influence in Portugal of the country’s revolution against fascism in 1974, this four-hour show consists of “one prologue, seven performative lectures and a meal.”

Another fringe work in Almada, which did, indeed, originate on the Edinburgh Fringe, is a Portuguese staging, by Artistas Unidos, of The Events, Scottish dramatist David Greig’s contemplation of the massacre carried out by the Norwegian fascist Anders Breivik.

Diverse though festival director Rodrigo Francisco’s programme is, however, there can be little doubt that the highlight of the opening four days of his programme was the return to Almada of the Berliner Ensemble. Their show, entitled And Times Change…, is a quintessential Berliner production.

The piece brings together the poems and songs of the company’s founder Bertolt Brecht with the music of his collaborators Kurt Weill, Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler. Musicians and actors, dressed in monochrome, sit opposite each other, as leading Portuguese actor Luis Vicente takes up the role of narrator, linking the songs and scenes for the mainly Lusophone audience.

What ensues is unmistakably German. From Mack The Knife and Pirate Jenny (both from The Threepenny Opera) to The Bilbao Song (from Happy End), the piece is performed with the combination of decadence, anger, uncertainty and cynical humour that characterised the cabaret of the interwar Weimar Republic.

Indeed, so brilliant are the performances of the entire ensemble, not least the superb Claudia Burckhardt (who sings with a sardonic sneer, surely as Brecht intended), that one feels transported to the world depicted in the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz. One can hear in every pointedly discordant note and see in every bleak-yet-defiant gesture exactly why the Nazis decried these outstanding and enduring artworks as “entartete musik” (degenerate music).

As the show’s title (And Times Change…), with the crucial ellipsis, implies, there are powerful echoes of the dangerously unstable 1920s and 1930s in our own troubled times. It is appropriate, then, that this production be presented in Portugal, which has, in recent years, teetered on the precipice on which Greece currently stands.

If the Berliner Ensemble offered the most impressive show of the festival’s early days, great things were also expected of its opening show, Marthaler’s King Size. However, as with his My Fair Lady – A Language Laboratory (which played at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012), I found myself bemused and unmoved by this tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of bourgeois relations.

The colliding of popular and classical songs, combined with ironically over-the-top and clownish performance, has become Marthaler’s postmodern signature. It seems to me all surface. Or, if it has hidden depths, they are very well hidden indeed.

There is a similar lack of depth to Your Best Guess, a patently incomplete Anglo-Portuguese experiment between Lisbon company mala voadora and English theatre maker Chris Thorpe. In this devised piece, two monologues (one in English, the other in Portuguese) are interwoven.

The English narrative considers the plight of a man (and father of two young children) whose wife is in a coma and dangerously close to death. The Portuguese story is of a man in a refugee camp whose encounter with cynically donated surplus products from the West opens his eyes to the absurdities of free market capitalism.

One waits in vain for the substance beneath the often manipulatively sentimental material. What we are offered instead are moments of electronic gimmickry which are as outmoded as they are ineffective.

A mixed beginning, then, to the always ambitious and interesting Almada programme. However, with the likes of Stein’s Italian production of Harold Pinter’s great play The Homecoming and the Romanian National Theatre of Cluj-Napoca’s staging of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard still to come, you wouldn’t bet against the 32nd edition of Festival de Almada going down as one of its best.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 12, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Swedish Performing Arts Biennale 2015, Malmö

Circus Walks a Political Tightrope

Mark Brown reports from the Swedish Performing Arts Biennale in Malmö

On face value, Sweden’s charming, decidedly relaxed third city, Malmö (population less than a third of a million), seems an unlikely place for a raucous, politically charged New Circus performance. Yet the city, which is currently hosting the Swedish Performing Arts Biennale (which moves from city to city every two years), is better equipped to welcome Swedish New Circus specialists Cirkus Cirkör (who celebrate their 20th anniversary this year) than most cities in the world.

Malmö is home to Hipp (short for Hippodrome), a remarkable, recently refurbished, purpose-built, 360 degree circus theatre. It’s impossible to imagine a better venue in which to present Borders, a co-production between Cirkör and Malmö City Theatre.

Edinburgh Fringe-goers of a certain age will remember the outrageous outdoor extravaganzas of the late, and lamented, French New Circus troupe Archaos. Imagine, if you will, a combination of that company’s anarchic punk circus (complete with explosive pyrotechnics and breathtaking acrobatics) and Last Dream (On Earth), Kai Fischer’s recent show for the National Theatre of Scotland, and you have something approximating Borders.

Photo: Frans Hällqvist
Photo: Frans Hällqvist

A coming together of Fischer’s poignant contemplation of the, often fatal, journeys of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean with high octane New Circus performance is improbable. However, this is Sweden. They have their fair share of fascists and racist headbangers, for sure, but, in general, Swedes seem to have an admirable awareness and compassion regarding the plight of migrants who risk their lives in tiny boats sailing from Libya or Morocco.

Cirkör offer their audience the full repertoire of New Circus skills. From the madcap ringmaster to the breathtaking high wire acts and pyromania, everything they do is reminiscent of the spectacular shows of Archaos.

There’s something else, however. The militarised clowns, who demand our “papers” as we enter the auditorium, are distinctly authoritarian. As they march around the theatre, the precarious journey of a superb trapeze artist combines movingly with an African migrant talking of his own death-defying journey.

There are impressive acrobatic displays on metal structures which create powerful metaphors both for the gates that exclude migrants and the fences that so often imprison them. This is not a show, then, for defenders of the Dungavel Detention Centre, Scotland’s own contribution to the incarceration of those who dare to seek a safer and better life on European shores.

Assisted by excellent projected images, Cirkör’s multi-ethnic company gives unique expression to the experiences of people who were recently referred to by the loathsome Katie Hopkins as “cockroaches” (a term of which Joseph Goebbels would have been proud). However, the global diversity of their fabulous live music and the sheer, joyous exuberance of their performance also celebrate the cultures of Europe’s migrant communities.

There are, inevitably, moments in the show when there is a somewhat clunky gear change, as the performance moves between circus and politics. Nonetheless, Cirkör deserve the abundant praise they have been receiving for putting their highly-skilled brand of New Circus at the service of urgent political activism.

If Borders does well by the campaign for migrants’ rights, a contemporary Finnish/Swedish co-production (by no fewer than seven theatre companies) of the play Sylvi, by Finland’s 19th-century bard Minna Canth, does much less for the reputation of Nordic theatre. Canth’s play tells the story of young Sylvi, trapped in a marriage to her much older guardian, as she falls in love with an old school friend of hers.

There are evident shades of Ibsen and Strindberg in the narrative. However, director Mikko Roiha seems to be trying, and failing, to refract the drama through the 20th-century absurdism of Ionesco.

In fact, the piece quickly descends into an over-simplistic vulgarity that is so often the calling card of contemporary postmodern performance. Characters become two-dimensional caricatures (at best). Sylvi’s actions, in terms of attempted suicide and eventual murder, are woefully predictable, while the emotional basis for them is reduced almost to nothing.

Watching such a melodramatic-yet-antiseptic rendition of a Nordic classic, I found myself yearning for the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh’s recent production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

As I partake in the rich artistic smörgåsbord that is the Swedish Bienniale, I am pleased to find that I am reminded of the world-class work being created on Scotland’s stages.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 31, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review feature: Beijing showcase

Chekhov and Cherries in China

Mark Brown discovers the diversity of theatrical performances being staged in the Chinese capital

Turn off any main street in downtown Beijing and wander along one of the many hutongs (alleyways) that criss-cross the city and you are bound to encounter some of the contradictions that characterise modern day China. The Dong Mian Hua Hutong is a particularly interesting case in point.

I was visiting the hutong as a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC); the recent world congress of which was hosted by China’s Central Academy of Drama. The alleyway is home to the older of the Academy’s two campuses.
A few blocks down from the campus is the Penghao Theatre (slogan: “theatre without borders”), an independent playhouse which, I hear, is tolerated by the government, but receives regular visits from the police. Just yards down from that is a trendy bar with a picture of Jimi Hendrix on the wall, which boasts live music.

In this one alleyway one can encounter prestigious, state-funded art, censorship, and a thirst for greater cultural openness. In a nominally “Communist” country in which big business (from Starbucks to Hyundai) is free to operate, as long as it plays by the Chinese government’s rules (facebook and other social networks are blocked and the internet is widely censored), the Dong Mian Hua Hutong seems like Beijing in microcosm.

To attend the IATC congress, and, with it, a diverse showcase of the theatre being staged in Beijing, was to taste the city beyond the infamous air pollution and the remarkable tourist attractions of the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall of China (which is easily reachable from the city on a day trip). It is greatly to the credit of our hosts at the Central Academy and the IATC China section that we, delegates from around the world, were offered a very diverse programme of live theatre.

In a busy schedule, Michael Thalheimer’s acclaimed production of Medea for the Schauspiel Frankfurt, staged at the National Theatre of China, was joined by a high-energy, beautifully-costumed student performance of Peking opera, played on the extremely impressive new campus of the Central Academy. There was also contemporary dance, in the shape of the metaphorical piece Breath, at the Penghao Theatre, and a lavish western opera, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with a mixed Chinese and European cast, performed in the vast opera house of the extraordinary titanium and glass home of the National Centre for Performing Arts (known locally, with immense understatement, as “the egg”).

The Cherry Orchard, dir: Vladimir Petrov. Photo: Li Bing
The Cherry Orchard, dir: Vladimir Petrov. Photo: Li Bing

As so often with much-hyped European productions, Thalheimer’s bleak, minimalist piece never quite justifies its reputation. Nevertheless, Constanze Becker, playing the lead on a symbolic and dramatically effective ledge, gives an often penetrating performance as Medea.

Elsewhere, the student Peking opera (which was replete with acrobatics) appeared a little rough to those who were familiar with the form. However, to a newcomer, such as myself, it was a treat to experience this great Chinese dramatic art in its various aspects, ranging from live, classical music, played on traditional instruments, to the extraordinarily expressive face paintings and physical gestures of the young performers.

However, the most impressive individual performance of the week came from acclaimed Chinese tenor Shi Yijie, who stole the show in Italian director Pier Francesco Maestrini’s Don Pasquale. Humorous, light of foot and reaching his superb voice across the 2,400-seater auditorium with apparent ease, his Ernesto was the highlight of an otherwise conventional production, to which little was added by a bemusing Marx Brothers theme.

If neither Thalheimer nor Maestrini impressed particularly, Russian director Vladimir Petrov has created a show of considerable visual beauty with his production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the Central Academy. Played by a cast of professional Chinese actors, all of whom teach at the Academy, it has a sparse, Brechtian, “narrative realist” quality.

That is to say, its design employs realism only where it is required by the story (such as in the fine period costumes). Otherwise, the stage is bare, save for a huge, beautifully-employed white sheet (onto which are occasionally projected splendid photographs of Chekhov) and a number of bulging sacks (which, we discover latterly, are filled with cherries).

Petrov lets himself, and his production, down with a horribly incongruous use of music, but the combination of a strong ensemble and some lovely design made his Cherry Orchard a highlight of my week in Beijing.

All of which leads me to an observation on Scottish theatre. In a year in which I have seen work by Thomas Ostermeier in France, Béla Pintér in Hungary, and Michael Thalheimer in China, it is hugely encouraging to be able to say that the best in Scottish theatre (particularly Dominic Hill’s work at the Citizens Theatre) more than holds its own when compared with the work of Europe’s leading theatrical auteurs.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 26, 2014

© Mark Brown

Review feature: Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre 2014

Georgia on his mind

Mark Brown is impressed by stagings of Orwell and Gorky at the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre

Walking along Rustaveli Avenue, the major thoroughfare of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (a street named after the great 12th-century poet Shota Rustaveli), one can see, in its architectural grandeur, why “Tiflis” was revered as one of the most impressive cities of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. However, to spend a week at the remarkable Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre is also to discover the proud independence of Georgia, a nation of less than five million people, who have their own distinct, lyrical language (which has its own unique alphabet) and a series of great poets who tower above the disrepute of the nation’s most infamous son, Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili (aka Joseph Stalin).

One of the noted highlights of the festival’s Georgian showcase, Farm, by the Iron Theatre of Tbilisi, addresses itself to the legacy of Stalin. A liberal adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, it tells, in fine ensemble and puppet performance, the story of the betrayal of the ideals of the great, socialist pig Old Boar, and the attempts, in the new regime’s adoption of the hated farmer’s son, to shape a “new human”.

Funny, inventive and chilling, Farm outshines the large cast version of Guy Masterson’s originally one-man Animal Farm (which has been an Edinburgh Fringe hit over many years). Staged by the Tumanishvili Film Actors’ Studio of Tbilisi, and directed by Masterson himself, it returned home to the festival following its residence at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.Tbilisi - Farm

Although the Tumanishvili’s piece disappoints, it is interesting to note how the Edinburgh Fringe spreads its tentacles across the world. Pip Utton’s monodrama Adolf, which imagines Hitler on his final day, made its name in Edinburgh some 16 years ago, and was staged here in Tbilisi in Turkish, as part of the showcase of work from the Caucasus and the Black Sea region.

A promising offering in the regional showcase was the world premiere of Turkish company tiyARTro’s Kurdish-language production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Despite the best efforts of fine Kurdish actor Hilmi Demirer, the piece founders on its audacious, but ultimately failing, directorial concept.

The distracting, pseudo-modern design (from Demirer’s costume to the pointless drapes which obscure one’s view of the Georgian and English surtitles) is dominated by transparent plastic. Although the actor, undeniably, has the emotional range to be an excellent Krapp, his garb gives him a sense of virility which is totally at odds with his character (who is, as the play’s title suggests, at death’s door).

The presence of death is evoked more powerfully in the production of Maxim Gorky’s early 20th-century play The Lower Depths. Presented by the Vaso Abashidze Music And Drama Theatre of Tbilisi, it is both the most aesthetically beautiful and emotionally affecting piece I’ve seen here in Georgia.

Writing like a bolder, more muscular, yet equally poetic and humanist, Chekhov, Gorky portrays a diverse group of impoverished people living in a shelter in Czarist Russia. The play alights not only upon death, but also sexual desire, suffering, hopelessness, love and human resilience; the full set, in fact, of the elements required for great tragedy.

Sadly, director David Doiashvili’s three-hour long production labours many points in its repetitive second half. That, and the gratuitous, emotionally instructive use of music, do needless damage to an otherwise gorgeous and profound theatre work.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 12, 2014

© Mark Brown

Review feature: DESZKA Festival, Debrecen, Hungary, 2014

Secrets and spies

The DESZKA Festival is an eight-day showcase of Hungarian theatre. Mark Brown was impressed by two noteworthy productions

Hungary’s second city, Debrecen (population a little over 200,000), is a tranquil and attractive place. The centre is dominated by fine, Habsburg architecture, even if many people still live in the kind of Stalinist era, Le Corbusier-inspired concrete block housing that continues to blight towns and cities across central and eastern Europe.

Debrecen is home to the DESZKA Festival, an eight-day showcase of Hungarian theatre, which recently celebrated its eighth edition. The festival also hosted the latest young critics’ seminar of the International Association of Theatre Critics, in which I, as a director of the seminars, was joined by eight young theatre critics from across Europe and North America.

In truth, much of the work presented by the festival was not what one would call an advert for Hungarian drama. There was, for example, a disappointingly unpoetic rendering of Samuel Beckett’s novella First Love. Staged by the festival’s host theatre, the Csokonai Theatre of Debrecen, and played by an ill-equipped actor, who is, in any case, much too young for the role, the production had me longing for Peter Egan’s splendid performance of the monologue for Dublin’s Gate Theatre, which played at the Edinburgh International Festival last year.

However, there were two particularly noteworthy productions. The first was the fascinating and enigmatic Songs Of Wilhelm, a piece by the famous choreographer and theatre maker Josef Nadj. Based upon the poems of Ottó Tolnai, (who, like Nadj, hails from the Hungarian minority in the former Yugoslavia), it combines the banal-yet-poetic ruminations of an old man (acted beautifully by István Bicskei) with a captivating, disquieting, comic and wordless performance by Nadj, who wears an extraordinarily expressive rubber mask which evokes another ageing male character.

The highly accomplished performances, in both spoken language and choreography/mask theatre, are complemented by moments of object theatre, which are presented in a little puppet theatre and projected, via live film, to a large screen above the stage. By turns humorous and disconcerting in their surrealism, these strange little works of live sculpture contribute purposefully to a theatre work which, ironically, evokes the existential atmosphere of Beckett’s writing far more successfully than the Csokonai’s staging of First Love.

If Nadj’s piece impressed, the undeniable highlight of the festival was Our Secrets, a superb, tragicomic work of politics and recent history by leading Hungarian dramatist Béla Pintér and his Budapest-based company. Imagine Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb 2006 film The Lives Of Others (which explored the oppressive surveillance by the Stasi in the old East Germany) crossed with the stinging wit of Oscar Wilde and the tense inter-personal relations of Harold Pinter, and you have something approximating to the Hungarian writer/director’s excellent drama.

Béla Pintér, centre, in Our Secrets
Bela Pinter, centre, in Our Secrets

The play focuses on the infiltration and surveillance of the Hungarian folk music movement by the Stalinist secret state in 1980. It has many moments of laugh-out-loud comedy; not least in the relationship between ardent Communist Bea Zakariás and folk dancer Imre Tatár (played fabulously by Pintér himself), who is, unbeknown to Zakariás, editor of an underground oppositionist newspaper.

However, when it turns darker, the piece goes further than Donnersmarck dared. Where the German filmmaker had an actress blackmailed on account of her drug addiction, Pintér has Tatár’s close friend and confidant dragged into the State’s net when his paedophilia is discovered.

Cleverly written and brilliantly acted (often by way of cross-gender performances), the play ends with a sharply satirical dig at Hungary’s current, deeply compromised capitalist democracy. Better, as a play about Stalinism in eastern Europe, than Tom Stoppard’s much praised Rock n‘ Roll, Our Secrets is worthy of inclusion in any theatre showcase, including the Edinburgh International Festival.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 6, 2013

© Mark Brown