Feature: Interview with theatre director Murat Daltaban

In the shadow of Erdogan

Award-winning Turkish theatre director Murat Daltaban talks to Mark Brown about making theatre in his home country and his recent move to Scotland

Murat #2 - CATS 2018
Murat Daltaban (left) with Zinnie Harris and Oguz Kaplangi at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland ceremony in Perth. Photo: Perthshire Picture Agency

At last Sunday’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS), which were presented at Perth Theatre, the most successful production, by a distance, was Turkish director Murat Daltaban’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros. Presented by the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, in association with Daltaban’s company DOT Theatre, Istanbul, the show picked up the prizes for Best Production, Best Male Performance (Robbie Jack), Best Music and Sound (Oguz Kaplangi) and Best Director (for Daltaban himself).

The production, which boasted a brilliantly sharp, flexible adaptation by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris, revived Ionesco’s bitterly comic allegory about conformism and the rise of fascism. In the play, the unlikely hero Berenger clings to his humanity as the people around him transform into rhinos.

The allegory, in which culture, freedom and, ultimately, humanity is trampled under the hooves of a collective social delirium, speaks powerfully to our own times. From the rise of Trump and the so-called “alt-right” in the United States to the election of extreme right, xenophobic parties in such countries as Austria, Hungary and Italy, Ionesco’s 1959 drama appears very much as a play for today.

It also chimes with events in Daltaban’s homeland of Turkey, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the failed coup attempt of 2016 as a pretext for clamping down on democratic rights. What, I wondered when I met Daltaban at the Lyceum Theatre following his success at the CATS awards, was the relationship between his production of Rhinoceros and the current situation in Turkey?

“Politics in Turkey today is like a psychological war between the people and the state”, says the director. “The primary pressure is on the media. The only free media we have in Turkey right now is on the internet.”

Regarding theatre artists, the situation is mixed and complex, Daltaban explains. “There is censorship in the state-funded theatre companies. The government’s logic is that, if you receive government money, you can’t criticise the government.

“This is why I resigned from working with the state theatres”, he continues. DOT Theatre is artistically and financially independent of the state and “does not take any money from the government.”

However, Daltaban points out that Turkish theatre is not under a system of complete censorship. “The government doesn’t have an automatic state censorship system which demands to see scripts, for example. It is not official censorship, but psychological repression of theatre artists.”

One method of indirect censorship within the state theatre sector has been to reject plays by foreign writers, from Shakespeare to Dario Fo, on the basis of a “patriotic” decision to stage only dramas by Turkish writers. The irony of this is that one of the few examples of actual direct censorship has been against a contemporary Turkish writer, Onur Orhan.

Orhan’s monodrama Only A Dictator, which is considered by the state authorities to be a critique of President Erdogan, has faced bans wherever it has travelled in Turkey. Local state authorities cite “public order” concerns as their reason for closing the production down.

“The direct censorship faced by Only A Dictator has an intimidating effect on other theatre artists”, Daltaban comments. “They banned that play wherever it went, in order to create an atmosphere of intimidation that would affect other theatremakers.

“The result is that even artists who are independent of the state theatre system are engaged in self-censorship. This is a response to the psychological pressure exerted by the government.”

Which begs the question of the extent to which Daltaban and his company have been affected by the intimidation of the Erdogan regime. Not only has DOT Theatre been engaged in a major co-production with Scottish companies, but Daltaban and his family, and also his friend, and DOT Theatre’s composer, Oguz Kaplangi, have recently moved to live in Edinburgh.

“Our move to Scotland is not because of the repression in Turkey”, the director insists. “It is something we planned before the current situation developed.

“In order to create the kind of theatre we want to make, we wanted to spend half of our time in Scotland and half in Turkey. However, recent events in Turkey have made the process of relocating to Scotland a bit faster.”

DOT Theatre, which has its own successful and popular theatre venue in Istanbul, will continue its work in Turkey, and Daltaban will move back-and-forth between Edinburgh and Istanbul. He hopes to establish a production office for DOT in the Scottish capital, enabling the company to make more international work, not only with Turkish and Scottish artists, but with others in Europe, not least his contacts in Germany.

The director’s pre-existing plan to relocate to Scotland may have been expedited by the repression in Turkey, but it is rooted in artistic and personal experience. “We have been coming to Scotland for many years”, he says.

“Edinburgh is an international theatre space. Artistically, it is much more than local. I also believe that Scotland is a very happy place to live.”

As to the immediate future of Turkey, Daltaban is concerned, but optimistic about the general election on June 24. “The government has all the media, so the election definitely won’t be fair”, he says.

“However, in the last 10 years the civil society movement has become very experienced in terms of protecting the integrity of ballot papers, and the opposition movement is very strong.”

A slightly abridged version of this feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 17, 2018

© Mark Brown

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Performing arts feature: Prague showcase

Prague Spring

The Czech performing arts are vibrant and diverse, as Mark Brown discovered at the recent showcase in Prague

Farm in the Cave 1
Farm in the Cave rehearsing Refuge. Photo: Linda Průšová

The Alfred ve Dvoře Theatre in Prague is not the obvious place to begin a showcase of Czech performing arts. Located in a little courtyard off a quiet side street in the Holešovice district of the city, it boasts a decidedly relaxed underground bar (we are in Bohemia, after all) and a theatre space that looks, from the outside, as if it has been constructed from the metallic shell of a Second World War bomb shelter.

The venue is about as far as it is possible to get, in cultural terms, from the grand buildings of the National Theatre and the Charles University Faculty of Arts which sit proudly by the Vltava River. Yet here it is that the HI PerformanCZ showcase begins its presentation of theatre and performance art to international guests from countries as diverse as Ivory Coast, South Korea and Georgia.

The wartime appearance of the theatre’s exterior is appropriate as we’re at the Alfred ve Dvoře to see the World War II drama Aviators. Staged by the Wariot Ideal company, the piece tells the story of the young Czech men who joined the resistance to the Nazi occupation of their homeland, only to find themselves flying British bombers over Germany.

The most impressive aspect of the show is the design, in particular the beautifully made models-cum-puppets of Second World War bombers and fighter aircraft (RAF and Luftwaffe) which the company has constructed out of wood. The battle scenes (which involve smart movement of the models in cleverly designed lighting) just about manage to avoid seeming like boys playing with their toys.

A modest work, performed with skill, humour and pathos, Aviators is the kind of show that would fit well in the Edinburgh Fringe programme of a producer like Assembly or Underbelly. Indeed, over the course of the four days of the showcase, I would see a number of productions that seemed tailor-made for the sprawling arts extravaganza we call the Fringe.

Perhaps most obviously “Fringe-worthy” is Cross-country Odyssey by comic double act The Trick Brothers. Forget the Chuckle Brothers, think more Sacha Baron Cohen for a family audience.

Performed outdoors as part of the Nuselské Dvorky one-day festival of outdoor theatre and contemporary circus (a lovely event which serves the working-class community of Nusle, which is otherwise somewhat culturally neglected) the show is an absolute delight. In the piece, a pair (later a trio) of clownish characters muck around with ski equipment in a brilliant slapstick performance that is reminiscent of Cohen’s Borat at his physically comic best.

The charming Nuselské Dvorky festival is, in many ways, representative of the independent performing arts scene in Prague. Handmade, yet professional, with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, its performance programme also included the delightfully quirky Nitroscope (a series of avant-garde vignettes offered in the six segments of a circus tent) by Le Cabaret Nomade.

Which is not to say that every production in the showcase impressed. Batachhio, by the successful contemporary circus company Cirk La Putyka, is often impressive in its skill, but disappoints with its puerile line in retrograde, end-of-the-pier physical comedy.

Even more disappointing are Look, The World! (by the resident company of the Minor children’s theatre) and Paperboy (presented at the Minor by the Mime Prague company). If these shows are typical of children’s theatre in the Czech Republic, it would certainly be fair to say that work for young audiences is not the country’s strongest suit.

Very basic in their design and staging, both shows reflect an old-fashioned attitude (which has, thankfully, been almost eradicated from Scottish culture) that theatre for children is, somehow, second class. Unimaginative and built, largely, around simple physical comedy (such as falling over or playing peek-a-boo), neither production would come close to making the cut for the ever-excellent Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (the current edition of which opened yesterday).

The overriding sense from the HI PerformanCZ programme, however, is one of a vibrant and diverse independent theatre scene in the Czech Republic. The scene is exemplified by welcoming, Bohemian venues such as the Vila Štvanice Theatre and Studio Alta.

It is also epitomised by extraordinary artist Marketa Stranska, an amputee (she has only one leg) whose performance work Fly is beautiful, highly accomplished and brilliantly challenging to disablist assumptions.

The highlight of the showcase, for me, was the visit to the superb contemporary arts venue DOX (which is akin, in a number of ways, to Tramway in Glasgow) to see rehearsed fragments from Refuge, the latest work from the internationally acclaimed, Prague-based company Farm In The Cave. Scottish lovers of physical theatre may remember the company from their visit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, when they presented the powerful piece Sclavi: The Song Of An Emigrant as part of the late, lamented Aurora Nova programme.

Premiering at DOX on June 4, the show, even just as a work-in-progress, was already looking like something very special indeed. Combining superb live music and sound, with song, acting and the brilliant and emotive physical performance that has become director Viliam Dočolomanský’s trademark, it looks set to become an unforgettable and passionately urgent meditation on the condition of the 21st-century refugee.

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan could do a lot worse than get himself over to Prague for the premiere. Refuge could well be the kind of show he would like to consider for a future programme.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 27, 2018

© Mark Brown

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.

MEMOIRE DUN SABLIER#
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.

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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