Feature: Festival de Almada, Portugal 2020 goes ahead despite the pandemic

From Edinburgh to Almada – a tale of two festival cities

Edinburgh’s festivals may have succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic, but elsewhere in Europe celebrations of the arts are coming back to life. Portugal’s Festival de Almada was the first to signal the recovery.


Rebota 2 - photo Quim Terrida
Agnes Mateus in Rebound Rebound and Your Face Explodes. Photo: Quim Terrida

Edinburgh this August is a city in double mourning. Reeling, like the rest of the UK, from the dreadful ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland’s capital is now reckoning with the cold reality that the health emergency has closed down its world famous arts festivals for the first time in their 73-year history.

By contrast, Austria’s Salzburg Festival has gone ahead, not as usual (physical distancing and other public health precautions are being observed), but the musical and theatrical show has gone on. Nor were the Austrians the first. That honour goes to Festival de Almada, Portugal’s premier theatre festival, which opened its doors, carefully and tentatively, between July 3 and 26.

An analysis of the relative Covid-19 statistics suggests that the Portuguese and the Austrians are beginning to reap the rewards of government responses to the pandemic that were earlier and more thorough than the “four nations action plan” that put the UK into a form of lockdown on March 23. The UK’s death toll, at around 66,000, the highest per capita in Europe, stands at an appalling one per thousand people; by contrast Portugal’s death toll is 0.34 per thousand, while Austria’s is 0.13.*

In this context, it was somewhat surreal to set off for Festival de Almada, an event that I have attended often as theatre critic of this newspaper and its predecessor the Sunday Herald. I knew that Portugal had gone into a far stricter lockdown (a “state of emergency”, no less), considerably earlier in the curve than the UK.

I also knew that the targeted, local lockdown measures in certain areas of Greater Lisbon that had been announced in late June were evidence, not of the virus getting out of control, but of the relative success of Portugal’s test, track and isolate measures. Nevertheless, as I undertook the permitted “necessary travel” to Lisbon and, across the River Tagus to Almada, I knew that, due to measures introduced by the governments at Westminster and Holyrood, I would have to quarantine for 14 days upon my return to the UK.

Writing this piece from quarantine in Scotland is a decidedly odd experience. Throughout my visit to Portugal I felt much safer than I did walking on a busy Argyle Street in Glasgow shortly after the Scottish government reopened the retail sector in early July.

Accustomed to far stricter Covid measures than the people of Scotland, most Portuguese observe mask wearing and physical distancing assiduously. By late April, the Portuguese government felt confident enough to announce that theatres could reopen, as long as public health precautions were observed.

For Festival de Almada, the annual programme of Portuguese and international theatre staged by Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite/TMJB (the beautiful local theatre of the city of Almada), this meant that their 37th edition could go ahead as planned. The festival is programmed by Rodrigo Francisco, director of TMJB, who took the reins following the death in 2012 of the event’s founder (and Francisco’s mentor), the great theatre director Joaquim Benite.

Going ahead “as planned” was only possible, Francisco tells me when we meet at TMJB, because the festival had not only a plan A, but also “plans B, C and D”.  “We never stopped preparing the festival”, the director explains.

For Francisco, it was his duty to continue planning to hold the festival, in one form or another, in case the government announced the reopening of Portugal’s theatres. “We didn’t say ‘we’re not going to do it’ because this theatre is not ours, it belongs to the citizens”, he says.

“We organise the festival, but we do it with public funding. We didn’t have the right to say, ‘okay, we go home.’ That’s not what we do.

“Our public duty is to make theatre happen for people. I couldn’t understand some theatres that closed down in March and said they would be back in September.”

The consequence of the director’s preparedness was that Festival de Almada was able to present a reduced, but nevertheless impressive, programme of theatre. The large scale international shows, which, this year, were due to include works from countries such as Germany, France and Ireland, had to be cancelled, due to the uncertainty over air travel.

However, the festival managed to maintain an international dimension with productions from Italy, Spain and Catalonia. The companies bringing these shows agreed that, if flights were an issue, they would travel to Portugal by road.

The new Portuguese work, with the exception of Francisco’s own production of Martyr by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, had to be cancelled. However, the gaps in the programme were filled by existing, Portuguese single-actor productions, which are far easier to stage under coronavirus conditions.

The staging of the festival, while Portugal’s National Theatres in Lisbon and Porto remained closed until the autumn, met with considerable approval from the political class. The opening nights were attended by such luminaries as the president of the republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, prime minister Antonio Costa and state secretary for culture Nuno Artur Silva.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa - photo Rui Mateus
The president of the republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa addresses the opening night audience at Festival de Almada 2020. Standing to his left are Ines de Medeiros (mayor of Almada), Nuno Artur Silva (state secretary for culture) and Rodrigo Francisco (director of Festival de Almada). Photo: Rui Mateus.

“We are the first summer theatre festival in Europe that actually took place”, says Francisco. “For those in political power it was important to show people that it was possible to keep on with our lives, whilst keeping to the coronavirus rules, of course.”

Interestingly, the director is not aware of anyone within the Portuguese political class or the mainstream media who criticised his decision to go ahead with this year’s festival. There may have been criticism on social media, he says, but he doesn’t look at it.

At the festival itself one is constantly aware of the (too) much vaunted “new normal”. In the venues, audience members are required to mask-up before entering.

Encouraged by staff to enter two metres apart, and to use the hand sanitiser available at every theatre entrance, festival goers are seated according to strict social distancing. At the end of the show, ushers empty the auditorium row-by-row.

Most of the programme is comprised of smaller scale shows, but Francisco has programmed as many as five productions at any given time, in order to spread audiences around. The director is the first to acknowledge that this way of doing things, with box office takings for each show slashed by more than half, is not commercially sustainable in the longer term.

However, he stands by his decision to press ahead with this year’s programme. The question of public health was one for the authorities, and Francisco followed their instructions to the letter.

The decision to stage the festival came about, the director explains, following a full-scale phone survey of the event’s 600 loyal subscribers. In April theatre staff called everyone on the subscription list, asking them, firstly, how they were coping with the pandemic, and, secondly, if they would be interested in coming to the festival if the conditions allowed it to go ahead.

More than half said they would attend, many others said they would buy a subscription for someone else. “When you have more than 300 people saying they want to come – at a time when people could not go out of their homes, except to go to the supermarket – it gives you a sense of the importance of this festival, of theatre, and of art in general to people’s lives”, comments Francisco.

Johan Padan by Mario Pirovano - photo Fabio Pirazzi
Mario Pirovano performs Johan Padan and the Discovery of America. Photo: Fabio Pirazzi

The audience, Covid-aware and encouragingly diverse in its age demographic, was treated to a number of theatrical gems. Superb Italian actor Mario Pirovano presented his late friend and mentor Dario Fo’s solo piece Johan Padan and the Discovery of America, while Catalan performer Agnes Mateus played Rebound Rebound and Your Face Explodes, a high-octane, excoriating, darkly comic work about domestic violence against women.

In the Portuguese programme, Andre Murracas presented his noirish one-man play The Servant, based upon the famous film of Robin Maugham’s novel, starring Dirk Bogarde. The A Turma company, from Porto, staged Tiago Correia’s new play Turismo, a contemporary contemplation of the impact on Portugal of a tourism that is, ironically, largely absent in these times.

For his part, Francisco felt fortunate that, in having opted, pre-pandemic, to produce a play with entirely young and middle-aged characters, he could continue rehearsals of Martyr through the spring. In the preparatory Zoom meetings with the cast, people were dubious about the possibility of conducting real rehearsals in the studio.

However, “when we got in the rehearsal room, the problem was solved in five minutes”, the director says. “I kept the mask on, and they took theirs off.”

Such abandon might seem blasé, even reckless to some in the Covid-ravaged UK. However, perhaps it is the fruit of Portugal’s earlier and more thorough response to the pandemic.

Few, if any countries – not Portugal, not Austria, and certainly not the nations of the UK – are out of the Covid woods yet. But Festival de Almada points towards a more hopeful future for our culture.

*Source: Financial Times analysis of excess deaths data

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on August 9, 2020


© Mark Brown

Feature: Czech puppet theatre showcase

Czeching out the wonders of puppet theatre

Puppet theatre is neither old-fashioned nor just for children, as Mark Brown discovered at a recent showcase in the Czech Republic

Zuna #1.jpg
Natalia Vanova in Zuna. Photo: A. Vosickova

Everyone loves puppets. Whether it is childhood memories of that politically incorrect British seaside institution Punch and Judy, or reminiscences of Jim Henson’s far more ideologically sound Sesame Street, puppets evoke a strong emotional response.

The spectacular, much-loved puppets in the National Theatre (of Great Britain’s) excellent stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse, have set a new benchmark for British puppetry.

Puppets, like the animated cinematic and televisual characters that came after them, can do and say things that are more outlandish than any mere human can achieve. Perhaps this is why, even in the nations of the UK (where the traditions of puppet theatre are not especially strong), there remains a strong attachment to these most beguiling of stage creations.

For all of this affection for puppets, however, the fact remains that puppet theatre is largely marginal in the theatre cultures of Scotland and the other nations of the UK. The fact that the keepers of the flame of Scotland’s puppet theatre heritage (the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre) run a limited programme from an unprepossessing building tucked away in a corner of the West End of Glasgow (a much-needed redevelopment is planned) tells its own story.

Elsewhere in the world, however, from the globally famous shadow puppetry of China and India to the revered puppet traditions of central and eastern Europe, puppetry is a far more serious, and celebrated, affair. Nowhere is that more true than in the Czech Republic, where puppet theatre remains very much a part of the national culture.

Little wonder, then, that the recent HI PerformanCZ showcase of Czech theatre should have been comprised primarily of puppetry. Hosted by the Czech national conservatoire (the country’s Arts and Theatre Institute) and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, the programme offered international guests, ranging from theatre directors to humble critics, the opportunity to sample the delights of contemporary Czech puppetry.

The showcase coincided with Prague’s somewhat cumbersomely named One Flew Over the Puppeteer’s Nest Festival (one can only assume the title sounds more charming in Czech). However, it also comprised visits to puppet museums and puppet and children’s theatres in the cities of Pilsen and Hradec Kralove, and the beautiful little town of Chrudim, in eastern Bohemia.

The puppet museum in Pilsen (which one could combine with a visit to Europe’s second biggest synagogue, truly an architectural wonder) is an educational delight which displays a wonderful variety of historical Czech puppets. The Chrudim museum has an even more impressive collection, telling, as it does, the stories, not only of the golden years of Czech puppetry in the 19th century (when the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but also of other great puppet theatre traditions around the world.

Back in Prague, the beautiful, little show Zuna was a highlight of the puppet festival. The piece combines lovely, traditional puppets with live music and a story that is both folkloric and modern (the heroine, a young girl called Zuna, undoes a Faustian pact in order to be reunited with her beloved mother).

By turns humorous and touching, the play tells the story of a woman who, despairing of her childlessness, conceives a child with the assistance of a seemingly benevolent, old witch. In a lovely example of modern folklore resetting the gender assumptions of such stories, it features a comically gossipy and foolish gaggle of townsmen, whose inquisitiveness as to the woman’s sudden pregnancy leads them into wonderfully gruesome, supernatural trouble.

To Scottish eyes, the show is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, its primary artist, talented author and performer Natalia Vanova, is a young theatremaker who has, in recent times, chosen to learn the techniques of puppetry.

Secondly, the work is produced by Continuo Theatre, an acclaimed Czech company known, first-and-foremost, for its street shows, of which puppet theatre is merely a strand. That Vanova and Continuo should alight together upon this new-yet-traditional puppet play is an indication of just how prevalent the art form is within Czech theatrical culture.

The festival gave a tremendous sense of the diversity of Czech puppetry. The Smallest of the Sami (by the Czechoslovakian Sticks company) tells a story of survival in the arctic north by means of the tiniest of tabletop figures. Both humorous and surprisingly engaging, it is part of an intriguing, increasingly prominent miniaturist strand in global puppetry.

The Bartered Bride (by Puppet Theatre Ostrava) recreates Smetana’s famous comic opera as a work of musical puppet theatre for families. Played metatheatrically in a theatre-within-a-theatre (at Prague’s wonderful children’s playhouse, Divadlo Minor), it is a gloriously colourful coming together of puppets and performers.

One might add to these a delightful telling of Oscar Wilde’s children’s story The Happy Prince (by Lampion Theatre) and DRAK Theatre’s Oddball (a clever and carefully considered interplanetary piece about autism).

Should, in the years to come, young Scottish theatremakers wish to take a turn towards puppetry, the Czech Republic would be a good place to start.

This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on November 17, 2019

© Mark Brown

Reviews: FIAMS international puppet theatre festival, Saguenay, Quebec, 2019

Beautiful theatre – with strings attached

Puppet theatre sits on the margins of Scottish theatre culture. However, as Mark Brown discovers at the FIAMS festival in Quebec, puppetry offers a world of wonders.

Le Cirque Orphelin (2)
A puppet from Le Cirque Orphelin. Photo: Les Sages Fous 

As the Edinburgh festivals get into full swing, the focus tends to be on the big name comedians and actors. Little attention is given to puppet theatre. A relatively neglected art form throughout the UK, puppetry is more celebrated in other countries, not least in Quebec, as the wonderful, biennial programme of FIAMS (Saguenay International Festival of Puppet Arts) attests.

The City of Saguenay (a concept created in 2002, throwing a blanket over the small cities of Chicoutimi and Jonquiere and the town La Baie) is located some 288 road miles north of Montreal. Sitting on the banks of the Saguenay River, and boasting an impressive fjord, the city has a population of approximately 145,000 (similar to that of Dundee).

Local people are justly proud of FIAMS, which celebrated its 15th edition between July 23 and 28. The event attracts practitioners of puppet, object and mask theatre from around the world; including, this year, artists from countries as diverse as Mali, China, France, Mexico and, of course, Canada itself. The companies from Quebec often shone the brightest.

The outstanding show of this year’s FIAMS programme was, for my money, Le Cirque Orphelin, by Quebecois company Les Sages Fous. Highly original, beautifully quirky, sometimes disconcerting and, often, very funny, it creates, in a room that is the quintessence of dilapidated urbanism, a miniature circus of vagabond artists.

The Equilibrist, for example, is a puppet comprised of only a head and two arms, who performs brilliant acrobatics. He is joined by a high-octane character who zooms around in a wheelchair and a besotted, male figure who, ultimately, achieves his dream of swimming in the circus aquarium with the seductive mermaid.

The piece enjoys superb, atmospheric music and sound, excellent lighting and charmingly distinctive puppets. Most impressively, it brings all of these elements together in a memorably consistent aesthetic.

Aisselles et Bretelles (Armpits and Braces), performed for Quebec’s Theatre CRI by the fabulous Guylaine Rivard, is one of the most inventive, humorous and downright crazy shows I have ever seen. It is a work of object theatre in which the objects emerge, primarily, from with Rivard’s extraordinary, unfolding costume.

Children’s folk tales are referenced and expanded upon as the performer constantly alters her attire. Architectural wonders appear (and disappear), cartoons illustrate the action and amuse the audience, Donald Trump pops up hilariously as the absurd villain he is.

The effect of all this frenetic, borderline insane activity is to render Rivard (whose aesthetic is Terry Gilliamesque in both its visual and comic aspects) as a kind of one-woman Monty Python.

Dissection, by Quebec company Chantiers (makers of the haunting Petite Pousse), is a powerful example of the truly dark possibilities of puppetry. A show very much for adults, presented in half-light, it is a bleak work of visual, symbolist poetry. As a disquieting, live soundscape is created, the distinction between the human body and the puppet form is blurred emotively.

What seems like a dead, male, human body appears to be dragged through a forest. A woman pulls, first, a fish, then, an apple from her stomach. As she raises the apple to her mouth she disconnects a mask from her face and, appearing to have two visages, finally bites into the apple.

FIAMS also presents a great deal of work for children. The deliciously mad, wonderfully detailed Cache-Cache Marionettes (a Quebecois co-production between Theatre Puzzle of Montreal and Saguenay’s own Theatre La Rubrique) takes its family audience through the forest.

We encounter a fabulous panoply of puppet creatures (all made from branches and leaves), including a large, antlered animal (a moose or a caribou, perhaps) which is, understandably, terrified of “les humains”. Hilarious, engaging and wonderfully participatory for kids, it is an absolute joy.

Leaving Saguenay and heading for the cultural explosion of the Edinburgh festivals, it is obvious that the contribution of puppet theatre to the world’s biggest showcase for the arts can be overlooked. Some attention might be paid to the adult Broadway puppet comedy Avenue Q (Hill Street Theatre, until August 25) and the live shows (one for families, another for adults) of TV star Basil Brush (Underbelly, Bristo Square, until August 15 and 25, respectively), but there’s more to puppetry on the Fringe than that.

Puppet King Richard II (PQA Venues @ Riddle’s Court, until August 14), for example, combines two actors, recycled utensils, hand-carved Czech puppets and live music to present Shakespeare’s famous play. In Cabaret of Curiosities (theSpace @ Symposium Hall, until August 24) the puppet master of ceremonies Count Ocular (who has an eye for a head) presents a “gothic, vaudeville experience”.

Beyond the Fringe, Scotland does have some celebrated artists in the field, especially those (such as Andy Manley and Shona Reppe) who are making work for children. In addition, the annual Manipulate festival (held every February in Edinburgh) includes puppetry in its diverse programme of visual theatre and animated film.

However, returning from the FIAMS festival, one can’t help but wish that we would embrace more fully the delightful versatility of puppet theatre.

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on August 4, 2019

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Festival de Almada, Portugal, 2019

Isabelle Superb!

The excellent Portuguese theatre showcase Festival de Almada was illuminated by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert in the role of Mary Queen of Scots, writes Mark Brown

Isabelle Huppert in Mary Said What She Said. Photo: Lucie Jansch

As Scotland gears up for the biggest cultural jamboree on the planet, it’s good to be reminded that other summer arts festivals are available. One of the finest, in my experience, is Festival de Almada, Portugal’s major programme of international theatre.

Hosted in the small city of Almada and, across the River Tagus, in Portugal’s beautiful capital city, Lisbon, the festival was the brainchild of the late, great theatre director Joaquim Benite. Now ably directed by Rodrigo Francisco (who was, for many years, Benite’s trusted assistant at Almada’s Municipal Theatre), the programme has just completed its 36th edition.

The most anticipated show at this year’s festival was Mary Said What She Said, a “monologue in three parts” written by acclaimed American author Darryl Pinckney for an imagined Mary Queen of Scots. Starring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert and directed, for Parisian theatre company Theatre de la Ville, by the outstanding American stage director Robert Wilson, the piece delivers on its promise abundantly.

Presented in the superb theatre of Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon, Wilson’s production is characteristically stylised and modernist. Huppert, costumed in a tastefully understated period dress, performs on a naked set which is illuminated by stark ever-changing, abstract images on the back wall.

The simplicity and conceptualism of the staging serves to concentrate the mind, not only on Huppert, but also on Pinckney’s remarkable script (which draws upon Mary’s letters). Huppert plays the piece in French (which was, of course, accompanied in Lisbon by Portuguese supertitles); but I had forearmed myself with Pinckney’s original, English-language text.

The play is structured like a modernist musical score, such as you might expect of Leos Janacek or Anton Webern. The performance is accompanied throughout by a wonderfully dramatic and diverse musical score by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi.

Pinckney’s Mary expresses herself, in both live and recorded speech, in fragments of fear, bitterness and defiance which vary and repeat like a musical composition. She speaks her anger at her betrayal, abandonment and incarceration in a startling outburst: “I hate France… (Adieu, adieu, ma France.) I hate Scotland, but most of all do I hate England.”

Huppert performs Mary in her various states – from the calm resentment of her memories to the frenzied urgency of her final days – in a style that is breathtakingly varied, bold and unapologetically theatrical. In the final section, the actress (who, at 66 years, is some 22 years older than Mary Stuart was at her death) performs a stunning, frenetic, modern choreography in which brilliantly quick, angular movement propels the Queen towards her end.

Wilson’s audacious theatre-making attracts intelligent, fearless actors. He said of Huppert recently: “She can think abstractly. If I would work with Meryl Streep or any of the [American] actresses that we know internationally, it would be impossible for them to think formally, abstractly the way Isabelle can.”

Wilson skewers Streep (and her Hollywood contemporaries) on his praise of Huppert; which, surely, is a luxury he has earned in more than 50 years of creating avant-garde theatre. He is correct, of course. The outcome of his collaboration with Huppert is a piece of large scale chamber theatre (a Wilsonian paradox if ever there was one) that is worthy of any great theatre showcase, including our own Edinburgh International Festival.

Elsewhere in the Festival de Almada programme, Alessandro Serra’s Macbettu (performed in the gorgeous Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II in Lisbon), truncates Shakespeare’s Scottish play and relocates it to the Italian island of Sardinia. Performed, Elizabethan-style, with an all-male cast and in the Sardinian language, it is a work of tremendous, bleak imagery, fine acting and affecting music and sound.

The commedia dell’arte-style witches are performed with great skill and humour, but seem like a distracting entertainment, rather than an integral part of the drama. More damaging still is the virtual erasure of the sexual tension between Lady Macbeth and her vacillating husband, which is the beating heart of the play.

The French piece Saison Seche (Dry Season), which played at Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite in Almada, is a courageous and direct work in which seven young women conduct the ritual destruction of a symbolic, masculine prison space. Although it is impressive in visual, technical and performative terms, its crotch-grabbing, public urinating stereotypes of inevitably “toxic” masculinity are tired and disappointing.

Edinburgh Fringe favourites Familie Floz (from Berlin) presented Dr Nest, which they played here last year to such acclaim that it was the 2019 festival’s “Show of Honour”. A typically excellent work of mask and physical theatre, this touching and humane piece, set in a psychiatric institution, lost some of its intimacy in being performed in the large, outdoor auditorium of the Escola D. Antonio da Costa in Almada.

Such is the diversity of Festival de Almada, which, this year, boasted work from countries as diverse as Argentina, Spain, Belgium, Norway and, of course, Portugal itself. This ever-impressive showcase remains a gem in the Portuguese cultural crown.

This article was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on July 21, 2019

© Mark Brown

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

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

Reviews: 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

Memorias #1
Memories Of An Hourglass

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.

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.

The 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