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(This review appeared in The EastAfrican May 2-8 2011)

A Scene from kafka’s Metamorphosis by Vesturport Theatre, Iceland
Photo by Luciano Rossetti © Phocus Agency

THE weeklong Europe Theatre Prize programme concluded on Sunday 17th April 2011 with the awards ceremony, the ‘Oscars’ of European theatre, at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in the picturesque city of St Petersburg, the culture capital of Russia.

The programme, which could be taken as a panorama of what’s on stage in the theatres of Europe, included performances from the various prize winners and it was notable that a good number of plays were not based on dramatic text but rather, adaptations from novels like Paul Auster’s Mr Vertigo, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Translator.

 The event, hosted by the Baltic House Theatre, also included the Europe Prize New Theatrical Realities, an award given to directors for innovative approaches to theatre production.

 Of these innovations, I was most taken by the experimentation in the use of theatre space, in particular, the production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis by the Vesturport Theatre from Iceland, one of the joint winners of the New Theatrical Realities award. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa (Gisli Örn Gardarsson, who was also co-director) wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a hideous insect.

 The set is a realistic representation of a tidy, conventional, middle class home in two storeys. The dining room is in the lower storey and in the upper storey, is Gregor’s room, which has been set such that his bed lies vertically against the back wall. The bedside lamp and a potted plant stand perpendicular to the back wall giving the audience the impression of a bird’s eye view of this room and a cross-section view of the rest of the rooms. Gardarsson, trained in gymnastics alongside acting, maintains this impression by hanging on to notches in the wall.

 What was also striking about this production is that Gregor’s physical appearance is not altered in any way. We understand that he has been transformed into something monstrous by the reaction of the rest of his family and the manner in which he crawls on the wall. As his sister Greta and the rest of the family become increasingly hostile to him, they end up looking like the monsters.

A scene from Goethe’s Faust by Vesturport Theatre, Iceland
Photo by Luciano Rossetti © Phocus Agency

The Vesturport Theatre also drew on the cast’s gymnastic skills to create a spectacular adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, the classic story of the man who sold his soul to the devil, in return for knowledge and worldly pleasure. A net suspended over the audience enabled Mephisto (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) and his cohort of demons to plunge seemingly out of nowhere, over the audience and scurry on to the stage.

“The Theatre” directed by Viliam Doolomanský from Czech and Slovak Republics
Photo by Luciano Rossetti © Phocus Agency

One of the other winners of the New Theatrical Realities award, Viliam Dočolomanský from the Czech and Slovak Republics presented The Theatre. Although I found the overall production lacking in cohesion of action, the redefinition of the theatre space was considerable. The audience sat backstage while part of the cast performed on the forestage and the rest of the cast played a ‘blind audience’ (they were blind-folded), sitting on benches at the front of the actual auditorium, thus inversing the performer/audience spaces.

Dočolomanský also had a chance to showcase The Journey, a work in progress, and I felt privileged to witness the beginning of the career of someone who is very likely going to be a leading director in the 21st century.

The festival programme included productions from St Petersburg and one of them was an appallingly substandard (considering the great theatrical tradition in Russia) adaptation of the book Moscow-Petoushki by Venedict Erofeev, directed by Andrey Zholdak.

Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” directed by Lev Dodin
Photo by Luciano Rossetti © Phocus Agency

However, my shuttered image of Russian theatre was redeemed by the production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters directed by Lev Dodin, the winner of the 8th Europe Theatre Prize, which by contrast, was excellent and in fact, the best production in the whole festival, in my opinion.

In this classic, tidy production, the three dimensional, psychological characters were a testament to the fundamental role of Stanislavsky’s method of acting in the success of Chekhov’s plays.

Unlike productions like Mr Vertigo by the National Theatre of Finland, which I thought tried too hard, (from the second half that I watched) with the audience being on stage on a revolving floor and a man suspended in the air, and many other such effects, in Three Sisters Dodin simply took the basic ingredients of drama, as defined in Aristotle’s Poetics, the plot, characters, language, music and spectacle, and made pure theatre.

A special prize was awarded to the Russian director Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov in recognition of the fundamental role he played with the Tangaka theatre during the transition from Soviet to modern-day Russia while the Europe Theatre Prize 2011, worth €30,000, was awarded to German director Peter Stein, one of the most prominent theatre directors of the second half of the 20th century.

“The Broken Jug” directed by Peter Stein
Photo by Luciano Rossetti © Phocus Agency

Stein’s imprint on the theatre scene has been made through his (re)interpretation of classical works like Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Goethe’s Faust and contemporary works like Edward Bond’s Saved, whose 1967 production earned him his spurs.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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