A Mischievous Look at Post-1989 Democratic Theatre
Demoludy festival in Olsztyn, Poland, October 17 to 22, 2011.
Demoludy is a Polish abbreviation for ’democratic peoples’. This is how the peoples of the Soviet block used to refer to themselves and their socialist neighbours in Eastern Europe. If not at the time, then at least now the term cannot be pronounced with a pinch of irony. Therefore, Demoludy is an apt name for a festival dedicated to post-1989 theatre in the former peoples’ democracies.
As a festival, Demoludy came to be in 2007. It takes place in the town of Olsztyn in Poland under the artistic leadership of Marcin Zawada. In terms of theatre, Poland is a superpower with 80 international and 567 national theatre festivals annually.
With the 2011 edition it seemed to be Demoludy policy to invite performances which take a more mischievous than serious look at everything. But even though they don’t look serious, they are serious art, which seeks to build an understanding of where societies are going, or taking their citizens, their art, their cultural heritage. From a spectator’s point of view, it is pleasant to be aesthetically as well as intellectually entertained while considering these questions together with the performances.
Appropriately, the festival organized a public discussion under the heading ‘Demoludy laughs at demoludy’. The question was, if there is a sense of humour unique to post-socialist societies. The countries are at different stages in their new nation-building, e.g. Romania is poor now but was more affluent than Hungary in the 1970s. In Hungary it is young people who talk about the old Greater Hungary, whereas in Poland mainly the old remember how far Polish borders used to reach. The outcome of the discussion was perhaps that post-socialists rather laugh at their neighbours than at themselves, and that is because they don’t really know the neighbours, only their stereotypes.
A particularly successful production of a classic may reign the international circuit for quite some time. Not long ago both Shakespeare and Chekhov were definitely Lithuanian no matter where in Europe one went to the theatre. Lithuanian directors needed classics of Shakespeare’s and Chekhov’s calibre to tackle a mighty adversary, the Soviet power. Nowhere else were Shakespeare and Chekhov scrutinized with such attention, and consequently, Lithuanian interpretations were the yardstick with which other attempts at Shakespeare and Chekhov would be measured. Given the quality of the yardstick, it was perceived as nearly futile to challenge the Lithuanians, which served to prolong their reign.
Now the Hungarian Katona Jozsef szinhaz’s version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is so good that one should not expect a second opinion on The Trial anywhere anytime soon. Viktor Bodó’s direction of The Trial is called Rattledanddisappeared (in French Hachémenudisparu). It is more appropriate to speak of a play by Bodó and András Vinnai than a dramatization. Since its premiere in 2005 it has toured festivals in at least seventeen cities around Europe.
R&D is a comedy, mostly. It takes a mature mind to see Kafka as a comic writer, but once this obstacle has been overcome, there is no end to the delights in Kafka. And maturity does not necessarily equal old age, for Bodó was born in 1978! It is the pace, the physical imagination, the richness of allusions, the never-ending balance act between vulgarity and solemnity, and of course, the sheer skill of the actors which fill the production with surprises.
One actor looks like Al Pacino, another one like Andy Garcia, and they do half a scene’s worth of a mafia film. The poor Josef K. rides an invisible horse for a moment as if he were a hero from a Western. Playback singing pays homage to musicals, but just because it is playback, the tribute is questionable. Also, Levente Bagossy’s set is a narrow corridor in Frau Grubach’s boarding house, which makes the grand gestures of a musical number shrink while they are being performed. Bagossy has built a perspective, which makes the corridor continue all the way to the horizon. This leaves plenty of hiding places for actors in the wings, from where they can e.g. bump into Josef K. and make him lose balance, when Josef K. is in the middle of quite another scene. This is how the unexpected blows of destiny hit us.
It is worth noting that Bodó praises all arts, as the above examples show, except literature. Papers are thrown and blown about. When papers get stamped in a whirlwind scene of bureaucracy, it is the vehemence of stamping that counts, not the papers nor their content. The choreography in the scene resembles that of silent films of the Buster Keaton school. A novel has truly been transformed into a celebration of theatre.
Demoludy festival gave its full attention to music in other shows as well. Lost Czechoslovakia (in Polish Zaginiona Czechoslowacia) had its world premiere in Olsztyn’s own Teatr im. Stefana Jaracza.
Lost Czechoslovakia is a new play by Polish playwright Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk (born 1964). It tells about how difficult it is from today’s perspective to understand what happened to the Czech singer Marta Kubisova, whom the socialist authorities prevented from performing after the Prague spring of 1968.
I am told that in the history of anticommunist activity in Demoludy countries, men have received – and taken - most of the glory. This perhaps explains why Sikorska-Miszczuk has chosen her heroine from a neighbouring country. It may make it easier for the domestic audiences to handle a female heroine.
Joanna Fertacz plays the heroine Kubisova and Ewa Paluska is seen in the role of the author, who interrupts the other actors to offer an explanation, or most often, to share her sense of perplexity with the audience. Aleksandra Kolan plays the interrogator, who now tries to make Kubisova admit she was not treated so badly after all.
The playwright Sikorska-Miszczuk invites well-known cartoon characters on stage, played by actors, to comment, and even a giant hen parades threateningly, filling the tiny theatre space where Maria Spiss’ direction takes place.
There was more music in Stolik (A little table) by the Polish Karbido company, which was created in 2002. Four musicians tapped a table which had plenty of amplifiers under its surface. The opening number of Demoludy festival was a rock concert, where local Olsztyn groups masked themselves as Czech, Hungarian and Romanian groups. The musicians rushed backstage to change wig and costume, and returned to play beloved hits from the era of socialism. It was more than a joke, though: to create an endearing evening of rock goes against the definition of rock and is therefore an achievement.
In the Hungarian Maladype szinhaz’ performance Egg(s)hell actors threw eggs to each other in improvised sequences and movements, to the accompaniment of songs, which Olsztyn radio listeners had been asked to pick. Zoltán Balázs’ (born 1977) production could not possibly be full-scale improvisation, since there were plenty of set sequences, which ran to their logical conclusion even when the music had come to an end. Still, the result managed to praise the powers of imagination as well as to remind of the dangers involved: you cannot make a performance without breaking an egg.
Teatrul Mic from Romania brought its Sado-Maso Blues Bar by Maria Manolescu (born 1980), directed by Gianina Carbunariu (born 1977).
Sado-Maso Blues Bar tells the story of two friends, who come up with the idea of establishing a sadomasochistic bar in order to earn some money, and first of all, to lure as their first customer a former prison mate, to perform an act of revenge on him for prison-time humiliations.
In 90 minutes there is plenty of opportunity to make the audience share the boringness, which must be an essential part of the down-and-out life. I understand that playwrights and directors have a difficult time coming up with always new metaphors for the economic and social ruin after 1989.
Sado-Maso Blues Bar is performed in a space with windows so that the audience sees street life in the background. But when street goers made faces from behind the window, the theatre hastened to guide them away. Reality is welcome as long as it remains a metaphor for reality.
Sado-Maso Blues Bar offers, as one would expect, plenty of perspective into the various forms of submission between young males uncertain of just how far in life they will be able to reach. But sadomasochism is more a role play than a vocation. This paves way to a surprise ending, where the semi criminals turn into nursing as their new livelihood. Instead of a bar they open a kindergarten!
 Matti Linnavuori (born 1955) edits the Performance Reviews Section for Critical Stages. He is a free lance theatre critic for Finnish newspaper Satakunnan Kansa. He has also written and directed radio plays for YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company.