Latvian anthropology à la Alvis Hermanis
Normunds Akots 
Le célèbre metteur en scène Alvis Hermanis a monté au Nouveau Théâtre de Riga plus de dix spectacles inter-reliés sur les Lettons entre 2003 et 2010. Tout le matériau dramatique pour ces pièces, notamment les textes, a été créé par les acteurs eux-mêmes et était fondé sur de minutieuses observations de situations quotidiennes et des comportements humains. Si le remaniement se faisait en collectif pour la recherche de matériaux scéniques, de formes et de style, Hermanis a graduellement mis au point des principes de représentation qui permettent aujourd’hui de reconnaître ses spectacles et de les distinguer de ceux d’autres metteurs en scène. Cependant, la principale caractéristique de ce cycle est l’intérêt du metteur en scène pour la mentalité lettone afin de comprendre pourquoi notre situation présente est ce qu’elle est.
The well-known theatre director Alvis Hermanis in New Riga Theatre produced more than ten mutually interrelated performances about Latvians from 2003-2010. All the dramatic material for these performances, including texts, was created by actors themselves and was based on delicate observations of life situations and human behaviour. While collectively remoulding the material for stage and searching for appropriate forms and style, Hermanis gradually developed performance principles that today allow us to recognize and differentiate his performances from works of other directors. However, the most important trait of the cycle is the director’s attempt to research Latvian mentality with the aim of inquiring why our present is just as it is.
In 2003 after the international success of The Inspector General that brought Alvis Hermanis the Young Directors’ Project Prize (Max Reinhardt’s pen), he initiated rather peculiar stage-explorations focused on Latvians; and during the next seven years created ten performances focusing on this single topic. Regardless of the fact that Hermanis simultaneously directed other performances – both at home and abroad – it was exactly this recently completed performance cycle through which the principles of collective creativity in New Riga Theatre (NRT), the method of creating contact with audiences, the code of transforming life realities into stage reality, as well as stylistic criteria that are appropriate for conceptual approach, gradually crystallized. As the director himself admits, along with international recognition Hermanis in a way regained his inner peace, because from that time on he did not have to invent new surprises for the audiences in every new production and to struggle for audiences’ attention. Further on, he could easily concentrate on questions related to the essence of the theatre and the perspectives of its evolution in a contemporary world overrun by technologies.
The first assumptions appearing in the early stages of exploring Latvian-ness were roughly these: “The technologies that actors possess have to be radically changed. The monopoly on the imitation of reality that theatre previously owned has slipped out of our hands. In order to make contact with the spectator, we have to search for new levels of credibility.” Theoretically there was nothing to object to, since theatre is obliged to deal with similar questions once every twenty years on average; thus all the attention was focused on the process of manifestations of these assumptions in Hermanis’ own creative practice. Hermanis did not keep his audiences waiting and, in the same year, he created a performance in cooperation with actors that in fact laid the foundations for the rest of the so-called Latvian Cycle, which continues to move audiences all around the world. This performance was Long Life (premiere on December 9, 2003) where five actors without make up and text embody their characters and, in the manner of consecutive etudes, live through one day in the life of some old people in a shared flat with a completely convincing level of plausibility. The performance was not just a theatrical establishment of social fact, even though this aspect was substantial; it was rather a scenic condensation of an existential predetermination that causes us to preserve human respect, sympathy and all the contradictory feelings hidden in our heartbeats. In the space filled with authentic household objects that have served their time long ago, every detail revealed not just the natural striving for survival of those contemporary “extra people” but also the wish to preserve the value of the time long gone that is important to every individual. The emotional feeling – both the one rooted in the actors’ work and that received by audience – was quintessential, and the form of performance subtly thickened as a result of embodiment of this feeling. At the time, Hermanis rather vigorously argued against the vulgarized use of the Stanislavski system in Post-Soviet theatre and denied his own connection with it. Later, however, after a careful delving into Stanislavski’s late conclusions on the work of his life, Hermanis agreed with many of Stanislavski’s methodological approaches. From this point of view, Long Life was in fact openly centring on Stanislavski’s method of psychophysical action, scrupulously representing the outer appearance of action and human behaviour which leads to understanding the inner life of a character. Hermanis, for his part, complemented it with purely logical theatre rule – the more complicated the twists of the characters’ inner lives in the performance become, the more multi-layered become the feelings of spectator. The NRT actors accomplished it with such a high level of precision that the result was surprising not just for audiences but also for the creative team themselves. Afterwards, Hermanis continued his search for “technologies that actors possess” in various directions for a while, and only gradually took the route pointed out in Long Life.
While preparing Long Life, Hermanis also staged a performance based on The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky and gave it the meaningful title, Further (premiere on January 2, 2004). Here, he tried to embody some theoretical reflections on questions about how theatre should or could develop, facing the need to comply with conditions imposed by audiences. The complex idea did not completely materialize on stage, and this production did not provide Hermanis with the expected answer to the question of what to do further.
However, the director’s intuition did not deceive him: for the summer, he gave a new creative assignment to his actors – each of them had to find an ordinary Latvian, listen to the story of her/his life and then transform it into a small performance on stage. Thus, the next Latvian anthropology performance Latvian Stories came into being (premiered on October 12 and 13, 2004) consisting of 20 separate mono-performances fully created by the actors themselves. The live portrait gallery was comprised of representatives of various ages, characters, and professions who, just like the rest of us, tried to survive in the chaotic epoch of changes, with the stories of their destinies contributing as testimonies of our time. A bus driver, bathhouse attendant, kindergarten teacher, office cleaner, machine-operator, stripper, and other people working in mundane professions revealed the stories of their lives along with some reflections, which were transformed by actors using as dense manifestations of reality as possible. In order to attach even more importance to this, Hermanis substantiated his new approach to the creation of performances with a rather controversial slogan: “Any story of a human life is a much more powerful drama than all Shakespeare’s plays together,” which was readily echoed by many enthusiastic critics. Nonetheless, this marketing trick worked (in Germany also, by the way, where Shakespeare was replaced by Goethe) and Hermanis showed himself and others that a time of “theatre as a collective creation” had come indeed. His actors ceased to be figurines moved by director, and became wholesome artists whom the director respected as co-creators. It seemed that Hermanis had found that individuals in today’s divided and fragmented reality are not really able to believe a uniform narrative from a single viewpoint. The audience has ceased to trust a narrative that had previously served as an explanation of the world and now tries to refer to its own stories or those of its contemporaries. The sum provides an explanation of the reality which, even though simplified, is still understandable to everybody; besides also offering a true acknowledgement of human values which is not distorted by the media. Possibly, this served as an encouragement for Hermanis to pronounce the idea that the time when aggression was considered the best way of creating a dialogue with spectators in the theatre is gone, and to repeatedly formulate the credo of his theatre: “If the wish to beat and hit is so strong, I offer a new slogan – strike through tenderness.”
In 2005, Hermanis started to stage performances abroad and was mostly preoccupied with the stage versions of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Ice (in Frankfurt, Gladbeck and Riga). In addition to that, he created several new performances based on literary texts in Riga as well, among which the dramatization of the short story Sonia by Tatiana Tolstaya (premiered April 11, 2006) with Gundars Āboliņš as lead was truly outstanding. However, Hermanis never abandoned the Latvian research project. For over a year, actors diligently worked on new variations of stories that this time were united under the title, Latvian Love (premiered on September 15, 2006). The content of personal ads resonated with the theatre’s aim to research the ever-present wish to love and be loved. Each of the authentic thirteen scenes, performed with changing pictorial background, revealed a concept, emotional manifestation, a mixture of wishes and intents, and a model of behaviour existing among Latvians which dragged spectators into indefinable grounds of Latvian mentality. A suggestion to face their own everyday experience and to observe their own reflection in the mirror of the performance fascinated the audiences. The professionally sophisticated combination of lyricism and irony became an unrivalled substitute for imagination and formed a warm, trustful contact with the public. As one of the most important creative principles, the director proposed the inclusion of several focuses of attention in the performance structure. Pushing spectators to choose and edit the stage processes themselves, according to their emotional cardiograms, allowed him to avoid undesirable didactics from the stage. This “inner montage” (a term used by Hermanis) in a way provoked the spectator to become a co-author of the performance.
The three performances dedicated to ordinary people and daily situations were a thoroughly calculated move by the director. Above all, every spectator wants to see what most directly resonates with her/his life. The reality of life through meticulously selected details, the psychophysics of actors and embodiment into the character was almost immediately present on stage and formed a capacious illusion about life that goes on right outside theatre walls. However, adhering to the initially proposed “powerful drama of any human life” threatened to over-satiate the audiences as well as the actors themselves. How long can actors, in however talented and professional a way, perform variations on the same phenomenon of life where one all the time has to comply with manifest limits of spirit and intellect?
Alvis Hermanis paused for a while and, in cooperation with composer Jēkabs Nīmanis, focused on poetry. They created a minimalistic and lucid performance Fricis Bārda. Poetry. Ambient (premiered on December 14, 2006). Four actresses played the kokle(a traditional Latvian musical instrument) and the director linked it to poetry that was close to his heart, thus creating an atmosphere full of meditative impulses. He was mainly interested in the possibility of presenting poetry in theatre without the layer of the speaker’s personality; and maybe through this experiment, he found several ways to avoid this kind of hidden obstacle. One of these ways was to raise the performance theme or the “point in question” to the level of poetry, thus letting the performance gain additional dimensions that reached much deeper into the spiritual and social spheres.
The first testimony of that was The Sounds of Silence (premiered November 9, 2007 in Berlin and November 22 in Riga), a performance brimming with fantastic poetry where strikingly theatrical quintessence was extracted from the most tender form of protest against the surrounding reality. It was not possible to completely seal the notorious “iron curtain” and the rather naïve ‘philosophy of life’ of the 60s generation, with its comprehension of love and freedom, was still able to penetrate through it and arrive in Latvia; even if a bit late. Part of the youth at the time included this philosophy in their creative manifestation and action programme that contrasted with the officially allowed one and contained a sense of protest in a way that was difficult to combat. Others merely accepted it as an important part of their feeling of life that appeared in behavioural norms and fashion tendencies. The songs of Simon and Garfunkel, in terms of atmosphere and melodic flow, corresponded perfectly to the poetic idea of Hermanis and his gently sentimental view of the time when his parents were young. This, together with emotionally saturated etudes by actors, formed something that resembled an anthology of poems visualized on stage that transformed our abstract sense of time into beautiful and, at the same time, slightly sad memories of something experienced, sensed, and irretrievably lost. The work of every actor was expressive and living, comprising nuances of action and behaviour that were carefully observed in life and blended with the personality of the actor. Moreover, the director managed to add something characteristic for Latvians while also familiar to others. The pictorial figures and metaphors brought by the relics of age helped to create a multi-layered semantic field that captured the attention of audiences all over the world while, at the same time, offering an authentic aesthetic pleasure.
One more route was found in personifying the subject and focusing on a predetermined range of issues that in one way or another were linked to Latvian history which, due to state policy and the education system, remains a blank spot in the awareness of younger generations. The possibility to overcome forgetting and renew national solidarity or generational links can also act as one of the secrets of creation in theatre that is able to move society and make it turn to discourses long kept in silence. Alvis Hermanis tried this option in cooperation with actor Vilis Daudziņš in the performance Grandfather (premiered on January 16, 2009) that similarly to the Sounds of Silence was highly esteemed in many international theatre festivals. This performance was reviewed by Valda Čakare in Critical Stages No.2, thus I will just mention that the opinions expressed in the performance pushed spectators to confront and compare them in order to find pieces of truth about us, Latvians. The stories of three personalities fundamentally represent the influence of three different truths on the fate of the nation. Together they lighten a painful dilemma that is linked to the coordination of vitally essential values in the general scale.
The third way was to put a well-known, complex personality in the centre of the performance. It should be somebody with an expressive intellectual or spiritual aura, since behind every individual there is a transcending reality formed by her/his opinion of the world order. Besides, the way a person manifests it is a peculiar act of creation itself. If performance is able to reach it through a net of characters created by actors and the selection of events and situations, as well as through changes in conditionality of play, then authenticity and suggestive result is almost guaranteed, since a kind of a double game is created on stage where each “playback” can turn the vector of meaning in the most unpredictable direction.
The first time Hermanis experimented with this was in the performance Marta from the Blue Hill (premiered on February 26, 2009) where, through conversations of visitors gathered around the table, he investigated the personality and world-view of the healer Marta who was a well-known extraordinary personality in Latvia. Possibly her method was more based on intuition and personal aspects of faith; nevertheless, the way she employed it was an undeniably creative act of humanity. Even though the performance was in fact narrating something else, the aura of Marta’s personality played a huge role in the spatial atmosphere. Only through submission to it and transforming the thick layer of irony into a transparent one were the actors in the performance able to achieve an X-ray of Latvian mentality, showing some unpleasant symptoms of the nation’s diseases.
The twelve characters sitting around the table formed an expanded gallery where spectators could easily recognize their daily lives and those of their neighbours owing to behavioural details borrowed from everyday life and employed by the actors. At the same time, this increased the credibility of what was seen and allowed the spectator to shift towards an unexpected generalization through activities simulating generally known rituals, since the attempt of “apostles” to create a “legend of Marta” from the memories of people present is a powerful factor that characterizes a way of thinking. Employing a principle of inner affiliation where the content and its manifestation are mutually directed, the director grasped a hardly noticeable state of Latvian collective consciousness, and in his view this state is similar to a diagnosis that requires immediate treatment. Every nation is only able to survive as long as it embodies some common goals for the future. Nevertheless, once those goals do not surpass the mere process of waiting for the next “miracle”, a passive search for help in symbols, and the building of sugar houses, then our chances are fairly gloomy.
In 2010, Hermanis publicly announced that, at least for the time being, he had finished the theatrical-anthropological Latvian cycle, and premiered three performances that actors had been preparing for some time. Black Milk (premiered on April 8, 2010) was another poetic conversation with the spectator whose focus shifted to exploring the personified link between humans and domestic animals as equals in God’s creation. The Latvian peasant has always sensed his beast, the cow, is his living link with the Universe and love is dominant in the peasant’s attitude towards it. Love is exactly what is endangered along with the vanishing countryside inhabitants. The times rapidly become more and more pragmatic accompanied by a rationalized attitude towards the environment, and we are not able to avoid this destructive tendency any more. This is sad, since our souls become poorer and our link with nature is ever more consumerist. Hermanis interweaves all this into the visual text of his performance without avoiding an open embodiment of the homo ludens principle, where painfully metaphorical scenes interchange with household stories and the free interpretation of natural processes among six cows and one bull-calf. The graceful plasticity of the actresses is duly followed by the only male actor, and can be merely envied and enjoyed as an aesthetic challenge. The flow of changes from a cow to her mistress and the other way round, along with texts coming from both positions not only organically sketch the existence of a strong reciprocal link but also in a theatrical form convince us of their being natural and necessary in a world order that is now vanishing. While the mistress endures giving her cow over to the animal dealer, the cow also emotionally senses the passing away of her mistress. Nature has bestowed upon us those feelings, and Latvians have recorded them in their identity codes, thus acknowledging their value.
Though Ziedonis and the Universe (premiered on April 14, 2010), Hermanis again highlighted a very strong personality that is important for Latvians. In an easily recognizable way, visually speaking, and with an ever-present commentary that nothing is as we see it, because what we see is what we imagine, one of the most outstanding Latvian poets appeared on stage. The radiance of Imants Ziedonis’ personality deeply penetrates Latvian poetry, culture and society. Both philosophically and artistically, his works react to many problems and contradictions in our lives. They comprise lyrics with a paradoxical provocation, sensitivity with spirituality and deliberate publicity with playfulness. Furthermore, all this is permeated by the eternal and intransitive. The lyrical hero was interpreted as an attractive theatrical character with some traits of the sad clown, and his disorderly hairstyle was transformed into an irresistible symbol of thought, talent and creative spirit. Each person in this world has her/his own intellectual and spiritual theory of the Universe which is chosen, inhabited and paid for by her/himself. Nonetheless, it is not easy for somebody else to enter it, as we guard it as a unique space where we can truly be ourselves. It is said that once the attempt to peep inside is led by love, sometimes it can be successful, and this is exactly what NRT does: it gently knocks once, twice, forty nine times, and every time the slightly opened door shows something that is not possible to express in words but that we can still talk about from the stage and which we can approach rather by improvisation than by a verdict. Ziedonis does not know what to do with the motorcycle – the idol of his youth; Ziedonis chases girls and flirts with Eros; Ziedonis with a donkey climbs a mountain and enjoys levitation; Ziedonis gives interviews, listens to the speech of the President and plays with intonations; Ziedonis twists Tajiks round his fingers, argues with his doubles and discusses national identity; Ziedonis thinks about metaphysics, spitefulness and time, about postmodernism and art; Ziedonis thinks… When we are trying to know somebody, we are primarily trying to understand their way of thinking, and this is not for nothing. Each etude created by the actors starts and ends exactly with this attempt to reveal and understand the way of thinking and character of the lyrical hero. It is partly inherited and partly created by everyone as the principle of inner perception of space and time, and the proportions and intensity of uniting these categories in a single world-view determine the national code of Latvians. Every situation represented in the performance includes a theatrical attitude of Ziedonis towards events and stresses one substantial modus operandi of his personality – in all this hassle of life, one should not pass by her/himself because this is the only way of becoming, being and preserving oneself. This is a permanent act of self-creation or one of the highest conditions of the existence of the human spirit, and Hermanis in his performance has not only grasped it but, together with the actors, has managed to record the specifically Latvian nuances of this spiritual action that is almost impossible to verbalize. As we watch the performance, we can feel them, we can think about them, we can try to identify with them or feel affiliated to them, and be happy about the potential that theatre possesses once it truly pursues the art of liberating meaning.
There is one more thing to add: Kaspars Znotiņš, the protagonist of the performance, has succeeded with this part in recording his name in the history of NRT in capital letters. His “mythological character”, as the actor himself calls it, never becomes stuck in the centre of gravity in order to wittingly solemnize the scene with his presence. All he does is easily, as if passing by, provoke the situation through his action, sketch the contours of the public or private event, and with the ease of a butterfly go to the next thought or etude that might be going in a totally different and unexpected direction, while the spectator is still trying to attach the meaning and place the previous scene in the overall context of the performance.
Hermanis concluded the course of collective therapy for Latvians with Graveyard Party (premiered on May 16, 2010 in Vienna, and August 28 in Riga) that can be considered the scenic audience of a tradition we all know. Although nowadays the manifestation of this traditional festival has shifted rather far away from the sources established by our ancestors, its essence on the level of apprehension has still remained intact in every Latvian and is inherited from generation to generation.
The performance was created in cooperation with Wiener Festwochen and started with a short introduction about the Central Cemetery of Vienna and some peculiar Austrian traditions with regard to their deceased. After that, actors with various wind-instruments suitable for a chamber orchestra appeared on stage and started to play one mournful melody after another. Melodies were alternated with amusing stories by actor-musicians of what they had seen, heard and experienced in a number of cemetery festivals and funeral ceremonies. Most of those stories focused on a more or less entertaining plot, on an explicitly daily or realistically down-to-earth level, only occasionally trying to touch upon the course of the soul or bringing forward a metaphysically pointed contemplation. It was clear that both director and actors were tired of telling the Latvian stories; this time Hermanis had not worked on his director’s concept with his usual vigour and also did not assess the preparatory work of the actors as critically as before. The most important questions were left unanswered – why do we maintain this tradition and why is the link to the world of the dead still so important to us? Maybe the exact reason is that this tradition helps us to preserve something vitally necessary for the spiritual framework of the nation? The performance did not offer that kind of insight. The actors, through music and jokes, tried to create something similar to the contemporary commemoration day on stage. However, it did not solidify enough, and the most impressive component of the performance was the photography slideshow by Mārtiņš Grauds. The moments, people, and faces captured in black-and-white pictures truly excited the imagination and memory of every spectator, as well as forming a kind of nucleus for the vague notions that still exist in us in relation to cemetery festivals, the commemoration of the dead, and affiliation with the community still called “the Latvian nation”.
Looking back on the cycle in general, we could conclude that Alvis Hermanis is investigating the axiological meanings of contemporary truths or the values that attribute meaning to our existence. He states in one of the interviews: “Through the performances dedicated to Latvians, we are trying to unlock the error in Latvian mentality. There is an error, short circuit, something wrong in the list of characteristics of the Latvian. Therefore things do not go smoothly and end badly all the time.” Although, in fact, theatre did not reveal anything astonishing about the Latvian national character, Hermanis showed it in combinations that marked some new connections in the current structure of Latvian identity and even roused active discussions in the public sphere. If in the first performances of the anthropological cycle, the director kept playing with the idea that our lifestyle forms our soul and our soul shapes our face; then in later productions, he already worked with a more complicated idea, namely, that a human being is first of all and mainly an heir. Together with the actors, he scraped bits and pieces of the past in order to transform them into the present on stage and, by mutually equalizing past and present, to prevent the depletion of present in our consciousness.
Revised by Mick Greer, University of Lisbon
 Normunds Akots is a freelance critic, member of IATC, and publishes in the theatre journal Teatra Vestnesis, among others.
 Henrieta Verhoustinska, Geto jeb JRT kultūras nams, interview with Alvis Hermanis, Kas notiek, Nr 22, p 33, 2003.
 Alvis Hermanis, Ir jānāk jaunai idejai, Speech at the World Congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics in Sofia, Diena, May 2, 2008.
 Maija Treile, Latvijas režisors Alvis Hermanis: nacionālais pieskāriens un kļūda, interview with Alvis Hermanis, Kultūras Forums, December 18, 2009.