Natasha is the reviews editor and critic at The Stage. She’s the co-founder of Exeunt and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, the Independent, Time Out – and Balkanist. Here she tells us how European theatre has shaped her tastes and calls for us to see more of it on UK stages.
In June last year, director Oliver Frljic gave a fascinating lecture at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama entitled The Representational Weaknesses of Democracy and Theatre in the Early 21st Century.
Frljic is one of the most interesting European directors working today. Over recent years his work has made him the target of protests and threats. Following his 2016 production The Curse for Warsaw's Teatr Powszechny, the Polish cultural minister withdrew the funding from a festival he was guest directing. His work is provocative and unashamedly political, testing not just its audience, but the systems within which the work is created. If there’s a line, trust Frljic to find it.
Born in Bosnia, and based in Croatia, his work has been produced in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia and across Europe. But not the UK. Not yet at any rate.
During the lecture he showed his audience footage of a sequence from a 2017 work called Balkan Macht Frei in which an actor is water-boarded. This goes on for some time. You think it’s over, that there will be some release for the actor, and for the audience, but then it begins again. Even with the knowledge that we were watching a performance, and even though it was only a recording, it was upsettingly relentless – genuinely hard to watch. When this piece is performed live, Frljic explained that sometimes audience members intervene. I can understand why. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had quite such a visceral response to something.
Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen a fair amount of work in Europe (having family members overseas helps) and some of this work has been among the most invigorating and exciting I’ve ever seen. Chekhov with blood bags, Hamlet mashed up with Beckett, actors writhing in tanks of mud or lapping spaghetti from the floor, a piece about Slovenian governmental corruption that featured two real-life cars being driven on stage, a show’s entire set being fed piece by piece, plank by plank, through a wood chipper, and a troupe of actors ¬– five men, one woman – take a long luxuriant piss on a map of the former Yugoslavia (this last one was part of another show by Frljic, a piece called The Ristic Complex).
All of this has shaped my tastes as a theatregoer and a critic. It’s certainly made me more alert to how insular and polite so much of UK theatre can be, how repetitive in aesthetic and frustratingly tasteful (yes, I know, not all theatre, but still). It’s also forced me to consider what theatre is for, its wider social role. I’ve seen it be used as a tool to hold governments to account, to pick at national scabs, to grapple with the rise of the far right and the migrant crisis, to disrupt and challenge the status quo, to drive conversations and ruffle feathers while also still being adventurous, playful and entertaining. These things are not mutually exclusive. One of the things Frljic doesn’t get nearly enough credit for is just how funny his work can be, yet his recent piece AfD – Alternative for Deutschland? also ripped into state subsidised theatre while probing the fine line between representation and reality.
That’s not to say I haven’t also seen a lot of middling European work, I have., believe me when I say there are no borders when it comes to dullness and indulgence. There are also a number of things we’re decidedly better at in the UK, diversity being one of them, albeit relatively. Listening to Shermin Langhoff, artistic director of Berlin’s Maxim Gorky theatre and the only woman to run a major Berlin theatre, talk about German Theatre’s “big balls” culture was both galvanising and eye-opening.
In a recent article for The Stage, Lyn Gardner asked whether European theatremakers were more talented than those working here. She concluded that “the only difference is that often they are far better resourced and have more money. Our failure to support independent theatremakers is failing theatre’s future.”
This is true but I feel money is only part of the picture. There’s also a culture of international collaboration and cooperation that we are only peripherally involved in. In Kosovo, for example, I met a Swiss artistic director exploring ways of making work for and with the Kosovar diaspora in Switzerland. In Belgrade, I met a Czech fringe festival director keen to explore new models of programming work.
In the UK we currently only see a handful of European productions on our larger stages by a handful of high profile directors and companies from Western Europe and Russia (seemingly everything by Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, very little from Eastern Europe). Beyond that there’s LIFT, BE Festival of European work which takes place each year in Birmingham and the evolving Voila! Europe festival and its offshoot, A Piece of the Continent. The Unicorn Theatre’s incoming artistic director Justin Audibert recently said he’s committed to continuing the theatre’s internationalism, which is great as the Unicorn has been one of the most consistently interesting venues when it comes to the programming of European work.
It’s great but it’s not enough. In Kosovo, as a consequence of the fact that the country’s independence is not universally recognised, there’s a real issue with Kosovar artists getting visas. The former director of the National Theatre of Kosovo, playwright Jeton Neziraj, stressed how damaging this was – if you can’t see work other than your own, it leads to creative stasis.
Theatre is a communicative and collaborative medium. It benefits us as theatremakers, critics, citizens of Europe - and humans - to be able to see more of the work being produced by other countries. But at the moment it’s not all that easy to do that, and I can’t see it getting easier as we shuffle towards Brexit. Without the exposure to different theatre cultures, we risk islanding ourselves.