OPINION

Letter from Tallinn

Tallinn, on the periphery of our European empire that stretches to 25 countries and 450 million people, on the frozen Baltic Sea region across the Gulf of Finland, only 80 kilometers to the north of Helsinki, and some 300 kilometers to St Petersburg, experienced its Golden Age a long time ago: from the 14th to the mid-16th century, when the city flourished as a member of the Hanseatic League. Consequently, the history of Estonian theater started around that time. The first play was performed in the 16th century at the same Tallinn Town Hall, where the opening ceremony of the Second International Theater Festival, appropriately named Winternight Dream II, was held 10 days ago. The event was supposed to be a festival of small stages, where exciting productions from Europe and elsewhere are invited. Yet this year theaters from Germany and Russia brought a number of such opulent and far-flung «concepts» of modern director’s theater that they did not fit into the small stages of the beautifully renovated complex of theaters and halls in the best-preserved Gothic town of the European north. Although it’s hard to imagine anything more likely to sabotage a play than modern-day gimmicks unleashed on the defenseless actor trying to cast human light on familiar plays, I must confess that both Frank Castorf’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s «A Streetcar Named Desire,» rebaptized «Terminus America» and Andrii Zholdak’s “Experience: The Seagull” based on Chekhov’s play, were the most interesting offerings of this festival. According to Frank Castorf, stage director and since 1992 artistic director of Volksbuhne, in Berlin, the «comprehensive will» that welds together the contradictory expressions on stage stems from «an anger at reality.» Could that be the reason why his Blanche Dubois acted like an X-rated geisha, and his Stanley Kowalski fails to carry himself with the self-assured, animal intensity so crucial to the character of Stanley and acts instead as a Polish immigrant in this postmodern foray? One of the biggest names in today’s German theater, Frank Castorf specifies the current mission of Volksbuhne in view of the historic changes as follows: «A barely enlightened 19th-century conscience merges with the consumer fury of the 21st century. This Americanism, the desire for consumption and wealth, was forced upon the East German hinterlands. At night, when the citizens go to bed, pogroms lurk. Fascist souls get rid of their decent European connoisseur disguise. Conflicts become massive. Theater only needs to give them a shape. As a whole, this implies a terrorist dimension.» Marja Jacobson, actress of Endla theater commented: «Being active in the same field, occasionally I got irritated by actors who were not ‘acting properly’, that is realistically and logically as in the Russian theater tradition. Yet, this goal, to destroy the ‘normal, usual’ pattern of theater, probably aims to irritate the audience and to make them think.» The Russians, on the other hand, came with a postmodern Chekhov. Andrii Zholdak, who directed «The Seagull,» says about his production: «I wanted to experiment with the actor’s ability to use a complete range of their expressive means to present a classical play in a new way.» So, his Irina Nokolayevna Arkadina seemed a close kin to Gandalf, Boris Trigorin looked as he had joined Sauron’s nefarious quest for dominance, and Konstantin Treplev behaved just as Frodo when he falls under the dark spell of the Ring. The director sets the action in a seemingly deserted factory, post-industrial style. Furthermore, there were other productions from Finland, Sweden, Thailand and Greece. The Greek participation to this festival came from a group – called Actoriones – which I never had the occasion to witness while in Greece. This very low-profiled ensemble presented «Agamemnon and the Daughter of Tyndareus» by a non-existent author Y.L. Popovich («It is a pseudonym compiling at least two writers» as was mentioned during the press conference) which is based on the writings of Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides. Yet «it is a contemporary play with judgments based on contemporary values,» as the program specified. Which present-day values these were remained unspecified. No in-yer-face nastiness here as in the aforementioned productions. Just the sacrifice of some daughter in the interest of war, the murder of an unfaithful husband, justice through vengeance. Vassilis Laggos, director, performer, teacher and actor as well as creator of Actoriones, was born in Poland (of Greek parents) and has participated «in theatrical and para-theatrical workshops» of the Grotowski’s legendary Polish Laboratory Theater. It shows. Grotowski, who rejected all forms of theater save his own, which he called Poor Theater some decades ago, set out to ask himself the fundamental question: What is Theater? His answer was some sort of a theater, that although broke (no make-up, no lighting and sound effects, no furniture and props), was clearly directed at an elite. «We are not concerned with just any audience,» he declared, «but a special one.» For this end the actor and only the actor is the high priest. He is the one who creates the dramatic action and, at the same time, guides the audience into it. The actor must learn how to use his role to dissect himself, as if his role were a surgeon’s scalpel. He should expose his spiritual process creating his character. If this is good for Grotowski, it also seems good for Vassilis Laggos, who on the side has also studied the Anatoly Vassilyev’s techniques in Moscow. While in Tallinn, at a midday workshop with local actors, Vassilis Laggos demonstrated his training techniques based on a rigorous physical exercise. Never frozen in a particular period or style, Laggos’s Agamemnon had the confidence of his own fluid audacity. The play will have its Athens premiere later this month, so I shall have to see it once more so I can be confident whether directing and acting were, at long last, in collusion or in collision. Anyway, the Estonians really loved it. «I have never seen Greek theater before. I am so impressed,» said a lady sitting next to me. Compared to other Europeans, Estonians go to the theater a lot. About 800,000 tickets are sold annually in a country with a population of 1.5 million. What would be an astonishing indicator for any other country, for Estonia denotes a low point; compared to the last years of the Soviet Union, audiences have diminished by half. Bad as the Soviet occupation may have been – during Stalin’s purges some 20,000 Estonians were condemned to Siberian labor camps in March 1949 alone – it offered Estonians some privileges unknown in our democratic times. Theater has always been one of the toughest areas to censure. Consequently in 1985, the number of visits to the theater was equal to that of the whole population: 1.5 million. After the restoration of Estonia’s independence (1991) the theaters were astonished by the disappearance of audiences. Strangely, although Estonia is one of the rare countries where practically everything is privatized – economic reform during the EU accession process has been pursued more assiduously here than in the EU itself – generous state subsidies still nourish the nine state and one municipal theaters in this country. Theater provides work to more than 2,000 persons all over Estonia. Jaan Taette is the country’s most successful playwright at the moment. His plays are performed in Germany and other places in Europe. His latest – the fourth – «Happy Everyday,» a comedy, was shown during the festival, and will probably be seen soon in Greece.