Letter from Turin

Turin: This magnificent baroque city, all arcaded shopping streets, grand squares and chocolate houses, had its «Notte Bianca» again last week. After the success of the recent Winter Olympic Games, the start of the Paralympics was launched on Friday with street concerts, theater shows and shops and bars open until very late into the night. Since the unification of Italy in 1861, Turin – the «capital of the Alps» – has also reinvented itself as the city of arts. Last week, Turin hosted the 10th edition of the Europe Theater Prize – the most important European acknowledgment of theater personalities or companies that «have contributed to the realization of cultural events that promote understanding and the exchange of knowledge between people.» Needless to say, apart from a mention of Melina Mercouri in past years, the name of Greece has hardly ever been mentioned here. This year’s event is part of the special program for culture realized on the occasion of the just-completed Winter Olympic Games. One of my main experiences while in this Olympic city is that, unlike Athens, in Turin one finds a city putting on a show not just of sporting prowess and of fine new Olympics-related architecture, but a place of civic sense and intelligent urban planning on a quietly heroic scale. And, most important of all, none of Turin’s Olympic buildings will go to waste when the skaters and skiers have left town. During the past week we have been driven to buildings that have been transformed into theaters immediately after the Olympics. The Europe Theater Prize was born in 1986 as a pilot program launched by the European Commission and recognized by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe as the «organization with the European cultural interest.» To the prize winners and theater people, the event offers five days of conferences, meetings, theater play previews, lectures, videos and publications. It is an appointment that attracts artists, critics, journalists and academics as well as theater and festival directors from all over the world. This year there was substantial Greek participation: Professor Liza Sakellaridou from Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University, Antonis Antypas and Victor Arditis, stage directors from Athens, Nikitas Tsakiroglou and Andy Bartzillis, artistic directors from the State Theaters of Thessaloniki and Nicosia, and about half a dozen theater critics from Greece and Cyprus, including myself. Members of the International Association of Theater Critics gathered here from all over the world for a congress which, although having as its theme «The End of Criticism?» did not come to Turin to bury criticism but rather to praise it. And although the first speaker, Nikolai Pesochinski from Russia, tried to persuade the audience that theater criticism is no longer necessary, there were three other critics – from Portugal, the United Kingdom and the USA – who rushed to refute him. On the question of whether critics are necessary, we heard some most interesting views, including those of Ian Shuttleworth, from the Financial Times, who maintained that critical coverage of a work will sometimes take second place to news or «showbiz» coverage of its opening night. «To give an example,» he said, «in September 2004, the National Theater in London presented ‘Stuff Happens’ – David Hare’s play about the political background to the war in Iraq. The Guardian newspaper sent to the first preview performance a large group of media commentators, Conservative and Labour politicians, a military officer and a former UN weapons inspector, to offer their own perspectives on the play. These were printed in full a week before the press showing before that paper’s theater reviewer, Michael Billington, was permitted to see the play.» With Italy just a few weeks before parliamentary elections and with the shock of Slobodan Milosevic’s death in a Hague jail, it is only normal that yesterday was dominated by remarks such as: «It’s a pity that Milosevic did not live through the trial and get his deserved sentence;» «He may have died from a natural cause, but he left an enduring mark;» «This whole circus of the court in The Hague is terrible. It’s criminal.» There may be commentators who regularly tell us that theater criticism is as dead as Milosevic, yet theater itself remains the only living art form which continues to touch the hearts and minds of millions. We have heard of countries where newspaper critics are finding their reviews confined to ever-decreasing spaces, or driven out altogether by thinly disguised publicity handouts. Fortunately this is not the case in Greece, or rather in Athens, where the arts are increasingly popular. Being a theater critic myself (for Kathimerini) I can only say how some practices are identical the world over. «One of the most pervasive misconceptions among theater practitioners is that we reviewers have a duty to theater to be ‘supportive’ or ‘constructive’ or some other term which in practice means only voicing the kind and extent of criticism that those practitioners are prepared to listen to.» How true. After three decades in the Greek theater market, how I do agree here with Ian Shuttleworth. Yet, the main event here in Turin was the acknowledgment and the European Prize for the 10th edition awarded to Harold Pinter, the English playwright, director, poet and screenwriter. The 75-year-old «angry old man,» who received the Nobel Prize for Literature some months ago, although in frail health after his battle with cancer, came to Turin and delivered the spirited speech of a man who knows what he wants to say. He reminded the lucky ones who have heard him why Pinter is such a formidable dramatist. Among other events, a symposium on Pinter has been organized coordinated by Michael Billington. The 8th Europe Prize New Realities was given to Oskaras Korsunovas (Lithuanian director from Vilnius) and to Joseph Nadj (choreographer and director of the Centre Choregraphique National d’Orleans). Festivals are usually just «economic imperatives» – a kind of smart marketing. This was not the case in Turin.