So, Bratislava, I recently found out, is in Slovakia, at the very centre of a frontier foursome between its own nation and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria. They only drink sparkling water, they like chilli in their cottage cheese and sadly, the use of “Ahoy” is not the manifestation of an endemic fascination with pirates, but the usual word for “Hello.”
Bratislava is also the home of Istropolitana Projekt, an international biennial student theatre festival showcasing the work of drama schools across Europe and beyond. Hosted by VSMU, Bratislava’s Academy of Musical Arts, Istropolitana 2012 comprised 63 performances over 7 stages in 6 days, from cities as diverse as London, Jakarta, Skopje, Osijek, Tehran and Vilnius (countries on the back of a postcard, please).
As a student festival, with a student (as well as professional) jury, the heart of the project is a sense of learning and sharing between evolving practitioners and critics. And if that sounds too much like some kind of woolly Planet Organic antenatal therapy, don’t worry – I’m talking about unfinished work that got serious critical beatings, formal experiments that were meticulous and vigorous, and a sense of inter-cultural exchange that was truly diverse and eye-opening.
As a result of this exploratory context, there were clearly delineated research aims to some of the productions, which gave audiences a chance to interrogate elements of theatre with laboratory insight. One example was the piece Massacre at Paris, staged by the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Taking a famously poor version of the Christopher Marlowe text cobbled together by actors years after his death, the group attempted to apply the idioms of film, and especially B-movies (of the laughably gory and vaguely pornogaphic set), to the stage.
Actors would arrest scenes and move into a downstage lighting state to openly create special effects with fake blood, or to provide slow-mo ‘close-ups’ or flashbacks. Other performers acted as stage managers, lifting bodies into Jackie Chan-style high kicks, and then recreating close-ups of the moment at half-speed, a matching shoe brought on to thwack the victim in the face. Whole scenes would suddenly rotate with perfect precision as if seen from a different camera angle: at one point a table and all the diners around it (including one wheelchair user) were neatly flipped onto their side, as if seen from above.
A group from Central School of Speech and Drama presented a thematic – rather than aesthetic – experiment called Grey Matters: A Play for Six Brains, which explored the notion of identity and difference through the repeated rubric, “If I had the brain of X, I would…” Often funny, and sometimes dark, the performance was commended – particularly by the Europeans – for its streamlined and minimalist dedication to a single conceptual goal.
My own reaction to the piece was more reserved. Somewhat tired of the single-issue performance art of anglophone postmodernity, I had more of an appetite for the richer, more ambiguous and altogether more flavoursome mises-en-scène inspired by German directors like Castorf, Ostermeier and Nübling. Conceptual presentations such as Grey Matters explored ideas directly, but with no sense of aesthetic journey, theatrical texture or symbolic range. They were the Malevich black square to a Kandinsky composition: univocal, stark and cerebral.
A conversation I had several times with various people over the course of the week was the saturation of the British art/performance scene with such work, and, on the contrary, the hunger of central and eastern Europe for this slimline post-1960s minimalism. The other side of the same coin was perhaps one of the reasons for the polemic surrounding Three Kingdoms, Nübling’s collaboration with Simon Stephens earlier this Spring. Unused to the visual polyphonia we were presented with, the mess on stage, the sex, violence and disturbing combinations of the two, the reaction of British critics was extreme and divided.
There are perhaps debates here about the transmutation of Brechtian aesthetics into ultramodern ethics, the postdramatic exploration of excess and decay in an era of consumer capitalism, and the Warholesque critique of society which reproduces its debauchery even in a reaction against it. But perhaps this is what doesn’t sit quite right with British cultural and ethical norms. Can we stomach an explosive German model which absorbs and reduplicates the decadence of our times?
In a culture of Apps, pop-up enterprises and single-issue politics, perhaps in the UK we like our theatre bitesize, and our political critiques easier to chew on. Performances which tackle issues one at a time, in head-on and focussed confrontations, are more attuned to the itemised and individualised encounter with knowledge and ideas to which we ascribe. The isolation of subjectivities allows us to approach personal problematics, creating an artistic climate geared towards “speak for yourself” rather than “speak for society.”
Performances like Dis-Obedience, the (German) Grand Prix winner of the festival, were incomparably broader in their thematic scope (and their symbolic vocabulary) than the British theatre presented at the festival, and as the Jury chair John Ginman pointed out, achieved that rare capacity to capture what life is like for people in our contemporary moment.
As a London student myself, I’m not proposing a criticism of what I call “single-issue performance,” or arguing that one model is more effective than another. But the German-inspired performances at the festival were a personal learning curve, and one whose import could provide a refreshing wind of change for British theatre spectatorship.
Another recurrent topic throughout the festival was the legacy of Grotowski. A surprising number of performances – particularly those from Theatre-Laboratory Alma Alter (Bulgaria), The Academy for Theatre Practices Gardzienice (Poland) and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre opened or ended with direct addresses to the audience, either in or out of character, which purported to create a “meeting” rather than a spectacle of the event.
It was rare that such efforts were successful – despite their constant references to “authenticity theatre,” the Bulgarian group, for instance, failed to afford any kind of agency to their spectators, factoring pre-planned responses into an otherwise high-standard production. The defensiveness of some of the Grotowski-based groups in discussions – including Gardzienice – only exacerbated the feeling that his legacy is somewhat cultish, and my questions surrounding all claims to authenticity in theatre remained unassuaged (again, answers on a postcard).
Despite what seems like an increasing homogenisation of European culture, then, the importance of national schools of theatre-making still resonated at Istropolitana. What’s more, Europeans dynamics in the theatre world seemed – pleasingly – to oppose point for point those on the football field. Whilst Sidcup’s own Rose Bruford College got one of the biggest standing ovations (and two awards) for Pages from the Book of…, Spain’s vastly disappointing Endgame provoked one of the biggest walk-outs I’ve ever seen at the theatre.
Well, at least we’re good at something.