Features Published 2 March 2014

Theatre Café Festival

Stewart Pringle reports back from a festival of new European plays.

Stewart Pringle

[Owing to my curtailed experience of the festival, several of the shows discussed below were watched at ‘open dress’ rather than final performance. However as all performances were script-in-hand I do not believe this made a huge material difference to my experience of them. Still, something to bear in mind.] 

In the programme for this year’s Theatre Café Festival, their tenth such event, writer Tiago Rodrigues is asked what Europe means to him, and his answer is worth quoting at length because it sums up so much of what is brilliant about this festival so eloquently.

‘Contrary to the mainstream concept of Europe today, which is dominated by the free circulation of goods and capital, I believe in Europe as a story of circulation of ideas and thought. George Steiner says that Europe will exist as long as cafes exist, meeting places where people can talk, argue, disagree, gather, start collective movements and have a drink. My Europe is full of cafés.

One such café has been assembled by Company of Angels in the De Grey Rooms a couple of doors along from York Theatre Royal. It’s the first in a series of events which will also hop into Oslo, Berlin and Amsterdam between now and April 2015. This particular café is arranged around a multi-level performance space that looks like the set of Run the Risk recreated in rough chipboard. And over three days six new European plays were presented, translated into English and performed to English audiences for the first time. There are also talks and debates and excerpts from other works, as well as the performance of six short response plays by emerging UK writers.

There’s a focus on younger audiences, so while the space itself is child-free and the response plays distinctly child-unfriendly, how we speak to children and how we negotiate their encounters with the large questions of the world is at the forefront of the work that is presented. This is serious theatre for the seriousness of youth, and ideas of death, displacement, belonging and identity are strands that recur again and again in the remarkable work that is presented.

The most remarkable of all the work might be Rodrigues’ own, the sprawling greenwood-fresh Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes. The Portuguese playwright has created a contemporary epic that mashes Alice in Wonderland with Emil and the Detectives, delivered in blissful obscenities and swaying sing-song rhythms. Giraffe is a tall young girl on an adventure through an urban jungle filled with incomprehensible grown-up laws, panthers who may or may not be pederasts and drop-in visits from Anton Chekov. She’s joined by her foul-mouthed, suicidal teddy bear Judy Garland, she explores her body, her city, the loss of her mother and the sprawling impact of austerity on her country. Serena Manteghi is wonderful as the young girl probing the absurd systems of the adult world in a quest to restore her subscription to the Discover Channel. It’s witty, free-wheeling and extraordinarily sincere, and it will make a considerable impact when it’s given a full production. Expect that to happen very soon indeed.

The death of a loved one lays a resonating hum behind the action of …Giraffes, elsewhere it was brought to the foreground. Watchdog by Dutch writer Peer Wittenbols sees two children assume the role of quiet guardians for their bereaved mother, their own youthful grief suspended by responsibility. Translator Rina Vergano has caught a half-reality to the text, a fairy-tale quality reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. It’s made explicit by the appearance of Wolf, a boy who arrives at the door to ask some frank and practical questions about death. Wittenbols’ play is sweet and playful, but also honest and emotionally precise.

The layer of unreality that lies over Watchdog is just sufficient to allow the play breathing room while retaining its edge. The same can’t be said of Martin Baltscheit’s Heading for High Ground, which resorts to a hoary wolves and sheep animal allegory to explore its own questions of family and identity. Even if you’re more tolerant of this kind of fairy-tale fabling than I am (wouldn’t be hard), Baltscheit’s script is still pretty pale stuff. Its lessons are well-worn and despite some neat-ish inversions it’s all just a bit of a bore.

Both Saviana Stanescu’s White Embers and Holger Schober’s My Mother Medea take straighter swings at cultural displacement. Schober’s play may show its roots as a touring schools production (and it would be mightily effective in that setting) but its fractious debate by two young immigrants played out in front of a classroom of their new and transitory peers has some brilliant moments. The decision to add classical trappings, positioning them as the children of Jason and Medea, takes some nice swipes at the modern cult of celebrity, but it also muddies the waters and robs the play of some of its relatability.

White Embers has several moments of real power and one strand of its narrative, concerning an American family ‘shopping’ for a young child in a (fictional) third world country, is effective and moving. It’s a shame then that Stanescu has married it to an off-the-peg at-gunpoint confrontation, which is both too melodramatic and ultimately rather inert. It’s hard to see what this Neil LaBute-ish intervention does to serve the genuinely heart-breaking and pertinent concept Stanescu is exploring, and in many ways it neuters the real ethical problems at the play’s heart.

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes

The last of the six ‘main’ plays is a knockout – Fredrik Brattberg’s razor sharp, totally twisted The Returning. A family tragedy that descends into absurdist farce via a cyclonic structure of repetitions, Brattberg developed his play along musical lines, building the form as a composer would her melodies. Gustav is the teenage son who dies in a tragic accident, and his parents react with an eruption of joy when he unexpectedly returns to them. When the process is repeated we see their affections cool, as Brattberg unpicks our assumptions of unwavering affection with impressive skill and originality. The Returning is brutally funny, sparely written and commendably compact, its apparent simplicity disguising a world of resonance. Like …Giraffes, it’s a play so exciting that you just want to run home with it and show it to everyone you meet on the way, particularly younger audiences, who The Returning is perfectly calibrated to sucker punch.

Brattberg’s play is also directed with precision and verve by Damian Cruden, whose work on it incidentally shows up a weakness with the rest of the festival’s programme. The plays have been arranged for performance with considerable haste, but even giving the largest of allowances there is a certain repetition of tone and pacing across the remaining five plays. Where Cruden brings Brattberg’s play into sharp focus, the others leave them somewhat smudged around the edges.

Fortunately the festival is blessed with a superb cast, a company of performers who seriously impress with the consistency and flexibility of their performances. Gehane Strehler in particular does the three texts she performs proud, from mardy child in Watchdog to cold-hearted assassin in White Embers. Rachel Edwards impresses with several delightfully understated performances, and Alex Barclay brings brilliant comic timing and charm to each of his roles.

It’s a fantastic selection of works, and hopefully one that will make its mark on British theatre over the next twelve months. Even the weaker plays bring something fresh to the table, and the strongest suggest a newly invigorated theatrical language with which to speak to younger audiences. If the Unicorn theatre doesn’t pick up …Giraffes before the year is out then something’s gone seriously awry.

It’s unfortunate then that the most immediate impact the plays have had in the UK, in the form of the half-dozen response pieces presented here, is so underwhelming. With the exception of Steven Bloomer’s witty but slight The Warlock, the Warrior and his Mother, which plays smartly on tropes of video game RPGs, and Hannah Davies’ dense and difficult Snowflakes, there’s precious little to enjoy. One of the plays, Bridget Foreman’s Airlock – a miniature riff on John Fowles’ The Collector – is frankly the stupidest and most unpleasant piece I have seen in the theatre for several years. Its fifteen-minute running-time feels interminable as it ham-fistedly prods at the loneliness of a child molester. Ugh.

Still, the response pieces are handled with confidence by a group of second year drama students, and they’re a wonderful idea in theory, it’s just a real shame that the final products feel such pale shadows of the plays that inspired them. Hopefully future years will see a refining of what could be a fantastic act of reciprocation and a launch pad for discussion.

That the headline plays of Theatre Café contribute to a discussion of fundamental aspects of mortality and our cultural responses to it is a vital reminder of what Europe is and what it is for. They remind us that beside that ‘free circulation of goods and capital’, Europe is a platform for sharing and discussing our shared values and learnings, the standards and rights which we have collectively decided are the right and proper inheritance for the next generation. These are the discussions and negotiations that shape policy, imperfectly but implacably, towards the general good and away from self-absorbed isolationism. Projects such as Theatre Café play an important role as a propagator for these engagements and a flag-bearer for their continued importance.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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