Have you ever heard of Hristo Boitchev?
His plays have won major prizes at festivals in France, Germany and Italy as well as his native Bulgaria.
I suspect the fact I just said Bulgaria might have turned you off a bit. ‘Oh yeah, do they actually have theatres there?’ I hear some of you ask.
But wait, how about this – in 1997 he even received the British Council International Playwriting Award? It was handed to him by Harold Pinter in person. Anyone in Europe would think that by now Boytchev’s plays would be completely at home at a place like the Edinburgh Festival.
Not quite the case, I’m afraid.
As it happens, there are queues winding around the Pleasance Courtyard longer than I’ve ever seen for his play The Titanic Orchestra, but the reason is not the play or the playwright. It is John Hannah – the Scottish actor of Hollywood fame who made W.H. Auden cool in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Ok, it’s true what one hears on the streets – all those eager Hannah fans emerge out of the theatre a bit stunned and bamboozled, not really sure what to think. But let me tell you, I blame the critics for that. I blame the cumulative effect of the years and years of intellectual laziness, xenophobia and cultural supremacism of the traditional British newspaper theatre critic for whom the imperative has been to come up with a witty turn of phrase rather than to help elucidate difficult subject matter for his readership.
The thing is, it is really not that difficult to understand what Boytchev’s play The Titanic Orchestra is about if anyone would only give it half a chance. Four alcoholic down and outs watch the trains go by, dreaming of an escape to a remote destination. A mysterious American appears – an illusionist or a conman? – promising and seemingly delivering magical solutions, including the ultimate Harry Houdini-style escape act. In the end, it is loneliness our heroes ultimately discover as the unexpected outcome of the deal they get. Boytchev writes in the idiom of the Theatre of the Absurd and his thematic focus is crystal clear – there is absolutely nothing ambiguous about it at all. He makes passing references to Beckett, Bulgakov and even Shakespeare, but these are stylistic flourishes you needn’t take into account in order to appreciate the work as a satirical allegory of contemporary Bulgaria dealing with the clutches of American-style capitalism which overpromises and underdelivers.
The play is compact yet brimming with meaning; it works on so many levels reams of analysis can easily be written about it in one’s sleep, and for it to be dismissed as inaccessible, nonsensical or even half-baked, is an insult, to say the least. The kind of insult that one wouldn’t allow oneself to make about the work of a playwright of Boytchev’s standing if he came from any other culture – African, Asian or European. Somehow, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans in particular, seem to yield special license for this sort of condescension.
Maybe in some way John Hannah’s casting in this show was a mistake as his fame inevitably diverts the attention from the play to the actor, places the production in a wrong-sized venue and raises the wrong sort of expectations. Maybe Russell Bolam’s direction could be a bit more helpful in facilitating an audience rapport. But then Bolam has the right credentials having worked on Bulgarian plays in England before and in Bulgaria itself, and this production features a Bulgarian actor as well – so many of his directorial decisions will have been responsibly considered. The unfortunate circumstance is that there is simply not enough context for this play to work the way it is intended.
All things considered, this is a solid piece with good potential and somewhat misjudged execution, but in my view Bolam, Hannah and the rest of the cast deserve so much more credit for their cultural curiosity, commitment and strength of conviction.