Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

David Adams at Novi Sad’s Sterijino Pozorje Festiv

This piece was orginally commissioned by Plays International

Nationalism, national theatre and national identity all seem to be hot topics, so what better than to roll them into one event – and where better to stage it than Serbia, and in Novi Sad, where a national theatre was established in 1861 when this troubled central (geographically and politically) country was still part of Austro-Hungary, “the Serbian Athens”, on the banks of the Danube ?

And so it was that critics from all over Europe descended on this lively town to debate these thorny issues and to catch some of what is an exciting triennial theatre event, the Sterijino Pozorje Festival. In fact this year was a special one because it also celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of the “father of Serbian theatre” Jovan Sterija Popvic.

The festival itself consisted of two main parts, the National Drama Selection and a programme called Circles. The first presented the most significant national and foreign performances of Serbian and Montenegrin national plays from the past season, while Circles covered a wider cultural, aesthetic and/or thematic context which includes national drama and theatre.

Sterija’s best-known play, a satire called Patriots (the publication of which in English during the festival revealed just why it is a key text but also why it could never really be performed in English, since it depends much on the different languages used by the characters throughout the play) is set in a little city in Vojvodina, the region of which Novi Sad is the capital, during the revolution of the year 1848. All of the city's main officials, who are of Serbian nationality, are corrupt, and therefore they expect from the revolution nothing but personal profit, which is why they follow closely the development of the situation at the front and change their political attitudes accordingly, not to mention their names, language, and even their national identity (at one moment they are Serbs, at another they become Hungarians).

Patriots clearly still rings bells and, as the organisers suggested in a rather understated way, problems of national identity, conflicts caused by national intolerance and a controversial historical heritage are still present in Central Europe. Circles 2006 explored this cultural space – the space of Jovan Sterija Popovic, Central Europe – with its focus on performances and plays with a similar thematic base which also address these difficult questions.

It was during this politically provocative (especially as days before we arrived Montenegro had decided to become independent of Serbia) festival that the International Symposium of Theatre Critics and Scholars, organized in cooperation with IATC (the International Association of Theatre Critics), took place. Since it is an international gathering, its subject has always been wide-ranging and not related exclusively to the festival’s topics but IATC president Ian Herbert had suggested that members on this occasion should connect the Symposium with the celebration of Sterija’s jubilee by finding in his works a theme with wider implications. Under the title National Theatres and Nationalist Theatre, it would address both the purpose of a National Theatre and the use of theatre, in the past and in the present, to promote national identity – for good or ill.

Herbert outlined the agenda: is a national theatre just an institution, necessary to produce national classics, like the Comédie Francaise, or to present good theatre old and new, which seems to be the policy of the National Theatre in London, or to support the national dramaturgy, which could be considered the Royal Court view? Should a national theatre occupy a building, or represent an idea, as is the case with the new National Theatre of Scotland? Should its purpose be to promote pride in national identity, which was certainly the case in the Balkans when their national theatres were being founded, and in Ireland with the Abbey? What of national theatres as a vehicle for the less appetising aspects of Nationalism, a home for, say, Nazi propaganda plays like Johst’s Schlageter? Why does the USA not have a National Theatre – or Italy? Can we envisage a National Theatre of Europe?

Equally, he proposed, the colloquium could look at drama as a means either of promoting national identity or of combating nationalism in its starker, less acceptable forms – obvious examples of the latter are to be found in the works of Thomas Bernhardt and Elfriede Jelinek. And what of those directors who have deconstructed national classics through mockery, such as Peter Lebl with Nastri Furianti ? Others, such as Dejan Mijac in his productions of Sterija himself or Peter Stein in his famous production of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso have given new life to apparently outdated ‘national’ dramas with a serious new reading of their content – how does this affect our view of the original?

And what, he asked, of new writing for national needs? Britain and France have had cause recently to examine what exactly is meant by national identity, as British nationals attempt to ban a play set in a Sikh temple, and French nationals set fire to thousands of cars. What is to be the response of today’s dramatists? Are they concerned more with universal than national issues, or have they retreated from big national themes into personal navel-gazing? Why did the Taliban ban Afghanistan’s National Theatre? To what extent does religions dogma influence the idea of national theatre? In a globalised world, has national thinking any place at all?

Finally, he declared in his opening address, the assembled critics would hope to consider the responsibility of the critic in these considerations. Why are so many critics so narrowly nationalist in their approach to foreign plays? How much is our view of world theatre coloured by our own locally acquired aesthetic?

You will not be surprised to learn that no conclusions were reached but a lot of talking was done before we all went off to Novi Sad’s impressive theatre complex (and its excellent rooftop terrace bar and brasserie afterwards).

Much of the debate, inevitably, was taken up by the “locals” – the Balkan delegates for whom this event meant much more than it did to Western European and American delegates, I suspect. For us part was a learning process, if only an exposition of how complex the situation is.

Take, for example, the talk from Vladislava Fekete, the young editor at the Bratislava Theatre Institute, a lecturer, translator, writer and multi-media practitioner and a leading Slovak cultural mover and shaker. Here she has added status: she is actually local, from the Vojvodina region.

But Ms Fekete is a Slovak: her family settled in the southern Slavonic states a couple of centuries ago, along with other Slovaks, when it was part of Austro-Hungary. And so, though now living and working in Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, she has ties with the Slovak community in Serbia and is instrumental in developing a National Slovakian Theatre for that part of Slovakia that is in Serbia.

Balkan politics, you see, are never simple. It was far easier for the rest of us when there was Yugoslavia, a federation of nations, although even then we tended to overlook complications created by enclaves of one nation who lived within another nation. Kosovo is the inheritance.

Ms Fekete has more fundamental problems with Slovakia’s National Theatre in what they call the lowlands of their nation. Actors and directors and technicians need training but the Slovaks of Serbia were refused admission to Novi Sad’s dramatic academy because they weren’t properly Serbian – and were rejected by Bratislava because they weren’t actually Slovakian.

In fact Britain’s debates about a National Theatre and national identity can seem almost trivial in the context of debates that refer to mass genocide and the responsibility of theatre and the critics – most other nations in Europe take both theatre and theatre criticism more seriously than we do.

So when I found it was my turn to speak about “Negotiating National Identity: Theatre in Postcolonial Wales” immediately after an intensely passionate session that involved virtually the whole of the Balkan nations, conducted with calm and erudition and intelligence and a shared belief in the power of the arts, I was, well, daunted.

But in fact Wales is of some interest to other nations in Europe and I was surprised to find that young Serbians, for example, knew so much about the country – their education emphasises far more knowledge about the rest of the world than does ours.

Of course the reason Wales is of current interest is the arrival of the National Assembly and devolution and there was an appreciative murmur of amusement as, after all the talk of the nations of the former Yugoslavia, I could refer to Wales as a nation of the former United Kingdom.

The renaissance of the Welsh language was another point of interest – while there are only subtle differences between many Balkan languages, each speaker from the region insisted on delivering their contribution in their own tongue while the rest of us spoke in the “official” languages of the IATC, English or French.

The rest of the UK, I have to say, was hardly mentioned, although my colleague Michael Coveney did offer a paper on national theatre in Britain (with no mention of Wales !) for a book to be published later. My written contribution looked at the history of theatre provision and practice in Wales and considered how Welsh theatre had negotiated ideas of national identity, how a strategy of “decolonising the stage” had developed in the ’80s and ’90s, and the extent to which the language was important.

We also saw some stunning theatre from Central Europe and Serbia, tough, uncompromising theatre that was urgent and addressed the politics of the twenty-first century. Particularly affecting was the Hungarian Kretakor Theatre’s BLACKland, a devised, immaculately staged satire, all of which I don’t pretend to understand. But it was linked to Hungary’s entry to the EU and the opening scene was an evening-dressed wind-instrumentalist who sat, legs apart, enthusiastically fellating her instrument before eventually playing the European anthem – Ode to Joy.

The most striking scene was the restaging of the notorious Abu Ghraib images – except that here the victims were men in dress suits who had their trousers and underpants ceremonially pulled down by a lady in a ball gown and rubber gloves, a kind of upper-class European Lynndie England, who proceeded to manipulate their genitals while giving manic laughs to a colleague who was video-filming it all. A member of the audience agreed to film some group shots, thus implicating us all in the atrocity.

The festival was full of fine theatre, and it made me realise how little international work we see outside London (and even there, nowhere near enough). But the really exciting aspect was the discussion in the cafes and bars outside the theatre and conference hall. After all, the word “symposium”, we reminded ourselves, was Greek for “talk” plus “wine” and so we combined the two in the spirit of the ancients.

I had long conversations with people from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, the UK and the US, and shorter ones with those from Finland, Holland, Ireland, Quebec and Slovakia,; we discussed nationalistic stereotypes (“Do you British always have a cup of tea at 5pm ? Is Wales just mountains ?”); we found that the Welsh “twp” is more or less the same in Russian; and so on, all over glasses of Serbian wine, beer and slivovich and plates piled high with salads and sausages.

And we talked about what concerns theatre people everywhere: how theatre relates society – and that vexed question of national theatre, nationalism and national identity is shared by most nations in Europe.

What I kept being asked was why Wales, having escaped that historic period of classic nationalism when huge monolithic theatre institutions were created throughout Europe, should want one now. We all agreed that answer lay in politics, not theatre.

author:David Adams

original source: Plays International
02 August 2006


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