Theatre in Wales

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

States of Being

PENNY SIMPSON discusses the background to the forthcoming "Wales in Croatia" festival

For many people in the media, Croatia's arrival on the world map came during the nail-biting semi-final of this year's World Cup. Sport was suddenly seen to be the means by which one of Europe's newest nation states came into being. Even the players got in on the act:

"We were like soldiers on the pitch, making our country recognised," claimed the Croatian defender Slaven Bilic in the sports pages of the national newspapers.

For a country which lost its independence in the 11th century, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, the triumphs on the pitches of France were always going to be a cause for celebration. A new country it was formally recognised in 1992 demanding its voice be heard after years of not officially existing at all, was now confronted with the formidable task of making its existence felt on a stage already bristling with other contenders from the fall out of communism's collapse.

"Drzovotvorm" (a Croatian word for statebuilding) is a complex task, particularly when it must partly account for a recent traumatic civil war, one with its own tangled roots following on from centuries of occupation. In recent years, this issue has been addressed and not just on the sports field. The British Council in Zagreb have been seeking out a variety of professional partnerships to help raise their country's profile in Europe. Some of the most influential to date have been those set up with cultural workers from overseas

Scottish Days, a month-long festival held in Zagreb, for example, resulted in long-term exchange programmes being set up with educational and scientific bodies, as well as the hosting of debates about how culture can help shape the identity of an emerging nation. Partners were established at grassroots level, amongst the most successful an exchange of lecturers in dramaturgy with Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh, and the publication in Croatian of an anthology of Scottish plays.

Now, the focus is being transferred to Wales, another country whose identity is being given fresh impetus by the imminent setting up of its first National Assembly for 600 years. There are parallels between the two countries, argues Rosana Besednik, arts and exchanges manager for the British Council (Zagreb). Both countries are fighting to get their voice heard, a struggle partly connected to the problem of possessing a near invisible history to anyone living outside their own borders.

"We are also in the process of recovery after the war and encouragement in all spheres is very important to us. And there is an interest in how other countries seek to develop their economies. In Wales, the cultural economy is important and we wish to find out more," she adds.

The dismal hype of Cool Britannia is not the model being followed, but a more coherent strategy developed out of extant links between the two countries. In the last five years, several collaborations between theatre practitioners and visual artists have been set into motion and now Wales Arts International, the collaboration of the Arts Council of Wales international unit with the British Council (Wales), is keen to spearhead a month-long festival in Zagreb in Autumn, 1999.

The latest artistic collaboration moving events forward has been that between ELAN Wales, a Cardiff-based theatre company, and the brand new Theatre 2000 Rvar festival, launched this year on an island off the Dalmatian coast. The festival is an ambitious undertaking aiming to draw in theatre practitioners from across Europe to develop training and networking opportunities in the heart of a mediaeval city probably best known as a chic tourist resort. It is a little unfair, because the island boasts the oldest working municipal theatre in the Mediterranean: a Pollock-style venue shoehorned into the city's historic Arsenal building.

ELAN are a theatre training and production company, specialising in creating montage performances across Wales and Europe, drawing on the skills and expertise of multi-lingual participants. Firenza Guidi, the company's Milanese-born director, puts a premium on theatre that unifies different cultures without abolishing their differences, an objective rooted in her own professional career which has seen her work with the likes of Dario Fo, as well as disadvantaged young people in Belfast.

In Hvar, the process she adopted consisted of an intensive 10-day rehearsal process, conducted in three languages, with a company that included island residents, visitors to Hvar, and students from the Academy of Drama in Zagreb. It was also the first time that Firenza used an established text as her starting point Shakespeare's The Tempest. (Workshops are usually built on reminiscence, or on multi-references drawn from film, sculpture and literature.) The end result was an adaptation suitable for an open-air performance, drawing on the natural staging of a palm-lined beach, flanked by a Venetian fortress and a 15th-Century Franciscan monastery.

Shakespeare's play opens with the shipwreck of a boat destined for the "vex'd Bermoothes" (Bermudas), part of the New World, which at the time of writing was being mapped out by explorer-navigators. As the play progresses new beginnings for deposed rulers and their usurpers are played out in a fantastical fable, directed by the magician Prospero. For Firenza, this narrative was not only ideally suited to the island setting, but more importantly, it touched on the theme of the problems facing an emerging state, one keen to slough off the betrayals of the past in favour of what Miranda calls a "brave new world". The need to condense Shakespeare's original text resulted in this theme being reinterpreted through the rites of passage undergone by Prospero's daughter, from naive adolescent to streetwise bride.

"The play is built around a series of transformations, accompanied by discussions over the meaning assigned to certain words," Firenza explains. "Who decides who is a savage, who is a slave? These arguments rage under all the beauty and mystery of the play. It was key words, like these, that helped us shape our performance."

For dramaturg and playwright Vesna Dikanovic, from Zagreb, the value of the project came in the way the director and her core collaborators David Murray (Scotland), Sergin Carnevje (Brazil) and Augusto Valente (Germany) pushed the physical limits of participants.

"In Croatia, the academic training is often too hierarchical," she says. "People ring fence their knowledge and they do not share it easily. Here, doors were opened in a matter of hours with physical action emphasising the expressionist qualities of the play. People didn't just stand around talking to each other and then that was it. It was more like a film, with concentration on what happens away from the action, as well as on the action itself. It was good to share this knowledge in a partnership project, like this."

During rehearsal, the skills of each member of the group were assessed and then worked into an overall pattern, which drew word and image together in imaginatively unexpected ways. Frequently, high-voltage physical movement kickstarted the proceedings, the text becoming an almost spontaneous addition as the performers familiarised themselves with ELAN's working methods.

Zdenka Sajko, an employee of Croatian Airlines, who played the role of Prospera (Miranda's mother a departure from the original text) was impressed with the results. She has been taking singing lessons for some time, but is keen now to work in theatre again.

"I'm not comfortable with the idea of sport being the only thing we are known for," she admits. "This experience is much more rewarding for me. You find you can say things that mean a lot, even if the language is unfamiliar. You want always to search for more.

The search continues. Theatre 2000 Hvar is a four-year development project, aimed at reversing the expectations of those visiting the island. The islanders work in the fishing and travel trades, but they are also keen theatre-goers and actors with a long tradition, dating back to 1612 when their theatre was built. Croatia too is a multilayered experience, its many transformations rich source material for a burgeoning cultural economy, one built on ideas of identification rather than separation. From that respect alone, "Wales in Croatia" promises to provide a more lasting impact than a game of two halves.

author:Penny Simpson

original source: New Welsh Review, Autumn 1998
01 October 1998


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