With little fanfare and plenty of enthusiasm, the 14th Europe Theater Prize commenced on Tuesday evening with Russian performance “Honey” by veteran theater director Yuri Lyubimov. The Europe Theater Prize is a theater festival celebrating the best of European theater. The Prize was founded by the European Commission in 1986 to create a platform for culture exchange between different nations of the continent and to promote European theater.
The Prize — worth €60,000 — is supported by several bodies, including the Union of the Theatres of Europe, the International Association of Theater Critics, the International Theater Institute – Unesco and the European Festival Association.
Another theater fair, the Europe Prize New Theatrical Realities, is held in conjunction with the Europe Theater Prize. While the Prize chooses its honorees based on their entire body of work, the New Theatrical Realities — now in its 12th edition — focuses primarily on new trends, daring experimentations and originality. Over 50 artists vied for a coveted spot in the New Theatrical Realities shortlist. Six winners have been chosen representing different geographical spots that have never made the list before.
The jury is comprised of various representatives of the European theater — critics, theater-makers, set designers and former winners. Workshops, seminars and publics discussions covering a wide spectrum of issues concerning both theater and European culture are held in parallel to the performances which features world premieres and previews.
This is the first time the European Prize is held in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city known for rich theater traditions, under the patronage of the Russian Ministry of the Culture, the City Council of St. Petersburg, the Baltic International Festival Center and the Baltic House-Theater Festival.
The opening performance, “Honey,” gave both audiences and critics a quick taste of things to come; a different, profound and elusive theater rarely seen in Egypt, even the Experimental Theater Fest, the sole window through which Egyptian audiences are exposed to world theater. The intermingling of different cultural and artistic European traditions as witnessed in these performances is a witness not only for the close bonds uniting members of the continent but also for the success for the European Prize.
A bittersweet reverie on the passage of time, the vanishing of culture and the everyday small miracles, “Honey” is both a celebration of a life coming to an end and an elegy for a world that no longer exists. The play is based on a poem by internationally renowned Italian poet Tonino Guerra. Guerra is better known as one of Italy’s greatest scriptwriters having collaborated with some of Italy’s greatest filmmakers such as Frederico Fellini in “Amarcord” and Michelangelo Antonioni in “L’avventura,” “La note” and “Blowup.”
Abiding to no tangible narrative, the one-hour play centers on the recollections of two aging brothers coming in terms with both their own mortality and the perishing of the bucolic world they embody. At the end of their lives, what’s left is a reservoir of memories, sceneries and impressions of places, people and ideals.
Among the host of eccentric characters the brothers recall are Bina who may, or may not be a lady; the sexually repressed young man who believes he is “the knight of God;” the monk who awaits the sun to dry his books which were drenched by the rain. These stories are punctuated by short folk songs and dances, augmenting the celebratory mood and capturing the immensely charming village life.
The mood grows dark near with the last part of the performance as the two brothers confront the undesired reality of the present and the loss they suffer. All what’s left from this bygone era are memories carried in words like the poem the play is based on.
Ninety-Four-year-old actor, director and academic Lyubimov is one of Russia’s most celebrated theater artists. Founder of the Taganka Theater, Lyubimov has produced more than 60 plays, including the revolutionary “The Good Person of Setzuan” by Berlot Brecht. His audacious voice got him in hot waters with the regime leading to the bar of a number of his productions in the early 80s and the eventual deprivation of his citizenship in 1984. He was forced to leave Russia in the same year and didn’t return until 1997.
Lyubimov’s “Honey” is quite formal when compared to Finnish director Kristian Smeds’ astounding three-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel, “Mr. Vertigo.” Having missed the first part of the play, which featured no English translation, it’s somewhat difficult to accurately decipher Smeds’ text. The images I’ve witnessed in the second part of the play though rank among the most powerful, most inventive I’ve seen in many years.
The complex story is set in 1920s America and revolves around a dejected boy Walt, picked up by the circus leader-like Master Yehudi for his potential to master the art of levitation. Walt joins the Master’s family: Native American Mother Sioux, Lady Marion Witherspoon and black boy Aesop, each representing different parts of the American psyche.
Like Auster’s novels, “Mr. Vertigo” follows no logic and the second part of the play deviates into territories unannounced in part one. Without getting into pointless plot details, allow me to describe in brief this experience.
Breaking the fourth wall, Lady Marion invites the audience on stage. Resembling an abandoned gothic jazz bar, the darkly-lit stage is then transformed into an exorcism arena where Marion, unable to overcome her demons, starts to pour vodka on her herself before she and Mother Sioux indicate seeing ghosts from the Finnish National Theater.
The final confrontation between Walt and the master brings the audience in even closer proximity to the performers as Walt recites his dying words while the stage slowly revolves. The play ends with the indelible image of Walt, reenacted on stage, flying high with a red balloon.
The barrier between theater and reality is constantly shattered in Smeds’ highly inventive and enigmatic work. Auster’s brand of postmodernism fits perfectly in Smeds’ unconventional theater which uses a wide range of technique to blend the political and the social with the personal. His recent controversial plays such as the adaptation of Vaino Linna’s “The Unknown Soldier” which premiered at the Finnish National Theater in 2007 have drawn equal praise and derision. “Mr. Vertigo” is no exception, a play that forgoes classical narrative for something more transcending and while many elements may have been lost in translation, the experience has most certainly not.