I was privileged to be the guest of Wandering Hanger Theatre Festival in Lutsk, Ukraine last month. As it was part of my brief, I tried to write some reflections, but they were not always good - sometimes nonsense. This naturally happens when you write criticism of theatre that is in a language you don't understand. The result is more like an impressionist painting than an accurate reflection.
To supplement my own writing, below is the perspective of Kiev art critic Olha Velymchanytsi, who, in contrast to myself, was able to comprehend all of the performances (with the exception of the Georgian group, whose language was understood by relatively few), and who generously allowed me to translate and publish her writing.
Her thoughts will also be published (in Ukrainian) at Kino-Teart magazine #1, 2014 - http://www.ktm.ukma.kiev.ua/
by Olha Velymchanytsia
The International Festival Wandering Hanger, was held in Lutsk from 27 to 29 September for the first time. It featured a strong and cohesive team of organisers – the theater-studio Garmyder - and, importantly, a clear concept - "theatre outside the theatre".
The theatrical exploration of different city spaces began with the Opening Ceremony, which took place at a children's railway. Drums beat and cameras flashed to welcome to the station a train crowded with festival participants – independent theatres from all over Ukraine and abroad, anticipating a full program of theatre and art and a city not yet known. Participants followed “Mandrishak”, a walking clothes rack - the symbol of festival.
First up was a non-competition play People Spoke for which the subject – capitalism - seemed suited to the space – a giant construction hypermarket called "New Line". Richard Pettifer began his performance, taking care beforehand that the audience couldn’t not adopt a "passive consumer" position – chairs, generously offered in-store, were now redundant. The first part of the performance was more like a lecture, which required maximum concentration from the audience. This "intellectual protest," for which the actor played the famous philosopher Slavoj Žižek, was followed by a silent, physiological protest - sewing his mouth - then a radical self-immolation, and finally active protest - a performance of Pussy Riot. This thread of pantomimic scenes was only broken with audience interaction - Richard asked each visitor "Do you speak English?” and offered a hand to those who gave affirmative reply. The reaction of the audience, apart from active involvement in action – was also a sense of exclusivity, or involvement in a new community. "Theatre of the Oppressed "- the work of Augusto Boal adopted by Pettifer - aims to propel viewers to action. "Theatre is not a revolution, but a rehearsal of a revolution", Boal claims. The performer created, for a moment, a situation of oppression, and demonstrated protest actions – was there action in the audience, or just rehearsal? On the other hand, the performance, expressed only through the body of this actor, dressed almost in his underwear, was uncomfortable and thought-provoking.
There was no immaturity in the meaning and emotional tension of the play brought to Lutsk by Youth Theatre Teatrali from Tbilisi – Beslan. Venue: a gymnasium in the former Great Synagogue. The discussion at hand was one regarding the tragic events of the same name in North Ossetia, 2004, the school seized with a 3-day hostage crisis, killing nearly 200 children. This theatre from Georgia, which is bordering with North Ossetia and Chechnya, attempted to overcome this trauma with art – by remembering these tragic events. The director chose a non-chronological narrative, alternating between moments of terrible cruelty - the terrorists’ stalemate with the child hostages - with scenes of childlike serenity and joy that preceded the takeover of the school. Similarly, the youth theatre actors, including many very young (9-10 years old), transitioned between cheerful children at play – and serious, dramatic adults. And even heroic. The director emphasised their courage, friendship, and desire to help each other in abhorrent conditions. However, the notion of heroic is inclined towards some myths creation or ideologies. The final climactic scene, in which a young girl survivor was hoisted high – seemed too pathetic. A girl proudly raises the cross – the symbol of strengthening Christian values, or a resistance against another religion?
The next day of the festival began in Lutsk Castle, where amongst the residue of the Church of St. John the Divine, Donetsk company “Zhuky” ("Beetles") played Sophocles’ Antigone. In a performance very attentive to the ancient text, the actors proclaimed it clearly and rhythmically. With the temple acoustics, even their steps became a kind of metronome performance. Dressed in modern clothing, the cast fused with the space, and the ancient text about the distinction between sacred and secular law in did not sound dissonant in the Christian monument - rather the opposite. This is an example of how place can be a determining factor in the perception of performance, rather than the theatre work itself.
Another location that strengthened the impression of the show was the "Bronx" – a Soviet factory under construction. Today, instead of science and technology demonstrations, there’s an unfinished, dilapidated frame, filled with debris; the things - and people - society rejected. This place is ‘nothing’ – an emptiness in city life. The characters in Metro (from Kyiv theatre studio "Splash") drift freely around the undefined space, just as they would in the protracted, dominating violence of the law. The play consists of two parts: first we overhear and spy on different pairs of people who find themselves staying home for the night. In each – problems. Miscommunication, deafness towards each other, disunity. When in the second part of they find themselves in the subway, held hostage by two deviants who bully each in turn, no one intervenes to stop the violence, to join the "fight against injustice." Moreover, the space of the “train carriage” was organized from a particular perspective, so that the impression that the viewer is watching the action from inside the train itself, and also, with the characters, remains inactive. This play caused the biggest storm of emotions in the audience, and received the first place of the jury.
One unlucky location was for Theatre Workshop "Vinora", from Kharkiv whose performance of Stars had to move from outdoors in a park because of cold weather, to a tight assembly hall, not leant to a theatrical scene. However, the performance from the young actors in this close and stuffy space was achieved with energy, full of character, and interesting performance material about growing up – the dream, the search for fulfilment, temptations reckoning, first experiences of loss – the elements of initiation in modern society, still traditionally traumatic, sometimes even violent.
Among the vivid impressions from the last day of the festival was I Am Lucky, played outdoors by Theatre studio “Deep” from Lugansk. Spectators were positioned so that the distinction between audience and scene is blurred. It was fine directorial intent, because the audience was directly involved in the "game" - the actor employing spectators who in turn assist in illustrating the story of the character. The story was about a new invention of mankind, ‘belt clips’ that help people escape to the future in hopes of a better life – where one doesn’t have to work, there is a cure for cancer, and there are no crises. However, the story shows escape is not an option, and the button on the belt which reads "I'm lucky" puts the character in bad situations. The hero finds himself in a civilization very similar to the one from which he escaped, as if limited to Nietzsche's ‘Eternal Return’, and its ultimate assertion of life. The play is replete with nostalgic moments: the hero recalls his childhood and his grandfather, often you hear a song from the movie Guest from the Future, which instantly caught the audience, who realized their "active" role in this production: a spectator becomes an actor painting chalk arrows, one is looking for sandwiches before sharing them with all present, some act the roles of other characters in the story. Despite such active involvement of the audience in the play, the viewer remains in a position of empathy, their thoughts blending with the character' own and, perhaps on the contrary, their interventions are without any effect on performance, which is more nostalgic, broken dreams and "gravity being everywhere", reinscribing the viewer in the existing public order.
Supplementing the program were a series of other performances, Municipal Theatre Boryspil City Council’s non-competition Father, with its central role brilliantly played by Peter Panchuk – jury chairman and theatre Studio "Consent" from St. Petersburg with the show Orchestra, "Danko" with the shadow-theatre play Celestial Geometry and Belorussian theatre “Kryly halopa” with Kafka’s The Trial. The interaction between the city and the theatre gave interesting and unexpected results, both for the audience and for the participants of the festival, who, inspired by the promise of further work, once again encountered the "wandering hanger" – which, one hopes, will not stand still...