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Yorkshire Playwrights member James
Waddington reports on FestCEP.02, 14-17 March 2002
For Yorkshire based playwrights the University of
Huddersfield's Festival of Contemporary
European Plays (FestCEP) was like a new country.
The festival brought together writers, translators and directors from
the mainland who told us that British theatre was alive and well, it
just wasn't happening in Britain. So pencil FestCEP in for next year
- it'll also give you an opportunity too to see Huddersfield's excellent
theatre, with its so far underused Attic space.
The festival was divided between chat and performance. There were three
`Perspectives`, discussions led by panels, and there were the shows.
In the first Perspective, Contemporary European playwriting, the message
of Ian Watson's feature, Sorry, Regional Theatre Is Dead & Buried
in Whatsonstage.com, was rather underlined by WYP's Literary Manager,
Alex Chisolm, who reminded us again of the irremediable commercial imperative
of big spaces, but did not remind us that this imperative produced,
as its default position, staged sitcom, soap and spectacle. Alex mentioned
the astonishing number of theatre writers she already had on her data
base (a hundred, two hundred, I can't remember) and repeated the old
Jude Kelly line about pastoral care, though I don't think she quite
used the word pastoral. So though she seemed really enthusiastic, not
much change there then. On the up side, we have talked for a couple
of years about new beginnings in small scale local organisations and
spaces, and this was just such a thing. Ian has underlined that in the
big regionals, all pretence of looking outwards, upwards, anywhere but
towards the box office, in other words, any intellectual and artistic
excitement, has gone. I spent four days at FestCEP and I've got more
energy and excitement from that lot than from a year of big stage theatre.
And on practical grounds, the message from Europe, from Anslem Heinrich
and Sara Soncini, and Alex Chisolm in her director's hat, is that there
is work for theatre writers, in Germany and Italy and the Netherlands
there are more new UK plays being performed than there are here, a lot
But the most important thing about this sort of festival is the shows.
As a punter, I was on the look out for theatre, which I would say is
something that happens with actors in a space. That's all. When it's
not happening, there's something a bit naff and wriggly about actors
being actors in a space that is masquerading as a theatrical space,
with expensive high tec grid and sound effects. When it does happen,
and I'll go straight into cliché here, it takes you to another set of
dimensions, and there to existences you didn't know about, and you forget
for a moment who you are. That's quite rare.
So there's theatre and there's European theatre. Norman Davies the historian
says that Europe is a peninsula of Asia, with a couple of little islands
on the end, where we are. So The Isles are part of Europe, and I think
to be European is in part, and for the sake of argument , to have a
historical apparatus stretched from the Polish Enlightenment to Paris,
taking into account that there are no edges with Asia or Africa.
It's also not being American.
In that context, I'll go through the shows and, very simplistically
and quickly, wonder how much they are European and/or theatre.
The first was Eva, Hitler's Lover, by Stefan Kolditz. It's a
one woman show; Eva reminisces as the Russians approach the bunker.
The insights of the piece, beyond the fact that Hitler had a small dick
and enjoyed watching a film of his would be assassin hanging from a
meat hook, were in the area of how fantasy, notions of film and Hollywood,
as well as the Nazi theatrical giantism of rallies and parades, eroticised
Hitler. It wasn't a piece that got me very far from where I was already.
But it was performed by Fiona Meakin with a sustained versatility that
wholly engaged me and rose above the orthodoxy of the text - an actor
who could go places.
Eva, Hitler's Lover was necessarily and specifically German.
Headsman's Holiday, a Hungarian play by Korél Hamvai, translated
by David Robert Evans, and set in revolutionary Paris, should have been
benchmark European. In fact to me it seemed rather English. I mentioned
this to the translator and he said, `But it clearly takes place in France`.
And there's something there that merits further investigation and discussion.
Maybe it's a production thing (it could have been Jude Kelly on a low
budget, lots of fussy energy, gossips on street corners with their hands
on their hips, wagging their heads exaggeratedly, but not a huge amount
happening). However the lead, whose name I don't know because Huddersfield
democratically only lists the company, was good, somebody who knew how
to draw you in just by keeping still, you always knew where his eyes
were, where he was looking. There was also some good character acting,
so I sat there thinking, there's some good character acting.
The play wasn't brilliant - very amusing for the first half hour and
then, though more scenes came and went, and there was also a balloon
which also came and went, and came and went, nothing much further transpired.
Next, Hugo Carp, by Dodo Gombar, translated by Katarína Slugenová
Cockerel. This was reminiscence with added fantasy (there was an angel).
To me it was like quite a few childhood reminiscence things, Dennis
Potter plays, films where young people do things in the borderland between
the sinister and the wonderful ( My Life as a Dog). It was easy-going
and involving, there were two good songs (the taller of the two singer/actors,
again I don't know her name, has a stunning lower register) and I did
feel there was something central European about it - maybe it was the
father, when he's rowing with the mother, his threat to burn down the
house. It also delivered the Slovak nostrum, `What you cook is what
you eat,` which became an exemplar of a certain sort of (I think Sara
Soncini later referred to it as context-based rather than target based)
translation. Carp also had for me the first moments of theatre
in the festival. Again I don't know who the actor was, but he was the
druggy friend, he was lying on the ground, bombed out, and he began
to speak in a distant, sepulchre-lite sort of way; I have no recollection
of what it was about, but - suddenly, theatre. And he did it again,
when he came to borrow money from Hugo (excellent anchor man) which
was code for dying. It was for those seconds very moving and sad, it
was all in his voice and in his body, which looked as if it was still
walking, but with the articulation of the already dead.
4:48 Psychosis was done as a controlled physical piece. People
who knew said that Sarah Kane is the most performed contemporary playwright
in Europe - Sara Soncini also said that in Italy, where director's theatre
dominates, they preferred working with writers who were dead and couldn't
interfere. 4:48 Psychosis was done by final year University of Huddersfield
students. Horrific experiences (battle, burning) produce flashbacks,
and so does this for me, images of mad faces, isolation, and the self-probing
of a merciless intelligence - as well as clinical manic depression.
The Actors subjugated themselves entirely to the form, and I think that
is the only way it could have worked. This was a piece, a very frightening
piece, where actually every aspect was subjugated to the whole, lighting,
choreography, speech. If it had been the only thing in the festival,
the festival would have been worthwhile.
It wasn't the only thing. The Dybbuk by Julia Pascal also had
a cast who drove all their energy inwards, towards stillness and slow
movement. The set was grey, their suticases were grey, their eyes were
staring, there was a sliding steel gate, a wall with razor wire above,
the head and collar of a guard above the razor wire. The first few minutes
were a succession of tableaux, dark, alteration, dark, alteration, and
then the people, they could be Bosnians, Rwandans, all subsumed by the
yellow stars they wore. Theatre again, maybe the most powerful opening
minutes I have ever seen. I'm not sure that Julia Pascal's play is perfect.
The story of the two brothers and The Dybbuk didn't work for
me, it seemed internally messy and, though I could see what it was structurally,
it didn't resonate, or mesh, or whatever such a story does, with the
situation of German Jews on the way to death. But the piece as a whole
was much bigger than that, to my mind, weakness. I felt before it started,
can anything more be got from this, from the residues of the Holocaust?
The answer came back, Yes. This play, in this production, needs to be
seen in more places.
Cesario Augusto Piementel de Alencar is an actor of huge ability, who
is also an acrobat and a clown. The Non-Existent Knight was a
wonderful piece. Can theatre shock? There's always something, at one
point he was on his back and blew a dumbbell of yellow snot, I didn't
see where it came from, his mouth or his nose, which landed on his face,
he slid to his feet as if gravity was upside down, scooped the phlegm
onto his finger tip, shoved deep into his mouth, and then went into
a whining and obsequious apology for his disgustingness. He was anybody,
king, knight, beggar, computerised bureaucrat of mass killing. The piece
was too long, because it ran out of energy with about 15 minutes to
go. He's not the kind of actor who needs to spin once to signify that
he has changed roles. For me a character (or is it a role) with his
hair over his face who intones in a hollow voice becomes quickly a blank
in time. I think he needs a director. But this piece is wonderful. It
cover's the ground of a Hijra in ten seconds and to forty times the
depth. There are some actors who have too much ability to be fully manageable,
the line between genius and isolation. Piementel de Alencar communicates
from isolation, manic human figures in a huge and lonely historical
In the end I come back to European theatre, and to the absence of intellectual
or artistic excitement in so many English main stage productions. You
can judge a word by its usage. Art has a wide span. In cinema,
art-house means big diversity, evolution of technique, ethical probing,
wide emotional and cultural range; but in theatre, when artistic directors
and chief executives talk of art, you quickly look around to see if
you're in `the more they spoke of their honour, the more we counted
the spoons` territory. Nobody at FestCEP spoke much about art, but there
were stirrings, emergences, the kinds of things you find in the best
contemporary cinema, only rarely in the theatre. We should keep with
James Waddington is a playwright whose novel, Bad to the Bone,
is published by Dedalus.