Theatre: Between Modernism and Postmodernism

2005 10 25

Until the 1990s, theatre in Lithuania was an institutional art supervised by the state. In the 1990s, however, artists went in search of new stages and greater independence. Meno Fortas, established by Eimuntas Nekrošius in 1998, and the company founded by Oskaras Koršunovas, are the most successful companies today.

Nekrošius and Koršunovas belong to different generations and schools of aesthetics. Nevertheless, they both reap awards nationally and internationally, and are the directors the most representative of the vitality and uniqueness of drama in Lithuania.

Eimuntas Nekrošius
The beginning of Eimuntas Nekrošius’ (born 1952) company dates back to the Soviet period. However, its productions at Vilnius’ National Drama Theatre in the 1980s and the shows it performed under the auspices of the international LIFE drama festival from 1994 to 1997 truly stand out in terms of their idiosyncratic style and interpretation. The ambiguous language that viewers have come to associate with Nekrošius had a metaphorical rather than a political aspect to it, even in Soviet times. Eventually, his style, imagery and metaphors became an internationally recognised trademark, inseparable from Lithuanian culture and mythology, and indivisible from his inexhaustible imagination and rich experience. Nekrošius’ theatre company Meno Fortas has also become a trademark of quality, as it participates in nearly every European, American and Asian international festival. Nekrošius set an example and became a moral authority to a whole generation of foreign theatre artists by directing international theatre workshops. He has been awarded the National Prize for Art and Culture, several Russian Golden Mask theatre awards, and prestigious international awards, including the Stanislavsky and Ubu awards. He has been awarded the European Theatre New Reality Prize, has reaped success at a variety of international festivals, and has been a laureate of many Lithuanian theatre seasons. According to Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė, a theatre critic and author of the book Eimuntas Nekrošius: Beyond the Words, “because of its cultural and intellectual content, Nekrošius’ work reaps success anytime and anywhere.”

Macbeth - Kostas Smoriginas
Before 2003, Nekrošius seldom staged works by Lithuanian authors. Nevertheless, his cosmopolitanism and his aesthetic and ethical values are deeply rooted in archaic culture. The term that best defines his theatrical style is teatrum mundi. The action is set both on Earth and in Heaven, it involves the living and the dead, and proclaims the interminable repetition of the eternal cycle of life. The hypnotising imagination of the director creates the people and powers involved in this cycle, ranging from humans to conceptualised human nature and the powers of the natural world. Their surprisingly mundane aspect and incredible transformations are only possible in Nekrošius’ work. It is not just a mere coincidence that the director draws the most inspiration from the work of Chekhov and Shakespeare. It is no coincidence either that his metaphors shift from tragicomic situations, wishes and aspirations to things that are beyond our human lives, things that dwell deep in our souls and may be tracked down to our human nature. It is not a mere attempt to unify the contrasts in life and in people visible with the naked eye. Nekrošius plunges deep into the territory of the heart and the spirit, painfully exposing the tragic and comic sides of our human nature. In his work, man is but a toy in the hands of fate and powers independent of his will. These powers seem to be precisely the main characters. The trilogy based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, directed by Nekrošius between 1998 and 2000, is a case in point.

Othello - Vladas Bagdonas, Desdemona - Eglė Špokaitė
Professional actors are not the only ones to act in Nekrošius’ shows. The rock singer Andrius Mamontovas plays the main part in Hamlet, and the ballet dancer Eglė Špokaitė plays in Othello. Nekrošius looks for new talent in the younger generation, and does not necessarily limit his search to future actors. His shows and Meno Fortas seem to be a workshop for the search for new personalities, although getting into that workshop, as well as performing in his productions, is not only a matter of honour, but also a considerable responsibility.

We can both rejoice and regret that Nekrošius does not limit the scope of his work to the Lithuanian stage. His works staged in Italy, France and Russia, as well as his workshops for young artists in Italy, France and Belgium, often require audiences to wait longer for his first nights in Lithuania.

Donelaitis (The Seasons) - Salvijus Trepulis
The most recent work directed by him is based on a poem by Kristijonas Donelaitis, the originator of Lithuanian national literature. In 2003, the epic poem The Seasons appeared on stage for the first time in theatre history. The Seasons is the best representation of the bond between the archaic and the modern, which is so characteristic of Nekrošius’ style and which appeals to the audience with its unpredictability. Once on stage, the work, which is almost impossible to adapt for the theatre, resembles a string of dramatic and comic stories about the seasons: spring as a manifestation of birth, autumn as a manifestation of maturity and ripeness, and winter as a manifestation of death. The use of Nekrošius’ favourite elements, wood, stone and water, to paint images of nature’s awakening, blossoming and demise is ingenious. The director draws on the parts of Donelaitis’ epic poem to create an interminable mystery about all of God’s creations, including man and his life story, the historical and cultural memory of the nation, the old and new national mythology, and spiritual and religious experience. Placed next to the morose Shakespearian trilogy, The Seasons is a light, life-embracing and realistic production. The actors are young, and ready for emotional and physical challenges, and are capable of instantaneous transformations. You see them acting songbirds, wolves running in snow, drunken farmers and, finally, meek believers of the parish, who, together with their moral leader, the priest and educator Donelaitis (played by Salvijus Trepulis), aim to create a memorial to themselves and to future generations.

Nekrošius’ imagery arises from human experience, not from literature. This is probably why every person, irrespective of their culture and native language, understands his shows easily. This is also why Nekrošius, the only director not using the latest technologies on stage at a time when all Lithuanian theatre directors are using them, opts for the use of natural elements. His drama is often referred to as magical reality theatre. His shows verbalise wood and stone, lightning and water, silence and clouds. They create a hypnotising atmosphere, inciting audiences to return to their natural roots.

Oskaras Koršunovas
Oskaras Koršunovas (born 1969) belongs to the new generation of theatre directors and is a pupil of Jonas Vaitkus. However, he might be called a pupil of Nekrošius as well, because he follows Nekrošius’ style of imagination. This imagination gives life to every object on the stage and makes it a world with its own rules, that tend to change constantly. However, if we can call Nekrošius a modernist, Koršunovas is an artist of the postmodern world, with its destructive powers, fragmenting the conscious and the subconscious. The internal harmony, the hierarchy of values, and the meta-storytelling logic in Nekrošius always contrast with the chaotic real world. Koršunovas takes the chaos and paradox of reality, its absurdity and fragmentation, to be the central principle for creating the meaning of the plays, and thus the theatre gains a touch of contemporary life. The director is an expert at manipulating the logic of fragmentation, and this logic runs through all his plays, both those based on classic playwrights, including Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and those based on modern plays, Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill, The Fire Face, The Parasites and The Cold Child by Marius von Mayenburg, and Crave by Sarah Kane. These works were staged both at home and abroad. The young director is surprisingly prolific. It seems that he is running after his time by framing his shows in the new stereotypes created by the media, sometimes making fun of them, sometimes condemning them, sometimes trying to grasp the scale of their impact on contemporary man, and is prepared to sacrifice his characters and himself for the sake of belief and truth. All his work seems to be strewn with the problem of belief, belief as creation, as the new understanding; or simply as experiencing drama in new circumstances, drama which Koršunovas provides with the sound and the rhythm of modern times.

Shopping and Fucking
A winner of the National Prize for Art and Culture, the European New Reality Award, and awards from international festivals in Europe, America, Asia and Australia, and the laureate of many Lithuanian drama seasons, Koršunovas belongs to the generation of directors who attracted the attention of the organisers of international projects and initiatives after the fall of the Berlin Wall as a prospective source of energy for the new drama. He won recognition in Lithuania and abroad with his first productions between 1990 and 1994, based on literature by Daniil Harms and Aleksandr Vvedensky, Russian avant-garde authors of the early 20th century. Koršunovas connected these works into a trilogy: Here to be There, The Old Woman and Hello Sonia New Year. In 1997, he turned to the socio-cultural analysis of his contemporaries, found people who wanted to do the same, and declared the manifesto of the new theatre. This does not limit itself to seeking aesthetic values, but seeks ways to connect with people who are going through the dramatic experiences of modern times. These points of reference differ greatly, and the director chooses different authors as the basis for his work. However, what they have in common is the wish to find their own identity, which may lead to self-destruction or at least to transforming life into a constant fight.

The Parasites
Calling such a fight in Koršunovas’ plays tragic would be unfair. Every play is full of humour, parody and fantasy. The criticism behind it all fails to fit into the traditional concept of artistic socio-criticism, and transforms it into a fight with the very artistic concepts of artistic and moral dogmatism. These dogmas are usually represented in Koršunovas’ work by characters of the older generation or by children of past times. They are contrasted with young people who go through a much deeper and more painful experience. It does not matter whether it is The Master and Margarita, Romeo and Juliet, Kurt and Olga or Oedipus; they are all marked by the new and the old times, and by the challenging conflict of the new and the old beliefs.

It is not an easy task for actors to participate in Koršunovas’ productions. Just like Nekrošius, what Koršunovas requires from them is not artistic charisma, but physical preparation, responsibility and a joint effort to work for the implementation of a common goal. He has his own young favourites, who perform in most of his productions; however, he also chooses charismatic actors from the old school of actors, who, after having tried it once, dream eternally of working with Koršunovas again. Because he devotes special attention to the visual images and emotions, as well as to the rhythm and dynamics of acting, he makes other actors want to excel in their acting by continuously improving. This is not a limitation of the initiative of the actor, but encourages his improvisation and a constant search for new resources. It is no coincidence that even actors you know well look completely different in Koršunovas’ plays; each part created by the director opens up a new shade to their artistry.

Like Nekrošius, Koršunovas is a director entirely committed to theatre. He considers a play to be a possibility to search for a different kind of theatrical expression and acting. Even contemporary plays, which are more often than not representative of the aesthetics of the new realism, will suffer a paradoxical metamorphosis under his hand. The drastic shadowy situations of daily life grow into metaphorical conclusions, photographic realism turns out to be abstract, symbolic and laconic, and social spaces become mythical, poetic definitions. The impressive lighting, modern technology and specially written music by Gintaras Sodeika further enforce the imagery of the spectacles. The action on the stage, which is something between dance and dramatic acting, and the impressive set design remind you of reality only at first glance. Koršunovas makes you adopt a train of thinking in equivocal associations, and adds some intellectual meanings to the images previously determined, which are impossible to grasp without human and cultural experience. Therefore, watching a performance also becomes an act of mutual creation of meaning in communication between the director and the spectator. This grows into a “contract without words” made between the spectator and the director, which was characteristic of Lithuanian theatre during the Soviet period of “Aesopian language”.

Romeo and Juliet
The most recent productions directed by Koršunovas are an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare (OKT, 2003) and The Cold Child by Marius von Mayenburg (Klaipėda Drama Theatre, 2004). Both productions were recognised in 2004 as the best of the 2003–2004 season, and their director was recognised as the best director of the season. It is also important to note that The Cold Child was the first serious work by Koršunovas with a Lithuanian theatre other than his own, and with actors from a different school of acting. Nekrošius has not attempted that either, though he tends to choose new actors for his plays every time he directs one. However, he has only once staged one of his first productions in another theatre (Kaunas Drama Theatre).

The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has already had a chance to take part in several international festivals and long tours abroad. It represents a blatant example of postmodern parody aesthetics. The characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy live in the pizza kitchens of Verona in the 1940s and 1950s. They work with tools for sifting flour and making dough. Behind the hatred and the fights of two competing families, you can see the desire of two youngsters to bridge the division between enemies and between epochs with love and death. Italian cinematic realism mingles with the carnival aesthetics of the Middle Ages. Cultural stereotypes about Italy are laughed at as clichés of the mafia chronicle. The fights with knives, spoons and dough, as well as the characters in the play, seem to have come from comics and cartoons. However, the “old world” full of the uncontrolled energy of humour and poisonous flour is forced to give way to tragedy and to death, which are not hilarious at all. Although death fails to establish the advent of the new times, it does declare the end of the old.

The Cold Child
The Cold Child also carries a multitude of visual images and meanings. It has a lot of humour, which aids the director in defining contemporary stereotypes. Life, feelings, dreams and obsessions are exposed on a stage presented as a huge bathroom. Several couples, as if returning to the scene of a crime, retell the events and present evidence wrapped in plastic bags to the audience, as if they were judges. The show resembles a criminal investigation, with the different versions of the crime exposed during the investigation. The director, who is very meticulous about the image, sound and rhythm of acting and staging, has attained his highest goal in this play. The conceptual space and the precise acting are characteristic features of all work by Koršunovas. They involve the audience immediately, and do not relent until the end of the show.

Undoubtedly, Nekrošius and Koršunovas are only part of the variety of Lithuanian drama. However, they both seem to represent the two best extremes, traditions and aesthetics, which live together in the artistic world and make it change and improve. They affect a whole range of representatives of the new and the old theatre generation, including Jonas Vaitkus and Rimas Tuminas, who have created their own theatrical model and who lead in the theatrical world, and the younger but equally good Gintaras Varnas, the even younger Cezaris Graužinis and Ignas Jonynas, as well as actors who work with them, and the youngest pupils of Vaitkus, Tuminas and Vladas Bagdonas.

Photos by Dmitrij Matvejev

This article was commissioned by Lithuanian Culture Express No.1