The Many Strings To Varnas’œ Bow

Vaidas Jauniškis 2006 04 26

Gintaras Varnas
The first Sirenos international theatre festival (2004) invited young East European directors, all of them recognised masters today, who have revived theatre in their home countries and who contribute to the most prestigious international theatre festivals. The discussion was expected to bring out their common views on the future of European theatre. Yet common views were missing: the participants held different opinions and hardly formed a homogeneous group of young directors. In general, the theatre and arts worlds raise new generations more frequently than the demographic process where a new generation comes along every 25 years. A ten-year difference in age is enormous, and distinctiveness due to age is more conspicuous than geographical or ethnic specificity. It must have been, however, the politically tumultuous destiny of Eastern Europe that all of the directors became visible at the same time, which was disadvantageous to artists in their early forties: younger, non-conformist punks (but not enfants terribles) had to come along to make the older and more traditionally inclined youngsters visible. Though the word ‘youngster’ was certainly inaccurate in the case of Varnas, because, like many other 45-five-year-old artists, he was ‘noticed’ when he was well into his thirties.

The further development of events only confirms the stereotype: Gintaras Varnas’ productions are not frequently presented at international theatre festivals. Even respectable theoreticians and critics are mesmerised by shocking images and hard work; whereas Varnas can hardly be called a hothead, because he values tradition even more than his senior colleagues.

Another prerequisite of successful theatre is the first production. In case of Koršunovas, it was the hit of 1990, Ten būti čia (There to be Here) after the miniatures by the Russian socialist absurdist Daniil Charms. Varnas never produced anything comparable, because he began in the early 1980s in a children’s theatre that staged performances in the wooden Secessionist Vasara cinema building, which has now burnt down. He was discovered after Revoliucijos lopšinės (Lullabies of Revolution) in 1987, when he directed a political puppet theatre, continuing an early Vilnius tradition of the Polish szopka theatre, which is similar to the French guignol: new political leaders born out of a wardrobe-Nativity crib recited funny rhymed texts about political events. Despite Varnas’ later assertions that he was more interested in the fusion of the ancient form, the medieval division of the wardrobe into heaven, earth and hell, with new content, the spectators perceived it as a parody of political events and an uncensored mockery of the excessively politicised life.

Varnas: We were rehearsing in the hall of the Theatre Union, and upstairs the Sąjūdis movement was meeting. They were serious and we … we were putting on a Christmas production. But it was very exciting, because it was dangerous. It was danger-driven, and when the danger passed, the theatre naturally died.

The audience were invited in by a simple note on the door of the Theatre Union, which announced that ‘The next performance of Lullabies of Revolution takes place at …’. This was enough to get the small hall with its 150 seats full to capacity. Yet the disappearance of the threat of the KGB and a tour in the USA for émigré Lithuanians reduced the enthusiasm;whereas the political climate also changed, and Varnas deliberately chose a new path to face the many new aesthetic developments, which still seem to be coming along.

„The Lighthouse” by Thimothee de Fombelle, 2005
If theatre history, like the art of history in general, admitted the magic ‘if’, Varnas’ creative period would be placed at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th, till 1936 at the latest, when the surrealist era came to an end and Federico Garcia Lorca was shot. One aspect of his work has a very solid foundation in Spanish soil, in Lorca and Pedro Calderon de la Barca.

In 1993, the Vilnius Small Theatre put on a performance of previously unseen poetry: this was Jei praeitų penkeri metai (When Five Years Passed), after Lorca. The somnolent intonations of the characters and the beauty of the stage were astonishing (Varnas’ set designer was the painter Artūras Aliukas, working in a modern medieval manner), while the surrealist play not merely maintained its style but also invited us to dream about shadows, reflections and interfluent planes and cats, the latter being quite frequent in Varnas’ productions, together with his second trademark, crows. (His last name means ‘crow’; his interest in birds is almost professional.) Ten years later, in 2003, he staged Lorca’s Donja Rosita, arba Gėlių kalba (Dona Rosita or the Language of Flowers), which shares the same subtle intonation and silent tribute to beauty. Yet the first production of Lorca bore romance and a future outlook; whereas the second speaks of Dona Rosita’s past, full of missed chances and endless waiting (the mark of Varnas’ generation?), which is remembered in peaceful reconciliation with losses, that enrich time with the eternal dimension of beauty. Beauty is the religion of his performances, so the audience sees both meticulously designed and actor-friendly sets, and the meticulous work of costume designers, of whom the fashion designer Juozas Statkevičius has become the director’s most regular choice, taking care of the make-up, hair styling and even an individual perfume for every character.

Dainius Kazlauskas in „The Public”, 1997
If a brand name is such a needed concept in today’s theatre, then Publika (The Public, 1997) by Lorca could be considered the ‘first’ Varnas production. Seated on the stage with the curtain drawn, the audience finds itself in the same prison as the character of the Theatre Administrator. Varnas staged a performance about surrealists, with the main characters replicating Lorca and Salvador Dali in their make-up and posture. Moreover, it is also a confession made at the end, when the turning circle of the stage and Michael Nyman’s music from Peter Greenaway’s A Cook, A Thief, His Wife and Her Lover start a never-ending roundabout and the Administrator cannot leave the theatre. Varnas admits that theatre is a prison he does not wish to leave. It was after this that one of the most authoritative Lithuanian and Russian hispaniologists, Vidas Siliūnas, said that he had seen the best staging of a play which cannot be staged at all.

Varnas: Dainius Kazlauskas came to Publika. And very cautiously. One night he approached me and demanded, ‘Are you going to tell me what I am acting here or not? When you know, I’ll come back to the rehearsal.’ Half of the following night I didn’t sleep. I really mean it. I kept trying to understand what he was doing in the play. And then it dawned on me. In the morning I told him, ‘It’s Salvador Dali’. He said, ‘Yes. Then it’s clear!’

At that time Lithuania was busily addressing its cultural backwardness and trying to keep up with world art in all possible ways: it was an imperative in only a couple of years to read all the forbidden books of the last five decades, which was followed by the discovery that most art was familiar, despite censorship. Windows opened broadly to the world brought the realisation that earlier we had not only been guarded against masterpieces and freedom of choice, but also safely protected from cheap junk. The name of Peter Greenaway became one of the most trendy in many film showings. With no intention of establishing the direct influence of his films on Varnas, it is still important to mention that the concept of baroque, so conspicuous in The Belly of an Architect, the above-mentioned A Cook … or Prospero’s Books, is identical to Varnas’ baroque expression. But Greenaway served sooner as a confirmation of Varnas’ perception and as an example of a modern baroque paraphrase, because Varnas is one of the rarely seen directors who take the trouble to study their material from primary sources and prepare their productions carefully.

Life is a Dream, 2000
That is why Merlinas, arba Nusiaubta šalis (Merlin, or the Wasted Land) does not use the music of Nyman’s Memorial, but his source, Henry Purcell. Thus Gyvenimas tai sapnas (Life is a Dream), based on Pedro Calderon de la Barca, presents a complete panorama of baroque life: a maze where King Sigismund is lost (one of the most complicated and beautiful characters played by Kazlauskas), interlaced life and dreams, reality and imagination, which is similar to Zen philosophy, mirror reflections, the relationship between a pose and the human soul, a masquerade, mannerism, the lines of excess and proliferation. It is a different Calderon from the earlier Didysis pasaulio teatras (The Great Theatre of the World), which was perhaps staged for the purpose of warming up, before getting to new and more unexpected spaces. But this was an attempt to relate the baroque of the production to the architecture of the most baroque northern European city.


Baroque might have served as a starting point on the way to an even richer stage. Opera and classical music have become yet another string to Varnas’ bow. With his sensitivity to music, his good acquaintance with musical works, and an ideal feel of inner dramaturgy, Varnas has contributed to the revival of the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre, and has made the traditionally static opera singers act and express inner drama. His productions include Tchaikovsky’s Pikų dama (The Queen of Spades), emanating terror and secrecy, and Verdi’s Rigoletto, based on the aesthetics of German expressionism. His later move from Vilnius to Riga’s Opera Theatre resulted in memorable productions of Salome by Richard Strauss and Verdi’s A Masked Ball, whereas the Nitra Theatre in Slovakia saw its most beautiful performance in the whole country, according to local theatre critics, after the first night of Strindberg’s A Dream Play (2000). The relationship between dream and reality, or existence and the other world, still continues. The following example from A Dream Play illustrates a typical Varnas game. During the prologue, the spectators enter a huge stage where they are photographed by Indra’s daughter. Having returned to their places in the auditorium, they find photographs on the seats showing the same stage without any people, without themselves. Have they not just stood on the stage? What an introduction to contemplate the ephemeral nature of existence!

Yet this is not the only line drawn by Varnas. It curves like a sinusoid, reaching amongst baroque or richly decorated performances an ascetic meagre existence and alienation, the drama of impossible communication. The latter include Camus’ Svetimas (The Outsider, 1995) with its sun-burnt desert of yellow mattresses, and the gentle yet uninviting Laikas ir kambarys (Time and the Room, 1997) by Botho Strauss. The state of anticipation and unfulfillment is loaded with non-communication. It is all about Vilnius’ hippies, Varnas’ generation.

„Merlin or The Wasted Land”, 2004

Varnas: I must have discovered the cafes of the Old Town when I was in the eighth form. Sometimes it was ten-cups-of-coffee evenings, and sometimes not just coffee. Where did we get the money? I don’t know, but we had some. We used to meet hippies, both real and superficial. I think at that time Vilnius was the only place in the Soviet Union where you could still see hippies. But we adored them, their way of life and tramping, and it was almost a must to be like them. We were only schoolchildren then, but we started travelling. One trip was especially radical: I left for half a year. It’s difficult to say where to. It was a trip to myself.

To continue, the production of Tolima šalis (The Distant Land, 2001) by Jean-Luc Lagarce comes to mind, but it marks a new turn in the road.


The work of Lagarce (hardly a play, rather a confessional novel) is about unsaid words, and an attempt to return to utter the words, slightly too late, as always. The Proustian trip of the terminally ill Louis, who might be dying from AIDS, like the author himself, is back to his home town and his relatives, to his male lover, past stories and childhood toys. But, unlike Proust, the final scene will not include the all-important Madeleine cake, because the action takes place in reality and not in memory. Varnas re-wrote Lagarce’s transforming memory flow into a drama, keeping the ideas intact. The static stage of the Long Hall at the Kaunas Drama Theatre (six rows with 50 seats each) becomes a corridor and train for trips back to the past to say farewell. (The motif of the train compartment and carriage has recurred in many of Varnas’ productions, and, according to the director, it might be traced back to his hippie period when he was hitchhiking and travelling for weeks by train from Siberia to Lithuania.) The external stillness, however, is very intense in the emotions, the short individual moments of glory of the actors and the electric discharges of their characters, confessions, pain, resignation with oneself and the past.

„Hedda Gabler”, 1998
And one more development: alongside productions in Vilnius and Riga, the Kaunas Drama Theatre is presenting an informal cycle of performances, spread over a couple of years, which might be termed ‘family’ dramas. This is Hedda Gabler (1998) by Ibsen, Gedulas tinka Elektrai (Mourning Becomes Electra, 1999) by Eugene O’Neill, and Portia Coghlan (2002) by Marina Carr. The female characters are strong women rebelling against the philistinism of their enemies and the established order. (Varnas: ‘Add Salome in Riga to the list. She fits perfectly into this army of ‘bitches’). Hedda becomes a joyous mischievous witch, adding a lively irony to routine life, and is more concerned about living than about obedient service to her husband; whereas he, an expert in history, needs a bird to entertain guests. Similarly, Portia hates the orderly and strictly ruled life in the Irish provinces (the play clearly continues the O’Neillian tradition, which develops in parallel with the motif of incest between twin siblings of a different sex).


Thus, the plays chosen once again express a longing for the tradition of the theatre of the early 20th century and of the cult of actors. And this tradition and concept are important to Varnas, and constitute another foundation on which his theatre rests; it is inseparable from the early ethics of the theatre. Therefore, his productions bring back to the limelight forgotten stars of the stage, and elderly actors become necessary ‘talismans’ of his productions. Therefore, to continue, he never chooses cynical, dehumanised, so-called post-postmodern material, and is not excited about the trendy and brutal dramas which flooded Europe several years ago.

Varnas: Cynicism and theatre are not really compatible. You may be cynical in your personal dealings, but when cynicism penetrates your profession, it is the end … And in Kaunas I work with actors who have preserved a respect for the profession. It is felt in the whole theatre, from the stage hands and ushers to the actors. Certain things are beyond question. After all those times and perturbations, they still observe one rule: shoes must be changed before going on to the stage. They still wear rehearsal shoes.

„Crime and Punishment”, 2004
‘A specialist,’ said Hedda ironically, and the irony belongs to Varnas: he hates to be a one-field, one-style specialist treading a familiar path or producing orderly performances when they could be created better. Thus, Dostoyevsky’s Nusikaltimas ir bausmė (Crime and Punishment, 2004) is sooner a combination of a detective story and a dream in modern disguise. The audience are again seated on the stage, whereas the murdered or dead characters descend to the auditorium. The set is surrounded with a police security fence that may not be crossed: it fences in both the scene of the crime and the shooting scene, because the screen immediately shows the characters close-up, or offers background pictures to the action, a kind of modern Greek choir. Being an ideal mediocrity with vain ambitions, and therefore ready to push aside other people’s lives, Raskolnikov deserves no mercy here.


The year 2004 marked a return to utopia and its impossibility today. The production of Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler’s Merlinas, arba Nusiaubta šalis (Merlin or the Wasted Land) exploited yet another new location, the Arts Printing House, which will soon be transformed into the kind of post-industrial stage location now often seen in Europe. (The place has already joined the TransEuropeHalles European performing arts spaces network.) The round table is not turning any more as it did in Publika, but the legends of chess figures-knights are revived in a variety of theatrical genres, and remind us of many forms tried by Varnas: from shadow theatre and grand guignol to hyperrealism or brutality and the grotesque. The signs of time of space, however, are strictly defined: they circle around medieval iconography and romancery. The actors are sometimes persuasive, and sometimes detached; the director puts on a carnival or a flash of total romanticism; we see portraits of saints, though the performance is deliberately ‘seamed’ quite inaccurately. Paradoxically, this is one of the most emotionally touching of Varnas’ productions. From the womb of the giant doll, Morgauze, comes the optimistic Merlin, and, having learned the lessons of his father-Devil, he finishes the performance with the expression of a sad yet mindful sage. It is a pleasant farewell to the age when fairy tales, poetry and utopias seemed to be possible.

And yet, this is not the epilogue. The future is obvious, but it is to come, as Satan said to Merlin. In reality, everything is related and continued, which probably explains why when the Kaunas Drama Theatre, where Varnas was appointed artistic director a couple of years ago, is undergoing reconstruction, the director postulates his new vision of the theatre: ‘A new Ferrari parked by an ancient castle’. And he continues to live in his non-luxury apartment in Vilnius’ Old Town surrounded by 500-year-old walls. The new alongside the old has become an inner imperative of his productions: anticipation is replaced by the touch of eternity and continuous change. Despite the continuity of his lines, this dedicated buff of the theatre of the 19th century and a passionate part-time ornithologist seems to be repeating his crowish Nevermore.

This article uses excerpts from an interview with Gintaras Varnas by Rūta Oginskaitė and Vaidas Jauniškis ‘A new Ferrari parked by an ancient castle’ published in Teatras no. 2-3, 2004

In the process of the publication of this journal, Varnas became in December a winner of the National Culture and Art Prize.

This article was commissioned by Lithuanian Culture Express No.2