On June 10, the 31st edition of the International Theatre Festival Varna Summer (June 1–10, 2023) ended with the bright dance performance “Passion” by Flamenco Ballet Barcelona from Spain. Traditionally, the poster of the festival was made up of three modules – the Basic Programme, including the selections of Bulgarian and foreign performances; the Showcase Programme, which presents to foreign and Bulgarian experts, selectors and organizers of theatre events, the most interesting mobile performances on the Bulgarian stage in the last year; and the Parallel Programme, including an international conference, an educational module, concerts, etc. This rich and varied poster showcased more than 25 performances from Bulgaria and abroad, street performances, digital broadcasts, book presentations, and meetings with Bulgarian and foreign artists.
The first thing that makes an impression in the International selection of the festival is that it is gradually returning to its pre-pandemic criteria and volume. The poster with foreign performances includes 7 performances from the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Lebanon & Germany, Spain, and Austria. The focus this year was the Czech Republic as one of the European countries with the best troupes working in the field of street theatre. The inventive performances of three of the famous Czech street companies (followed by the most established Bulgarian artists in this field – mime formation “Zhar Theatre”), several evenings in the square in front of the theatre in Varna created a real celebration for a huge number of residents and guests of the city.
Among the other performances in the international selection, I would certainly single out two particularly impressive titles. This is the original and exciting performance “Riding on a Cloud” by Rabih Mroué – a Lebanese director based in Germany, one of the great interdisciplinary artists and representatives of modern documentary theatre. Rabih Mroué created the performance in 2013 with his brother Yasser, who tells his own story in it. During Lebanon’s civil war, Yasser, only 17 years old at the time, suffered a serious accident. As he crossed a street, struck by the news of his grandfather’s death, he was hit in the head by a sniper and lost part of his memory, after which he had to start learning to speak and think again, to be able to express himself and understand the speech of those around him. In the performance, Yasser Mroué, based on individual personal documents, drawings, and objects, tries to reconstruct the difficult path of restoring his ability to perceive the world and communicate with others, while at the same time posing the question of the dangerously fragile and fluid connection between memory and reality, between reality and fiction.
I saw the performance for the first time in 2019 in Munich. What struck me greatly then and now, when it met the Bulgarian audience, was the deep excitement and impact that it gradually began to awaken in the viewers, until it finally immersed them completely and won their sympathy.
The other, very interesting title from the international selection, was Jamie Lloyd’s “The Seagull” by Chekhov, shown as a digital screening of the latest NT Live programme. Last year, this director participated in “Varna Summer” (and in the “World Theatre in Sofia” platform) with another modern interpretation of a classic play – “Cyrano de Bergerac”. In both performances, he employed the same staging strategy. Both in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and now, the characters from the classical play, dressed in modern everyday clothes, are literally enclosed in a small claustrophobic space – a cube built on the stage, in the case of “The Seagull” – from cork material in which they must speak and experience the text of the emblematic author. The performance provokes a long and detailed analysis, which I will not do now, but I would like to emphasize its masterfully achieved sharp, natural relevance. Jamie Lloyd strikingly discovers the eternally relevant in Chekhov’s play. For him, it is a play about a man who has lost perspective of himself. This echoes very strongly at any time, especially for us today – in the years of pandemic, war, and natural disasters. When the future disappears, when the idea of what one is interested in disappears as well as the belief that one can achieve it, then people desperately cling to something primary and saving, which undoubtedly is love. It is not for nothing that love in the classical context is always a symbol of harmony.
Falling in love always socializes you, reconciles you to the world, makes living euphoric, more convenient and comfortable. It is not for nothing that Chekhov’s heroes throw themselves desperately into love. The most important quality of the show is the insight with which Lloyd showed this ambivalence of love feeling. The director gives a very precise answer to the question why people always pass each other under Chekhov, there is always someone who loves someone else who does not love them back. Because falling in love in their case is not a spontaneous feeling of attraction and liking, but their fateful last attempt at salvation. A truly masterful performance, with very good, contemporary reflective actors.
The Bulgarian selection included eight titles – “Performance 1/2” by director Stoyan Radev and the Bulgarian Army Theatre, “The Taming of the Shrew” by Stayko Murdjev and the Plovdiv Theatre, “You Shouldn’t Have Said So” by Salome Lelouch, director Yavor Gardev, “Fat Pig” by Neil Labute by Stayko Murdjev and the Youth Theatre, “Lungs” by Duncan MacMillan by Mariy Rosen and Theatre Laboratory “Sfumato”, “Orpheus” by Jernej Lorenci and the National Theatre, “John Gabriel Borkman” by Plamen Markov and the Varna Theatre and “Honour” by Ivaylo Hristov and Theatre 199. All of these performances passed very successfully in front of crowded salons, but real euphoria was caused by “Orpheus” by Lorenci and the National Theater, “The Taming of the Shrew” by Stayko Murdzhev and the Plovdiv Theatre and “Lungs” by Mariy Rosen and TL “Sfumato”, which together with “Silk” by Diana Dobreva and the Plovdiv Theatre, “Unbearably Long Embraces” by Ivan Vyrypaev, directed by Chris Sharkov at the RCCA “Toplocentrala” and the dance performance “Freefall” by Marion Darova from the Showcase program, became the real favourites of the audience and the guests of the festival.
The main highlights of the Parallel Programme were the Workshop for Young Theatre Critics, held regularly in different countries by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), with participants from France, Poland, Ukraine, Greece, Bulgaria and hosts Jean-Pierre Han (France) and Ivan Medenica (Serbia), the meeting with the French theatre author, actress and directo Salomé Lelouch and, above all , the International Scientific Conference “Rethinking the Theatre Heritage from the Time of Communism”.
The organizers of the International Scientific Conference “Rethinking the Theatre Heritage from the Time of Communism” are scientists from the Theatre Sector of the Institute of Art Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences – Prof. Nikolay Yordanov, DSc, Prof. Kamelia Nikolova, DSc, and Assoc. Prof. Rumyana Nikolova, PhD. Its purpose was to debate the problem of how to write/tell the stories of the arts and especially the history of theatre in the period 1945–1989. The forum was held in two consecutive days, on June 4 and 5, and included three panels.
The first of them, moderated by Prof. Kamelia Nikolova, DSc, considered the question of rethinking the theatrical heritage of the communist era in some major theatrical cultures such as those of Poland (report by Justyna Michalik-Tomala, PhD), the Czech Republic (report by Assoc. Prof. Petr Hristov, PhD) and Germany (report by Prof. Jens Richard Girsdorf, PhD). The second panel was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Rumyana Nikolova, PhD and focused on the problem of writing the history of Bulgarian theatre from the commented period with the reports of Prof. Kamelia Nikolova, DSc, Prof. Nikolay Yordanov, DSc., and Prof. Veneta Doycheva, PhD. The third panel, moderated by Prof. Nikolay Yordanov, DSc, aimed to follow the same issue from the point of view of other arts such as literature and cinema with the reports of Prof. Plamen Doynov, DSc, (New Bulgarian University), Toni Nikolova, PhD (“Culture” magazine) and Assoc. Prof. Alexander Donev, PhD (Institute of Art Studies). In the long and turbulent discussions after each of the panels, a number of scientists from the Institute of Art Studies – Prof. DSc. Romeo Popiliev, Assist. Prof. Albena Tagareva, PhD, Assist. Prof. Petar Denchev, PhD, Assist. Prof. Milena Mihaylova, PhD, as well as from other universities and institutions in the country and abroad – Prof. Patrice Pavis (France), prof. Savas Patsalidis (Greece), prof. Kim Yun-Cheol (South Korea), Assoc. Prof. Assen Terziev, PhD (NATFA), Angelina Georgieva, PhD (NATFA), Mira Todorova, PhD (National Theatre), Ilko Ganev, PhD and others.
Ten very intense festival days, in which the Bulgarian theatre had the opportunity to not only highlight and make sense of its most significant trends, issues and achievements, but also to look at them in the context of international participation and theoretical debates on theatrical history and contemporary theatrical development.