The 25th edition of Varna Summer 2017 International Theatre Festival, Bulgaria’s biggest theatrical event, was held between 1 and 11 June in Varna, a city scenically located along the Black Sea coast. Established in 1992 as part of the then common to East Europe’s striving for renewal and meeting with the western parts both of the Continent and the world following the political changes of 1989, the festival has developed powerfully and dynamically during its existence in the past quarter century. It was launched as an imitative to present the best of Bulgarian theatre along with a few foreign productions. Since 1997, it has evolved into a major international event to later stand alongside the high-profile European festivals.
A Terrified Soul (Macbeth). Anhui Provincial Peking Opera and Hui Opera Institute, China
There were four modules on the festival’s bill: Main Programme, Bulgarian Selection; Main Programme, International Selection; Showcase and Parallel Programme. Maintaining an established tradition, this anniversary edition featured a rich tapestry of foreign and Bulgarian theatrical and dance productions; discussions; sessions with teams; a theoretical conference, exhibitions, performances, street performances, screenings and concerts. Forty-one events having the motto Invented Worlds and held not only in the halls but also elsewhere around the city as well in Bulgaria’s capital with the World Theatre in Sofia platform launched in 2007, ushered audiences and guests. The most convincing evidence of the success both of the anniversary edition and of the overall policy––up-to-date, well devised and consistent––of the festival over these two decades and a half were the full to bursting halls as well as the critical acclaim received from the many attending theatre experts, selectors and curators at international events.
Anna Karenina after Leo Tolstoy, directed by Nikolay Polyakov, set design by Marina Raychinova, Sofia Theatre, photo Simon Varsano
The Bulgarian selection included 9 performances, selected from among what was the best this season in this country: the compelling and ingenious No Man’s Land by Stoyan Radev, based on the 2001 movie of the same name by Serbian writer/director Danis Tanović; What Is a Name?, a inventively staged comedy by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière, directed by Zdravko Mitkov, Theatre of Satire, Sofia (Icarus 2017 Award for Best Performance); incisive Anna Karenina after Leo Tolstoy, dramatised and directed by Nikolay Polyakov, Sofia Theatre (Icarus 2017 Award for Best Director); stylish Plamen Markov’s renditions of Shakespeare in Love after the film script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (Drama Theatre, Varna) and Stayko Murdjev’s staging of Equus by Peter Shaffer (Youth Theatre) as well as The Bright Future of the Flea Market based on the 2015 Nobel Prize winner for literature Svetlana Alexievich’s novel Second-Hand Time, dramatised and directed by Ivan Dobchev, Sfumato Theatre Laboratory.
The international selection’s focus at the anniversary edition was on Asia and particularly, the intensive dialogue in that continent’s theatre between the eastern and the western traditions, between the heritage and the novel ideas, between history and present day. The international programme included a traditional Peking opera, A Terrified Soul (Macbeth), based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, of Anhui Provincial Peking Opera and Hui Opera Institute, China; a documentary dance performance, SoftMachine: Rianto & Surjit by Berlin-based Choy Ka Fai, a choreographer from Singapore; Skins, a dance miniature by Lee Jung In (South Korea/Austria). Apart from performers and companies from Asia on its international bill, this year the festival maintained its tradition to present some of the best European and international productions: Diary of a Madman by of Hungarian director Viktor Bodó, winner of New Theatrical Realities 2016 Europe Theatre Prize; Autarcie (….) A search for self-sufficiency by French choreographer Anne Nguyen; Desplante, a contemporary flamenco performance of Spanish dancer Eduardo Guerrero; Live Cinema theatre/film concert by documentarian Sam Green and animator Brent Green (US), etc.
SoftMachine: Rianto & Surjit (Germany/Singapore) and Diary of a Madman (Hungary) stood out from this rich and multifarious international programme.
The title of the documentary dance performance SoftMachine: Rianto & Surjit by Choy Ka Fai, a choreographer from Singapore, who graduated in 2011 from the Royal College of Art, London, with MA in Design Interaction and since 2014 had worked mainly in Germany, was borrowed from the popular novel by William Burroughs, where the writer refers to the human body as a ‘soft machine’ exploring the mechanisms of its control. This performance is part of Fai’s project seeking to explore the manner in which the work of contemporary Asian dancers and choreographers mixes and catalyses eastern traditions with the artistic techniques and strategies of European contemporary dance. Fai went on an expedition between 2012 and 2015 to five Asian countries to conduct interviews with local dancers and record their performances where they, starting from the traditional dance techniques inventively transform them into the aesthetics of contemporary dance. The audiences of Varna festival had the chance to get to know the individual stories and experience of two of these artistes: Rianto (Indonesia/Japan) and Surjit (India), spectacularly performing traditional and contemporary dance.
On 4 June, three striking performances succeeded one another during a stunning night to demonstrate brilliant acting: Diary of a Madman, a one-man show of Tamás Keresztes directed by Viktor Bodó; Songs from My Shows, a concert performance of famous Bulgarian performer Ivo Dimchev and the abovementioned SoftMachine: Rianto & Surjit. Hungarian actor Tamás Keresztes’ performance made a deep impression. Against such a powerful backdrop, it stood out as evincing fine artistry and easiness, based on contemporary refection, great erudition and inventiveness.
Tamás Keresztes in Diary of a Madman, dir. Viktor Bodó, Hungary
In the ingenious reading of Gogol’s famous short fiction by Viktor Bodó and Tamás Keresztes, the unusual world of a civil servant, Poprishchin, who gradually loses his mind, distorted and transformed through his subjective misperception, is set directly on the podium. In the total darkness of the stage/universe, a lonely pendant lamp sheds light on a strangely deformed cube with an irregularly shaped and proportioned door on its front side, at which a slim human figure writhes and shudders in an unnatural posture. The silent expressionistic morbidness of this scene is suddenly broken or rather deepened by a harsh loud whisper of the writhing human silhouette: ‘Fantastic! Fantastic!’ The cube makes a turn on its axis, also asymmetrically fixed to the floor to show Poprishchin’s abode: a strange room cast into the pith-black darkness of the surrounding and practically missing outer word opening up two sides to it: to the audience and to the right. The few things it contains are also distorted in an expressionistic manner: a narrow desk on thin long legs put into an unnatural perspective, an correspondingly small stove, a chair, a window and the abovementioned door. The room is undergoing yet another metamorphosis in the course of the performance: in the end, when Poprishchin is taken to a mental home, it revolves to stand on one of its sides and now its wooden floor becomes the bars with the body of Poprishchin’s troubled soul writhing behind them. He and his world are one: he is always in his ‘room’ unable to leave it as it is built in his twisted mind, reflecting its workings. The deformed room and its metamorphoses as an image emblematic of Poprishchin’s world is a starting point and a key achievement of Tamás Keresztes’ one-man show. Tellingly, the actor himself is also the designer of the set.
Another emphasis in the spatial solution of Tamás Keresztes is a digital device mounted in the messy room and used by the character to record, merge and mix sounds like DJs do nowadays: hiccups, screams, wheezes, unusual falsettos and the noises he himself produces. Thus along with the mobile and multifunctional character, twinning a human being and a house, the actor’s voice and sound become a major element of the performance. In fact, recording the sounds he (believes that he) hears and rearranging these in tunes, meanings and rhythms, which he himself composes using contemporary media, Poprishchin played by Tamás Keresztes not only renders––directly and effectively––the ‘stories’ born and unfolding in the character’s drifting mind, but also makes a surprisingly relevant suggestion: man nowadays using digital technologies to invent and create a world to live in may well face loneliness and lose touch with reality, voluntarily heading for a new ‘madness’.
Usually, (one-man)shows of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman are performed by great and brilliant actors. Tamás Keresztes’ performance not only accomplishedly maintains and ingeniously continues this tradition, but also adds to it keen contemporary sensibility and relevance. This is undoubtedly the most contemporary rendition of Gogol’s novelette I’ve watched onstage.
Varna Summer International Theatre Festival’s 25th anniversary edition has convincingly proved once again its role of a significant and in-demand venue for meetings and discussions of various theatre voices woven into the current tapestry of Bulgarian, European and world theatres alike.