Now in its fourth year, the Festival attracts established as well as up-and-coming directors and performers to Tbilisi from all over the world. This year was no exception. Some highlights of the 2012 Tbilisi International Festival which ran from 14-30 September:
The stage production of The Damned (The Death of Gods) – the first film of director Luchino Visconti’s acclaimed German Trilogy – was singled out by Festival organizers even before it opened at the Griboedov Theatre in Tbilisi. The production by the Jan Kochanowski Theatre of Opole, Poland lived up to its advance billing.
Opole is a university town in Southwestern Poland, where the Jan Kochanowski Theatre was established in 1975. Its repertoire, actors and stage directors have contributed to the theatre’s reputation as one of the most progressive in Poland. Maja Kleczewska, who staged The Damned (The Death of Gods) at this year’s Tbilisi Festival, is recognized by international critics as the most interesting and provocative stage director in Poland today.
The Death of Gods, scripted for Luchino Visconti’s movie by Enrico Medioli, Nicola Badalucco and Luchino Visconti himself, is a cautionary tale about the loss of humanity. An uncompromising examination of bourgeois society during the rise of Nazism in Germany, the play tells the story of the downfall of the great von Essenbeck family, whose narcissistic longings lead to moral decay, physical violence and, ultimately, tragic demise.
Maja Kleczewska’s opening scene exposes the audience to the banality of evil: A dining room with grey walls and a huge chandelier where members of the von Essenbeck family are seated at a long rotating table, celebrating a birthday in utter silence. The only sound heard is background music. Then the music stops and with it the sounds of silence. Suddenly these cataleptic specimens, so fixated on food they had not even exchanged glances, become animated. Their obsessive manifestations, maniacal passions and hunger for power enliven the stage.
Kleczewska’s production is a disturbing vision of humanity devoid of anything virtuous or uplifting. Its characters deceive, rape and kill one another. Even the children, meant to symbolize innocence, acclimate to the violence engulfing them. They dance and play around a decomposing corpse, insensate to the depraved environment in which they live.
The Death of Gods is the manifestation of evil. Scenes of mutilation, pedophilia, incest are staged with shocking precision. It was one of the most unsettling and impressive productions of the Festival.
Different sensibilities were aroused by Anton Chekhov’s one-act farce The Wedding, as staged by the National Academic Janka Kupala Theatre of Belarus at the Marjanishvili Theatre. The young, talented Russian director-musician-composer-actor Vladimir Pankov had previously staged the play for the Chekhov International Theatre Festival in 2009.
The two-hour play recounts the story of a marriage of convenience in tragicomic episodes. The innocent and very ugly bride Mashenka waits in outlandish veil and lace gown, counting the minutes to her moment of “happiness.” Her mother, Nastasia Timofeevna, busiesherself settling organizational issues as she awaits the arrival of wedding guests while holding a huge glass can ready to collect money they will bring as gifts for the “happy” couple. Bridegroom Epaminond Maximovich Aplombov, who expects payment “to bring happiness” to ugly Mashenka, cannot conceal his interest in the marriage deal and sets his conditions during the very wedding ceremony.
Guests impatiently await the arrival of a “general” who has agreed to attend in exchange for money. When he finally appears, the guests turn their backs on him as soon as they discover that, in reality, he is just an ordinary old man and a second-rank captain at that. Heavy, ominous chords of Stravinsky’s “The Wedding” [Les Noces], composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, strike discordantly in the opening scenes of the play, underscoring the theme that a wedding is not so much about the sacred bonds of marriage as it is reminiscent of a Russian pagan ritual. The play is all about human baseness and its characters are sly silly people motivated only by their desire for personal gain. Nevertheless, each and every one of those characters arouses compassion; it is impossible to get angry at any of them.
The National Academic Janka Kupala Theatre is the oldest professional theatre in Belarus, established in 1920. It is often described as the premier stage of the Republic of Belarus. In Tbilisi, this company indeed displayed high professionalism and spared no effort to please the audience. Participating in the production were musicians of the SounDrama Studio founded by Vladimir Pankov in 2005. However, excessive musical and dance interludes as well as extended scenes protracted the performance and proved tiresome.
An impressive production staged at Griboedov Theatre by Poly Artist Management Co., Ltd of China – Kungfu Revelations - 9 Scrolls – was divided into nine episodes: Purity, Sutra, Diligence, Spirit, Listening, Shape, Serenity, Devotion, and Paradise. This meditation play was expressed through the language of Chinese martial arts and dance performed to meditation music against a backdrop of oriental wisdom visually displayed in each episode.
The episodes of the nine scrolls tell stories of kindness and evil heard during moonlit nights of childhood. One of the characters, a father carrying his small son on his back, roams the battlefield among fighters, recalling tales of wars and battles, acquainting his son with the wisdom of life and teaching him the importance of spirituality.
Throughout the play, the Chinese actors perform difficult acrobatics. “Fight is needed to gain peace while meditation accumulates wisdom and channels aggression into creativeness.” The creative aggression of the actors was so awe-inspiring that audience members time and again gasped in fear that the actors might sustain serious physical trauma falling on their backs with full force and breaking spears over their heads.
And still, the most esthetically and spectacularly impressive play within the framework of the Tbilisi International Theatre Festival was Still Travelers, beautifully performed by the Philippe Genty Company on the stage of the Marjanishvili Theatre.
Seven characters – three men with amazingly long legs and four women – are transported on an Odyssey beyond time, beyond space and beyond any physical bounds – sailing the seas in a box suitable for shipping fragile items, then finding themselves in the deserts of Africa and, like the Little Prince, watering pits from which children grow.
Everything in this performance was delicate and breathtaking – the music, the scenography, the choreography, the mastership. The renowned French stage director, choreographer and puppeteer Philippe Genty synthesized almost all theatrical forms in this single production: pantomime; puppets; actors dancing, singing and speaking in French, German, African dialect, Italian, Spanish and even Georgian.
The characters drown one another in the ocean; they fight and bury one another; they are minced in a mincing machine; they hurl stones at each other; they search for one another in garbage heaps and, still, nothing is appalling, everything seems funny. What emerges through it all is beauty in its simplicity. As one character says: “In order to be happy, one must think of banalities.” In order to be happy, one must never forget that the world is wonderful.
Even a Wise Man Stumbles
The Alexander Ostrovsky play, Even a Wise Man Stumbles, performed on the stage of Rustaveli Theatre, might have been just an ordinary production were it not for all the fuss kicked up before and afterwards. The fuss beforehand was created by the fame of the actor performing the key role of Yegor Glumov – Sergey Bezrukov. The star of Russian theatre, cinema and TV is so popular with Georgian audiences that his appearance on the Tbilisi stage left not even standing room in the Rustaveli Theatre and punctuated that evening’s performance with the constant clicking of an unprecedented number of cameras and video recordings with mobile phones.
Post-performance hysteria was caused by one scene in which the actor chewed his bowtie, which audience members interpreted as Bezrukov’s imitation of the Georgian President during the war with Russia in August 2008. That assumption was clearly confirmed in the minds of many critics when the actor started chewing his bowtie after pronouncing a phrase in Georgian: “A subordinate must be shy and timid.” Bezrukov himself later told journalists that his action meant nothing and that he would like to perform in other plays for Georgian audiences.Even a Wise Man Stumbles, staged by Oleg Tabakov, proved to be a humorous, light-hearted production with a crew of good actors, but devoid of any innovative staging and targeted for aging, Brazilian-soap-opera-loving audiences who enjoy watching TV-novellas day after day.
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The 2012 Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, of course, was not without flaws: subtitles not coinciding with text or missing altogether; performances not starting on time or rescheduled for other dates because of the political situation in Tbilisi. The behavior of some audience members in the theatre also presented problems. However, the Festival program included several productions that the audience will not soon forget. The Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre once again proved to be a really worthwhile project. Georgian audiences, hopeful of seeing see more and more better productions in the future, are wishing the organizers continued success as they begin preparations for next year’s Festival.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 117, published 8 October 2012.