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Lithuanian Theatre Today

© Dmitrij Matvejev


Though not quite matching the popularity of basketball, in Lithuania theatre is indeed a phenomenon. It is even said that Lithuania has more internationally acclaimed theatre makers per capita than any other country.

For the first time the works of the most acclaimed Lithuanian theatre directors Eimuntas Nekrošius, Oskaras Koršunovas, Jonas Vaitkus, Rimas Tuminas, Gintaras Varnas, Cezaris Graužinis as well as choreographer Aira Naginevičiūtė are presented in the DVD Lithuanian Theatre Today. The phenomenon of Lithuanian theatre is revealed through its brightest personalities of several generations. The aim is to capture ‘the shifting point‘ during the social and cultural changes of the years since Lithuanian regained its Independence.

The DVD Lithuanian Theatre Today you could find on http//theatre.kryptis.lt



After Lithuania’s accession to the European Union we often ask ourselves: “How could we be attractive to Europe?” Not only Europe is interested in Lithuanian theatre and basketball. Though theatre cannot match the popularity of basketball, the so-called ‘second religion’ in Lithuania, it has a prominent place in the society. And the fact that a country with a population of only three millions has raised more than one internationally acclaimed theatre professional allows us to speak of the phenomenon of Lithuanian theatre.

The history of professional Lithuanian Theatre is linked to the names of famous directors. It is the history of interaction and changes in individual theatre models representing the aesthetic attitude of the each director. The renaissance of Lithuanian theatre during the last decades of the 20th century was related with the traditions of avant-garde. However, avant-garde appearances in our theatre took a mainstream position and were inspired by the need to find an artistic language in order to resist totalitarian dogmas, to make the audience think and to perceive universal moral collisions and the historical drama of the nation. Theatre, which had traditionally been shaping the national and civil self-consciousness of the society, was an original detector of life, a teacher and a precursor. It should be emphasised that the traditions of Lithuanian theatre lie in the romantic attitude that has deeply influenced the way we perceive the world in our culture in general. The romanticist ideals of freedom have been a permanent issue in our cultural rebellion against all occupations and protection of our identity. Therefore, our theatre, traditionally avoiding simply aesthetical experimentation (this is why even now we have quite a traditional approach to the theatrical space and are not eager to cross boundaries between different forms of performing arts), is used to resist, to rise moral questions and to look for spiritual ideals instead.

All this was indeed the main characteristic feature of renaissance that started in Lithuanian Theatre of the 1980s. Jonas Jurašas, Jonas Vaitkus and Eimuntas Nekrošius were the key directors who developed the strongest trend of Lithuanian theatre based on the director’s authorship. The distinctive trait of this trend was authentic theatrical imagery as directors ‘scenic writing’. It was so vivid and breathtaking in dealing with urgent social and cultural issues that it pushed theatre to the frontline of National resistance to Soviet occupation. Of course, there were limits set by censorship, but the directors were able to overcome these restrictions by creating an original visual ‘Aesop language’ for which censorship worked as the original catalyst. However, the artistic flirt between theatre and censorship sometimes transformed into open struggle, for which the resistant personality had to pay even by being forced to leave his homeland. 

Developments in Lithuanian theatre during the first decade of Independence were influenced by social and cultural changes as well as the emerging new generation of theatre professionals and some transformations in the theatre system itself. Almost at the same time two aesthetically different independent theatres of Rimas Tuminas and Oskaras Koršunovas formed which developed into new forms of contemporary Lithuanian theatre. Meno fortas of Eimuntas Nekrošius that was founded somewhat later should be mentioned as well. These forms came from the directors’ personalities traditionally representing artistic innovations in our theatre. This was followed by the first non-governmental performing arts organizations initiating and implementing artistic as well as infrastructural changes in contemporary Lithuanian theatre and dance. 

The independent Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre (OKT) could be named as the phenomenon of contemporary Lithuanian culture in the way its new aesthetics was adopted by the rapidly growing cultural market. By delving into the surrounding reality, which was transforming from its post-communistic heritage into capitalist consumerism, Oskaras Koršunovas was the first in contemporary Lithuanian theatre to investigate attitudes and conflicts of the new society. The distinguishing feature of his repertoire has been modernized classics and new dramaturgy staged with a classical approach by perceiving archetypical meanings in contemporary conflicts. Koršunovas’s productions of Mark Ravenhill, Marius von Mayenburg, Jon Fosse and Sarah Kane have influenced his interpretations of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Bulgakov and visa versa. After ten years of intensive producing and touring, nationally as well as internationally, the OKT has become one of the leading Lithuanian theatre companies. Koršunovas’s performances have been presented at the Avignon Festival six times, which is an absolute record among young Eastern European theatre directors. His The Master and Margarita after Mikhail Bulgakov, Fireface after Marius von Mayenburg and especially the original interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have become national as well as international best-sellers and brought him the prestigious European New Reality Prize.

Even though Lithuanian theatre is famous as a citadel of directors, some of its new developments have been related to contemporary dramaturgy. The non-governmental organization Theatre and Cinema Information and Education Centre established in 1999 launched the New Drama Project intended to present new national as well as international dramaturgy and encourage its staging in Lithuanian theatres. Some young directors and playwrights joined the initiative. The project has transformed in to the annual theatre festival New Drama Action: its defining characteristic was, originally, production activities implemented through the development of new plays in the form of readings / works in progress in order to subsequently complete productions in collaboration with some Lithuanian theatres. This model was quite risky (taking into consideration the low budget of the festival), but it justified itself. The New Drama Action has not only presented important new national as well as international plays and playwrights but also some new phenomena in European theatre.

The new drama has been an important impetus to search for an individual style for one of the most interesting directors of middle generation, Gintaras Varnas. Varnas is the director of the Kaunas State Drama Theatre and is now the youngest leader of a repertory theatre in Lithuania. Moreover, Varnas is, perhaps, the most consistent among Lithuanian directors in using non-traditional spaces. His performance-project The Wasted Land after Merlin or the Wasted Land by Tankred Dorst is among few examples in Lithuanian theatre when the memory of a space brings the meanings of the performance.

As the production of Shopping and Fucking marked the turning point in Oskaras Koršunovas’s career (he then launched his independent theatre), the determining work for Gintaras Varnas was his performance based on Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play The Distant Land. Varnas has interpreted the complicated and redundant piece by the contemporary French playwright in a very personal and, at the same time, universal manner, relating it to the poetics of his favourite authors, Lorca and Calderon. The visual impact of the performance and acting has raised the drama of a contemporary family to the level of classical tragedy. We should remember Fireface by Oskaras Koršunovas based on a play by Marius von Mayenburg as a different example of a classical tragedy inside a contemporary family. And although Koršunovas’s and Varnas’s artistic priorities differ, their productions are linked by a general tendency: they interpret contemporary collisions by using classical genres and looking for a starting point not so much in the play as in their individual worldview. Thus, directors of the younger generation have been creating an unwritten tradition of Lithuanian theatre based on the phenomenon of ‘auteur theatre’.

Contemporary dramaturgy incites changes in ‘auteur theatre’ in Lithuania; it encourages looking for new means of expression. The emergence of one of the most interesting ‘newcomers’ during the last five years – the Cezaris Group – is evidence to the fact that poetics of a play may stimulate the birth of a theatrical aesthetics. For this, we should ‘blame’ the dramaturgy of Roland Schimmelpfennig and, more precisely, his play Arabian Night on which the debut production of Cezaris Group was based. The Arabian Night produced by the director and teacher Cezaris Graužinis together with his five students immediately attracted the audience’s and critics’ attention. Cezaris Graužinis identifies the artistic direction of his group as the ‘theatre of imagination’. In their productions based on Schimmelpfennig’s plays, the Arabian Night and For a Better World, also in the group’s most recent production based on Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, minimal theatrical means provoke the audience to wander the labyrinth of contemporary human imagination and the surrounding world. 

It may seem at the first glance that directors of the older generation, Jonas Vaitkus, Eimuntas Nekrošius and Rimas Tuminas who are active today, are little moved by new theatrical tendencies, but none of them could be considered retrograde: their theatre is also changing, renewing itself and it does not lose impact. Perhaps, Jonas Vaitkus, who experienced the apogee of his career in the 1990s and has produced over 60 performances and educated many generations of actors and directors, is, perhaps, the most curious and open to the issues of the day. Vaitkus’s theatre of ‘moral concern,’ which existed during the Soviet period, today refuses social controversies and focuses rather on inner contradictions of a contemporary human being. This is why he is interested in dramaturgy that pointedly raises the issue of relationships between a personality and the society. Vaitkus is, perhaps, the most consistent among Lithuanian directors in his interest in a range of classical literature: Shakespeare, Flaubert, Schiller and Dostoyevsky, but he also interprets contemporary, mainly British, dramaturgy in innovative ways.

It is a paradox, but productions of the most famous Lithuanian director, Eimuntas Nekrošius, are on the brink of disappearance from the map of Lithuanian theatre.  Nekrošius’s studio Meno fortas has only small premises for administration and a tiny hall for rehearsals; thus, it tours abroad more often than appears in Lithuania. Although Nekrošius’s work is, perhaps, the most stable indicator of the level of Lithuanian theatre, his artistic language is also transforming as influenced by the changing generations of actors and the director’s development. After his monumental trilogy based on Shakespeare, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, Nekrošius has attempted to go back to the beginning and create a kind of ‘elementary study’ of theatre based on the seminal work in Lithuanian literature, the poem by Kristijonas Donelaitis, The Seasons, and on the biblical The Song of Songs. Both performances have been produced with young actors (for some of them this was the first christening of theatre!) and are bristling, youthful and full of healthy humour and elegiac nostalgia. Nekrošius creates here a mystery of the cycles of nature and human life where the permanent circle of nature is being turned through the life experience of different generations. Lately, Nekrošius has been increasingly doing what he did not think of doing before: he has been working abroad and directing operas. His first operas have been produced in Italy and Russia, the countries that most appreciate Nekrošius’s creative genius. In Italy Nekrošius has directed Verdi’s Macbeth even in two theatres, Florence and Palermo, which has been also adapted for Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. On special commission from the Bolshoi Theatre Nekrošius has produced, perhaps, the first experimental opera in Russia: the scandalously acclaimed Rosenthal’s Children based on a libretto by a young Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin and music by Leonid Desyatnikov. The opera stagings abroad were followed by Lithuanian drama production based on Goethe’s Faust, created again under the banner of his own Meno fortas. In his new premiere based on the Idiot by Dostoyevsky Nekrošius has returned again to the waters of great classics, which he disturbs as usual by offering an original interpretation of the well known literary opus.

Director Rimas Tuminas, who considers himself ‘old-fashioned’, is impelled to change not so much by literature he stages, but by the coming generation and, first of all, his own students. More through them, through the live people next to him, and not through plays dealing with contemporary issues, Tuminas has tried to hear the sound of the present time. Tuminas often chooses Russian classical dramaturgy, in which he looks for something that he cannot find in contemporary life. The collision between memory and the present is relevant to him, which the director attempts to reveal mainly through interpretations of Chekhov. However, during the last few years, two contemporary plays have been included into the repertoire of his State Small Theatre of Vilnius mainly consisting of productions of classics: Family Stories by Biljana Srbljanović and Madagascar by Marius Ivaškevičius. Tuminas has produced these performances by using the creative skills of his young actors. His collaboration with the most interesting young Lithuanian playwright Marius Ivaškevičius was followed by the most recent production Mistras based on originally interpreted biography of the famous Polish-Lithuanian poet Adam Mickevicz. Recently Tuminas is more working in Moscow since he is an artistic director of the Vakhtangov State Theatre.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian theatres are still repertory-based with some exceptions. It should be stressed that repertory theatres have not reformed since the Soviet times. There are still no fixed-term contracts and repertory theatre ensembles working on a permanent basis. All repertory theatres have recently become state enterprises althouth state subsidies only partially covering they budgets force them to fight for the box-office income. There are almost no independent venues, and independent theatres as well as new performing arts organisations still have to use the facilities of repertory theatres for their activities paying considerable rent. Therefore, the system of our theatres recently reminds of a cramped boxing ring where the contestants fight without a rules…

The contemporary performing arts centre, Menų spaustuvė (The Arts Printing House), has been founded in the very heart of Vilnius, the largest printing house of the Soviet times, which used to print the legendary Pravda. This is the first place in Lithuania that seeks to realise the idea of creative industries and become an open stage for creating and presenting experimental performing arts. Menų spaustuvė is only making its first steps but already here, among the walls that still remember the past epoch, a field of attraction for creative ideas is forming. Perhaps, a new generation of Lithuanian directors, actors, choreographers, playwrights as well as theatre managers will develop here.      

 Audronis Liuga



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