by Kyriakos Loukakos[1]
featuring sketches by Elli Solomonidou – Balanou[2]

We retain memories of the first assembly of the then newly elected Executive Committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, held in October 2014 in Beijing, since it signified not only the election of representatives from countries with either strong or emergent economies, as for instance India and Romania, but also because of the proposal of the Romanian delegate, Octavian Saiu, for the city of Craiova to host the following European Theatre Prize. Having held its previous session, its’ 14th, back in 2011 in Saint Petersburg, this prestigious institution had since failed to assure funding by a European city eager to become its financial and organizational sponsor. Happily though promise was kept and the 15th edition of the Event took promptly place in Romania, from 23rd to 26th of April, in partial combination with the 10th edition of the Shakespeare International Festival and in collaboration with the local “Marin Sorescu” National Theatre.

Essential “Returns”…

The coincidence of Europe Theatre Prize with the Shakespeare Festival proved a happy one, since the latter provided stuff for the so called “Returns” chapter of the Premio Europa, which comprised two valuable contributions from laureates of past periods and some of the most significant theatrical stimuli of the whole event.    Recipient of the 1996 Europe Prize Theatrical Realities, Romeo Castellucci is a sufficiently known figure in Greece. His provocative rethinking of so called “Spared Parts” from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” proved once more genial and controversial in equal proportions. At their best, Castellucci’s ideas can be fresh and well thought out, audaciously introducing formal elements of several performing arts in often disarmingly courageous and utterly unexpected ways. Coming from an educational background of painting and design, his work pays attention -albeit an extravagant one- to aesthetics, thus in many instances enhancing significantly the psychological appeal of the action. This 1st repeat of the “Julius Caesar” sequence was exceptionally given at the Entrance Hall of the Craiova University and an affluent public suffered patiently the afternoon glow of a burning sun in order to attend this much awaited opportunity to witness the Maestro’s work. For many though this performance, reserved to accredited persons only, remained an unfulfilled wish, as the sound of banging to closed doors testified during much of the performance’s ¾ of an hour duration.

  Founded in 1947, the University of Craiova is using the significantly older and in any case majestic former Palace of Justice and so its Hall formed a credible frame for this solemn Roman drama, visually almost automatically referring to the Senate of the Eternal City, where Caesar’s murder had taken place on March 15 of 44 b.C. Caesar  himself (Gianni Plazzi) appeared as an already deceased person in a blood coloured tunic, a spectre emerging from the dead in solemnly choreographed movement strictly paced by taped percussion instruments. The opening monologue was preceeded by the use of a portable camera in order to project the actor’s vocal chords, while Marc Anthony’s famous monologue, which formed the  conclusion of this “dramatic intervention on W. Shakespeare”,  was disturbingly reserved to an actor (Dalmazio Masini) deprived of voice through tracheotomy!

Only an hour later and back to the main venue of Shakespeare Festival and Premio Europa alike, the Craiova National theatre, the select audience was treated to Thomas Ostermeier’s (*1968) highly personal view of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”(c.1599). Already well known and cherished in Athens, currently member of the Artistic Direction and resident Director of the famed Schaubühne in Berlin, Ostermeier had been awarded the Theatrical Realities Prize at Premio’s 2000 Taormina edition. Action in this staging of Shakespeare’s first history play was transposed to a utopian futurist era. But while “costumes, live percussion music, video projections and a powerful array of technical equipment” may conjure to form “a completely contemporary set to which the play, written at the end of the 16th century, adapts perfectly”, as the program leaflet puts it, the same doesn’t apply to the verses   of divine Shakespeare, transferred to contemporary, trivial and hardly poetic German. This may simplify the sense of the plot to lazy audiences of today, but it falsifies the real  reason of reference to this -or any other- masterpiece, a reason not limited to some possibly  didactical narration of historical facts but mainly focused to the imaginative aesthetic intervention for their presentation, in other words to the unsurpassed integration of this narration to a poetic utterance that, beyond ethic evaluations, idealises characters and deeds. And this was the crucial missing element of this demanding revival, a fact made even more apparent to German speaking spectators through the director’s choice to juxtapose the more than often prosaic German translation (by Marius von Mayenburg) with select fragments of the Shakespearian original.[3] In any case the 2 ½ hour-without-an-interval spectacle did remain demanding! Especially for Lars Eidinger, the omnipresent and energetically moving throughout and all over the stage eponymous anti hero, a Tribulet-like figure avant la lettre, who mounted the throne through mischief and finally succumbed  to an inexorable process of paranoid isolation from everybody in his Court and the outer world. The partial megaphonic support of his declamation was a helpful if problematic option, since it exposed his and other actors’ somewhat undernourished voice projection in the room. Debatable remained also Ostermeier’s option for unnecessary – to our view – frontal and rear male nudity, even more provocatively combined to blood lust, as in the scene of the Duke of Clarens’s assassination, Richard’s brother, who was made to expire in total exposure of his well formed body and literally drowning in his own blood! All in all a disrespectful voyeuristic vulgarisation of a great work …

… and actual Theatrical Realities

Visceral excitement occasionally exceeded our endurance in Ostermeier ‘s assumption of “Richard III”, it proved though more thought provoking than the largely cerebral sécheresse  that characterised much of what we witnessed as scenic part of the 13th Edition of Theatrical Realities Prizes. These were awarded to the directors Viktor  Bodó (*1978) and Andreas Kriegenburg, the playwright Juan Mayorga, the National Theatre of Scotland  and the French Joël Pommerat (*1963), playwright and director, with a Special Prize reserved to the Romanian director Silviu Purcărete. We didn’t manage to attend conferences about all prize winners, but what we savoured from these sessions of exhaustive theoretical analysis was hardly matched by fragmentary presentations or complete performances of their works.
The morning conference of April 24th   was focused on the (East) German Theatre and Opera director Andreas Kriegenburg (*1963). We derived unalloyed pleasure from the video sampling of some of his recent productions, such as Federico Garcia  Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” (2015) for the Staatsschauspiel Dresden or the recent revival (2016) at the Deutsches Theater Berlin of  Kafka’s “Ein Käfig ging einen Vogel suchen”,  endorsing his view that comic element in a play is a way of pressure relief. We unreservedly share his remarks regarding the terror acts in Paris and Brussels, where, as he informed us, his daughter also happened to be, especially his apprehension of a European society increasingly inclined to delect itself to convenient answers, thus alienating many young people who seek responses to existential questions to fanatics and their dubious certainties. We encourage his call for a theatre anxious to provide a path to doubt as its own moment of happiness. And we cherish the presence of a talented young Bosnian (?) bass for an aria from Astor Piazzola’s tango opera “Maria de Buenos Ayres”, as a memento of  his 2015 production for the Theater am Goetheplatz of Bremen.

But, in spite of all the above, witnessing, on April 26th, Kriegenburg’s  Deutsches Theater production of “Nathan der Weise”,  at the Craiova Students House, –nota bene- “after” Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s  enlightened (1779)  five – act  Dramatisches Gedicht, proved a rather tedious occasion. And this besides our whole hearted endorsement of director’s “call for religious tolerance and intellectual dialogue grounded on reason and a lightness of spirit that mankind is losing today”, stated in the accompanying ETP booklet. The production proved self defeating owing to an  unbearably shabby scenery and the actors zombie – like stage appearance. These elements burdened considerably the light hearted love story of a presumed-to-be Hebrew girl with a young Christian crusader who saved her, risking his life as the plot’s refreshing frame for the main intellectual course, one of claim to the heritage of  religious Truth…

An even more paradigmatic case of the frequent gap between maxims of theoretical analysis and performing reality was the one of the playwright Juan Mayorga (*1965).  The Spaniard came to the fore of the Event claiming that the true creator of a critical culture is the community. He tries to minimize the distance between contemporary and ancient Greek theatre, which he regards as one intended primarily to watch, and invokes his own experience as a spectator in order to justify his coming to writing for the genre. Mayorga aims to characters who dare to know and to think, that interpret philosophers, and considers the philosophical and historical aspect as a dramatic source that contributes to establish the philosophical language of his works. Physical nature is to him a fragile bridge between Logos and Polis and he has no difficulty to admit that his theatre can be very demanding to the audience, because it is charged with philosophical ideas.

As a bonus to the participants of the conference devoted to him (25/04/2016) Mayorga presented fragments  of his new play “The Yugoslavs”, stating that his plays are works in progress, not only because the interpreter may find things that the author doesn’t know (the text knows better than the author, as he fitfully formulated it), but also regarding the author’s contribution itself, since, even in that same morning of the conference, he claimed he had seen gestures in a restaurant that he wanted to integrate to his play!

All above helps to understand the current international editorial interest for his plays, already translated to many languages, Greek holding a special place among them. But proverbial theatrical reality counterfeited his intentions this same evening from the scene of the “Colibri” Children and Youth Theatre. His play “Reikiavik” depicts the famous 1972 chess match that took place in the capital of Iceland between American Bobby Fischer and Soviet Boris Spassky, a match that mirrored also the political rivalry between super powers USA and USSR. All these are reflected in the text which nevertheless was presented in such a swift pace that defied the average human ability of perception and left one perplexed after a quite lengthy evening, moreover one without an interval of either intellectual or physical repose. One further wonders how on earth Mayorga, in his pronounced ambition to turn literature into theatre,  made so little use of technology in his own play, despite being an alumnus of director Robert Lepage,  who not only came to name his team “Ex machina” but furthermore produced a technically  spectacular Wagner “Ring des Nibelungen”  cycle for the New York Met…

On the other hand and with the emphasis on the performing rather than the literary element, the still homeless and itinerant National Theatre of Scotland (est. 2006) employed presumably low budget technology to good effect for its production of Kai Fischer’s play “Last dream on Earth”, directed by the author himself, and managed to strike a humanitarian chord of political correctness in the parallel drawn between Yuri Gagarin’s first stroll to outer space and the refugee / immigrant drama of our day. Isolated by the use of earphones, viewers – auditors were made to sense the highs and lows of mankind’s moral aspirations and defeats in a very direct, emotionally charged and interestingly constructed way of recitation for these extreme conditions of human solitude and despair. A valid reminiscence to creators and scholars alike that the desirable checkmate of a theatre piece is unattainable without addressing the soul of its prospective recipient…

Mats Ek, a spell binding Europe Theatre Prize

As we have been accused in our country for acknowledging performing arts’ mutual transgression of boundaries[4], we feel vindicated  by the latest choice of  Mats Ek for the European Theatre Prize, a man who acquired fame as the intuitive choreographer of many creations that have long achieved cult status. It is a choice that defies our era’s lowering cultural standards, an era subjected to the after- Andy Warhall ambivalent cultural triumph of a trash taste, in its pretence of a democratic legitimacy, one more reason to deny the luxury of separatism among performing arts, especially one of questionable motivation. Ek’s Prize  also coincides happily with the actual presidency of the IATC by the respected Swedish Theatre and Dance critic Ms. Margareta Sorenson, and further justifies, albeit in a more peripheral frame, the fairly recent (2013) acceptance of two eminent Dance critics[5] as the first members of this discipline by the almost 90 year old Greek Drama and Music Critics Union.

The theatricality of Ek’s choreographic creations was of course extensively commented during the conference devoted to him, on the last day (26/04) of the Europe Theatre Prize event. Even before his belated joining of the morning session, speakers underlined Mats Ek’s artistry as serving a concurrent multitude of personally charged artistic and social goals. Ek’s choice for the European Prize is indelibly linked to the narrative force of his choreographies that allows dancers, albeit deprived of speech, to function as participants to real theatrical events, an orientation no doubt inherited from his actor father. A pronounced feminist character emerges as a common trait in many of his works, not in an obsolete use of the term feminism, but rather as a symbolic and representative means to sensitize against oppression of minorities in society, a notion reflected in the density of the feminine figure in his already legendary “Giselle” or in others of his early ballets. In his “The House of Bernarda Alba” choreography, based on the namesake theatrical play by Federico Garcia Lorca, Ek used a virile man dancer as the female protagonist, a choice intended to imply a dictatorial figure, removed from the stereotype of maternal affection, who, in his view, could not be adequately impersonated by a woman. The feminine element remains prominent in his “Swan Lake” choreography, where the evil sorcerer Rothbart assimilates traits of the Queen Mother of the story, while, in his “Carmen” version, Eros is represented by a combination of fans forming a vagina!

Indeed throughout Ek’s production the boundary between black and white, masculine and feminine remains labile and mysterious, offering opportunities to unexpected directions, as in his production based on Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” for the historical Teatro Argentina of Rome[6], where Shylock is interpreted by a woman as a clear symbol of his marginalisation, an option also significant of Ek’s own understanding as a Male in front of Woman’s constant transformation.

Mats Ek surely deserves to be acknowledged as a person instrumental for the perception of Ballet as a phenomenon of modern times, not necessarily confined to a limited academic tradition. Born in the transitory year 1945, Ek firmly believes to transforming, “redecorating” the house, while retaining a distinctive notion of style as a trademark, much in the way that Mozart influenced Music. And so he does in his clearly defined, special, sometimes processional way, as in his “Giselle”’s emerging from the tomb, repeated obsessionally for 12 consecutive times. In his personal way, Ek pays an anthropological visit to the academic past, renewing classicism through humour, dramatic quality and truth, while claiming a certain scale of human consciousness in order to enter the philosophical core of this repertoire. In this respect he achieves the transformation of the classical works without departing from classicism, but instead by pervading them with an intemporal humanism and by lending them an uplifting transcendental element.

Although he boldly stated during the Conference that analysis of his work is beyond his horizon, Ek has constantly inspired his interpreters, as the artists themselves testified in loco.They always seeked to be as near to him and his visionary theatricality as possible. A theatricality expressed as the inseparable interaction between body and soul, that requires many human forces and expresses itself in choreographies which, while not intended for specific dancers, nevertheless dictate the selective nature of his choices.          Having just crossed the threshold of his 71st birthday (April 18), Mats Ek’s Europe Theatre Prize is indisputably the crowning distinction of a long career, that acquires especial importance after his declaration, during that same April 26th session, that he intends to “step out of business” on his own terms and consequently liberate himself, by the following summer, from all his still pending commitments. To the obstinate questions that followed this announcement, Mats Ek made clear that, while profiting from the “empty” time, he doesn’t forbid himself anything, a soothing prospect to eager ears, considering snippets shown in the end of the session from his fairly recent choreography of Shakespearian provenance, created for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2013 and bearing the title “Juliet and Romeo” as an insinuation to the pre – Shakespeare Italian source of the great dramatist’s inspiration[7].  It is a concept that not only departs from Sergei Prokofiev’s deservedly famous ballet for large chunks of music by Tchaikovsky, including his “Romeo and Juliet” Overture-Fantasy and his first piano concerto, but also introduces interesting deviations of the plot,  as in the case of Mercutio’s murder, presented as a lynch act of clan killing in a public lavatory with an evident homophobic reference. Thus the well known story becomes a tale of inexorable Hassliebe, an expression of solidarity to victims of prejudice and an optimistic credo to love being ultimately stronger than death…

Moving Epilogue with a furtive tear…

   The last curtain upon the 15th edition of Europe Theatre Prize fell at the Great Hall of the “Marin Sorescu” National Theatre of Craiova with the obligatory and unavoidably moving prize-giving ceremony, presented, in our hosts’ language only, by two young and elegantly dressed Romanian announcers. As a farewell encore, the select public was treated with two valedictory Ek choreographies. First the video wall projection of “Buy”, which had marked Sylvie Guillem’s  farewell to the scene in 2015[8], using to great effect the music of Beethoven’s last (32nd) piano sonata, op. 111 (its equally valedictory final arietta movement). The Event came to its conclusion with “Axe”(Securea in Romanian), a special commission for the Ceremony of Premio Europa. It was a symbolic and devotional dedication to the Master’s wife and Muse, the dancer Ana Laguna, who gave its world premiere opposite her colleague Ιvan Auzely. As it focuses to the long standing companionship, its occasional alienation of the partners but also the shared benefit of  fellow traveling in life  that ties one partner to the other, it was a tribute easily extendable to the rector spiritus of the Premio, Alessandro Martinez, and his devoted team for their long standing and far from easy task to keep European cultural ideals standing and ablaze. Keep up the good work!




[1] Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.

        Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a  CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by  “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address .

        As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory”  Society.

[2] Honoured in 2011 by the Athens Academy for her 50-year contribution to Arts in Greece, Elli Solomonidou – Balanou (also signing as Solomonidi)  was born to Asia Minor parents, attended courses at the Athens School of Fine Arts and also studied at the Department of Set/Costume Design of the Constantinos Doxiadis Athens Technological Institute, under such greats as painters Yiannis Moralis, Yannis Tsarouchis, Spyros Vassiliou, Vassilis Vassiliadis and engraver Tassos Alevizos. From 1961 to 1995 she worked as set/costume designer with the Greek National Opera, while collaborating as a music producer with the Greek State Radio (EIR), where she was also in charge of the music in some radio theatre broadcasts. In 1965 she became the first set/costume designer with the Theatre Department of the then newly established Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (GRERT). From 1961 to 2011 she worked as a sketch artist for established Athens newspapers and magazines, her characteristic sketches accompanying reviews by some of the most important Theatre and Music critics in Greece. Recently she resumed her career as a sketch artist contributing to e-magazine , thus enriching with her artistry the lives of readers from a more modern era. Since 2012 she is a member of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Union and, since 2015, the Curator of its Executive Committee. All sketches accompanying this article have been provided by her for exclusive use by this e-magazine and are subjected to the copyright of the artist. Therefore they cannot be used or reproduced in any way without Mrs. Solomonidou – Balanou written licence.
[3] A similar discussion is being held in Greece since the occasion of the 2014 Greek Critics Prize for Ancient Drama. The Theatre Prize Committee deemed the engagement of a pop star, safely guided by a talented and experienced director in the genre, as a welcome option for a credible incarnation of the tricky role of God Dionysus in Euripides’ “Bacchae”, and as a viable alternative  to the more and more frequent intervention to the original texts in order to “actualize” them.[4] In this respect we felt amply represented by the public comment of the lady, a Moscow Theatre critic, present at the session, stating that, although she considers herself no specialist on either Dance or Mats Ek , she firmly believes that there are no borders among performing arts…[5] The same which had hosted, 200 years ago (1816), the disastrous premiere of Gioacchino Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”…
[6] Ms. Mirka Psaropoulos and Mr. Andreas Rikakis, both long standing collaborators to important Greek journals, Mr. Rikakis being also the first dance critic in Greece selected to provide Dance critique for the internet edition of his journal (KATHIMERINI).
[7] Incidentally also the name of an opera (Giulietta e Romeo, world premiere Milan 1796) by Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli (1752 – 1837), to a libretto by Giuseppe Maria Foppa, which was revived for the first time in modern times by the Salzburger Pfingstfestspiele, in May 2016, featuring a starry international cast and the Armonia Atenea Orchestra, playing on authentic instruments under the baton of Greek conductor George Petrou. Zingarelli was one of the most prominent exponents of the Neapolitan Opera School much admired by Napoleon the Great, who not only pardoned his refusal to conduct a celebratory mass for the birth of his only son, the King of Rome, but also granted him a state pension! Fairly better known is a much more recent opera of the same title by Riccardo Zandonai (1883 – 1944), premiered at the Teatro Constanzi of Rome on St. Valentine’s day of 1922 under the composer’s direction and with such great singing actors of the time as dramatic soprano Gilda Dalla Rizza and Spanish tenor Miguel Fleta in the roles of the eponymous pair.
[8] Presented also at the Athens Herod Atticus Theatre as part of the Athens Festival 2015.