21st International Varna Summer 2013 Theatre Festival

9 Jun

In the charming city of Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, the 21st International theatre festival season has started. As with any great festival, one of the joys of the international programme they call with refreshing simplicity Varna Summer is to be able to take in more shows in one day than some people see in a year.

So it is that I begin my sojourn in Bulgaria’s “summer capital” with three shows back to back. The most interesting of the trio, by a distance, is the disquieting Medea, My Mother, written by Ivan Dobchev and Stefan Ivanov, and performed by Theatre Laboratory Sfumato from Sofia. Combining a wild, highly literate fantasia with angrily direct social commentary, the piece explodes within the mind of a man close to death in a hospital bed. Numerous human figures some apparently real, some surreal, others ethereal surround his bed and (for reasons possibly connected with his childhood) assail him with stories of orphaned children.

Medea, My Mother, by Ivan Dobchev and Stefan Ivanov

Their lives neglected, abused, trafficked, criminalised, prostituted and raped are laid out repeatedly in a series of monologues interspersed between more imaginative scenarios in which a bleak, well-read and witty apparition talks to the bedridden protagonist, connecting the modern world to the ancient by reference to Goethe, Shakespeare, the Bible and Euripides, among others. There is a scintillating, wild intelligence to the production, which makes it all the more disappointing that it wears its political heart so polemically on its sleeve. Its two elements never achieve synchronicity: it is as if an episode of Panorama had gatecrashed an epic play co-authored by Sarah Kane and Tony Kushner.

By comparison, Return a dance-theatre work by acclaimed Spanish choreographer Chevi Muraday is an altogether gentler experience. Combining poetic texts on the vicissitudes of love somewhat idealistically, from initial exhilaration to painful conflict to profound resolution the choreographic metaphors often lack subtlety. By far the most impressive factor in the piece is the performance of renowned Spanish movie actress Marta Etura, who dances, as she speaks, with equally immense skill and sensuality. Even when the meanings of her movements are proclaimed gratuitously, the actress-turned-dancer performs opposite Muraday with an intensity which stretches beyond the limitations of the choreography.

One of the features of Eastern European theatre which is most refreshing for drama lovers from the West is its high regard for puppet theatre. It was disappointing, therefore, to see in the Sofia Puppet Theatre’s Holy a 75-minute work which overindulges itself by at least half-an-hour. Dutch-Brazilian director Duda Paiva explores familial and generational tensions at the strange birthday party of an ageing bourgeois woman. Some promising and bleak puppetry (the family is served a meal consisting of miniature versions of themselves) is undone by needlessly prolonged point-making and a heavy-handed, instructional use of music.

Three shows in an evening, bringing varying levels of satisfaction. From Varna to Edinburgh, the festival experience is agonisingly and delightfully similar.

Mark Brown, for Herald Scotland