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Time out of joint

On the european project Catastrophe, our Age of Anxiety and the Renaissance of the Theatre

Author: Florian Hirsch
  1. Mission Impossible

The catastrophe is a human being in an elevator. Not only in Hamlet, but also in Heiner Müller’s play The Mission, the time is clearly out of joint: an anonymous employee has been summoned by his boss, “Number One”, to be sent on some kind of mysterious mission he knows nothing about. On the elevator to the alleged executive floor, the man suddenly feels detached from time and place, from existence, even his wristwatch seems to be affected by this catastrophic experience: “Something seems to be wrong with my watch, but there isn’t any time for a time- check: I am, without realizing it, alone in the elevator. With a chill, which reaches into my scalp, I see the hands on my watch circle the dial with increasing speed, I can’t tear away my eyes from it, between the bats of an eyelid more and more hours pass by. It dawns on me that something was wrong for some time: with my watch, with this elevator, with the time. […] The time is out of joint and somewhere in the fourth or twentieth floor (the or cuts like a knife through my negligent brain), in a spacious and plushy-appointed room, my boss (who I in my thoughts call Number One) waits behind his desk, which probably stands in the far end of the room facing the entrance, with a mission for me, the loser. Perhaps the world is going out of whack and my mission, which was so important that the boss wanted to assign it to me in person, has already become meaningless thanks to my negligence. NOT OPERATIVE in the language of the administrators, which I’ve learned so well (useless knowledge!), ON FILE, which no one will check anymore, because they contained the last possible measures against the catastrophe, whose beginning I’m now experiencing, locked in this elevator gone insane with a wristwatch gone haywire. Desperate dream within the dream: simply by rolling myself up, I have the ability to transform my body into a projectile, which catches up with time by shooting through the roof of the elevator. […] I leave the elevator at the next stop and stand without a mission in a village street in Peru, the now useless tie still ludicrously fastened underneath my chin.” It’s striking and almost heartbreaking that, in Müller’s play, even the last possible measures against the catastrophe have become, well, impossible, and the mission meaningless. The elevator spits out the man onto “exotic” Latin-American soil, another former colony exploited by the West, and from one minute to the next he finds himself in a place he doesn’t know anything about, let alone what mission he would be expected to accomplish there. The elevator – a kind of gateway to Finisterra. A life-changing machine. A disturbance. A turning point and a point of no return. The dysfunctional elevator turns things upside down, just like the katastrophé in ancient Greek drama. The catastrophe is not only all around, not just outside us humans. It’s on the inside, too. Inside of us. Müller’s disturbing elevator monologue is featured prominently in one of the five transeuropean co-productions – Decalogue of Anxiety – which are being presented in the framework of Finisterra – International Productions Showcase hosted by Teatro Nacional São João. Five very special shows that one does not come across every day, a series of plays which together add up to the large-scale cross-border theatre project Catastrophe. Heiner Müller, the poet and playwright torn between East and West, between cohibas and Jack Daniel’s, had, even more than many other writers of his time, an infallible sense for the catastrophe. After all, in his Hamletmachine, Hamlet stands on the coast, speaking to the surf, his back turned to “the ruins of Europe”. A prophet for the age of anxiety we live in (the prophet being Müller, as well as Hamlet/Ophelia/Electra), an age most of us probably didn’t see coming just a few years ago. Certainly not between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and 9-11, a period where History, whatever that may be, to some, had even appeared to have come to an end. Since then the world, no doubt, went gradually “out of whack” – up to the point where we are literally being confronted with ruins in Europe again, ruins of war.

  1. Virus & War

“GOD IS NO MAN IS NO WOMAN IS A VIRUS”, Heiner Müller, once more, stated in an early draft appropriately titled War of Viruses, originally meant to conclude his play Germania 3. It features a drunk author and a drunk director meeting in an empty theatre. At the beginning of Catastrophe there were only empty theatres, and, possibly, quite a few intoxicated playwrights and stage directors. At the beginning there was the pandemic – and theatre institutions and the people who represent, who make up these theatres, struggling to deal with it. Everywhere. In 2020, when most performing art spaces in Europe had to close down for the public or at least face severe restrictions, President Gábor Tompa, Vice-President Nuno Cardoso, the Board of Directors and the member theatres of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe first came up with the idea of a large-scale European project. While theatre work as we all knew it, as we were used to practicing it every day, became more and more a mission impossible, while the not-so- visible future looked rather gloomy and insecure, many theatres in the Union engaged in talking to each other in a new way. Luckily, we were not riding that elevator of anxiety alone. The time out of joint, the time of closure turned out to be a time of exchange and creative reflection. One virtual meeting led to another, and – Zoom! – Catastrophe was born. It went viral. Of course the whole process was much more complex, still: once conceived, it did turn out to be infectious. The goal of Catastrophe from the very start was to transform the global trauma provoked by the pandemic and the problems it created and enlarged to rediscover the founding principles of the UTE, the creation of a Théâtre de l’Europe, allowing us yet again, to quote UTE co-founder, the former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, “to contribute to the building of the European Union through culture and theatre, to encourage a collective cultural movement that breaks through language barriers in order to develop an art theatre which is seen as a vector of fraternity among people. The UTE promotes productions and co-productions, theatre exchanges and shared experiences while respecting individual identities and cultures. […] Etched in continuity, the sum of these activities helps in elucidating the objectives of artistic and cultural policies that aim to reinforce artistic cooperation and transnational circulation in Europe”. In our age of anxiety and division this concept seems even more relevant than in the founding days of the Union in the early 1990s, when the overall spirit was slightly more optimistic. It requires us to rethink, reimagine and envision Europe in the 21st century. In 2020, the global trauma caused by the Covid-19 pandemic completely turned daily life upside down, seriously damaging various social, cultural and economic sectors – a catastrophe, both in the sense we use the term today and in its original meaning. In the Ancient Greek sense of the word, katastrophé means a sudden change or a great upheaval. A turning point. A plot-twisting event. A life-changing event. The project designed by the UTE and its partners aims to explore exactly this essence, to look at the great upheaval caused by the pandemic from a new perspective, that of renewal, of reaffirming theatre as a space for reflection and as an element of cohesion in a divided Europe. Under the specific perspective of the pandemic crisis and the disruption caused by the Russian war, Catastrophe stands for resilience. For recovery. For European cultural heritage and diversity. It was created to put theatre in focus, make it essential, a laboratory for political and social debate again. Themes such as identity, democracy, freedom, ecology, diversity, migration, or distribution of wealth, to name just a few, should not only be discussed in the virtual space but return to the agora, the central public space in Ancient Greek city states. They should return to the theatres. By making theatre the center stage (or at least an important stage) of the debate about our future again, we were also looking to rediscover the prime objective of the UTE as such: the creation of a network of theatres that jointly create a theatre of Europe, based on diversity, democracy, humanism, solidarity and sustainability. We wanted to provoke a dialogue between the theatres of the Union – and the potential partners outside of it – interested in joining the project. Since Catastrophe also needed a common stargate, an elevator going all the way to Finisterra in Porto, where the respective co-productions would come together, we chose Greek dramaturgy – the ancient Greek tragedies and mythology being a kind of Esperanto of the European experience, particularly in the performing arts. In order to rediscover a common ground that binds us together in all our differences, the project set out to find its themes among the matrix of the literature of the roots of democracy, thus creating a tension between tradition and memory on the one hand, and new creation and future on the other. It was meant to be a kind of aggregate that allowed an infinite variety of concepts, forms and methods – in short: great artistic freedom to the participants, who would be able to contribute their individual linguistic diversity and cultural specificity. In promoting transnational production of new drama and performances confronting the challenges of Europe today, Catastrophe establishes as main objectives building up a laboratory of theatre tools for the future based on a process of reflection and creation of texts that encapsulate the memory of Europe’s cultural heritage. And, furthermore, creating and empowering a transnational network of partnerships which can provide the necessary tools for theatre to reposition itself at the core of the community by confronting a reality that not only asks for other approaches to theatre, but also implies new ways of mediating the theatre experience by opening the process of its production, such as: conferences, open rehearsals, reaching out to the community and the audience, critical debate, online platforms, translation and publishing, writer’s workshops, educational programs, etc. Catastrophe aims to return to the founding principles of the UTE, bringing together important theatre institutions from Western and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean area and former Yugoslavia. The artistic directors, companies, administrators and technical staff of no less than twelve European theatres worked very hard to bring Catastrophe to life, even without any financial support from the European Union. It is truly magnificent to see the five shows finally being presented together in Porto in the beginning of 2023, where the following theatres are going to meet, thanks to the generous support of Teatro Nacional São João: Constanța State Theatre (Romania), Hungarian Theatre of Cluj (Romania), National Theatre of Northern Greece (Thessaloniki), Prague City Theatres (Czech Republic), SKD Martin (Slovakia), SNT Drama Ljubljana (Slovenia), Teatre Nacional de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain), Teatro Nacional São João (Porto, Portugal), Theatre Laboratory Sfumato (Sofia, Bulgaria), Théâtre National de Strasbourg (France), Théâtre National du Luxembourg, Yugoslav Drama Theatre (Belgrade, Serbia). Prometheus ‘22, the co-production between the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj, the Constanța State Theatre and the SNT Drama Ljubljana directed by Gábor Tompa is based on the ancient myth of Prometheus, who defied the gods by stealing fire from them. He passed the torch on to humanity, in the sense of knowledge and technology. He represents human striving and civilization, as well as human over-reaching. Mary Shelley certainly didn’t chose the subtitle for her novel Frankenstein by chance – The Modern Prometheus. This new approach to the myth explores the role of the intellectual in contemporary times, in the significantly divided world we live in. The flame still burns as well in Fires, the stunning work by Marguerite Yourcenar that has been adapted for the stage by the Spanish author María Velasco. It fuels the co- production between the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya and the Yugoslav Drama Theatre directed by Carme Portaceli. This production also connects the past with the present, examining the ideals of love and mythology from a contemporary perspective. Iokasté takes Sophocle’s classic tragedy as its point of departure. In this newly developed play, a co-production of the Prague City Theatres and the Slovak Chamber Theatre Martin, director Lukáš Brutovský aims to look from a feminist angle at the very myth dealing more thoroughly than others with toxic masculinity – in a time out of joint. In Iphigénie, Tiago Rodrigues’ free adaptation of the myth of Iphigenia, on the other hand, the collaboration between Théâtre National de Strasbourg and Teatro Nacional São João directed by Anne Théron, the author playfully tries to change the course of history: What would happen if the destiny of mankind was no longer subjected to the gods? Is something such as free will actually possible? And what’s going to happen with Iphigenia?

  1. Renaissance

Catastrophe doesn’t only bring countries and cities together that in everyday European life seem to have little in common, such as Belgrade and Barcelona or, say, Sofia and Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Porto. It also connects theatres and artists from very different places. And it’s a fact that some of them would never have met without this project. In some cases there is even an almost Babylonian variety of languages on stage, such as in Prometheus ‘22 or Decalogue of Anxiety. And while in his illness, his feverish dream that hits the stage in Decalogue of Anxiety, Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, imagines the whole world as “sentenced to become the victim of a dreadful, unheard and unseen deadly epidemics that had come from Asia into Europe. Everybody had to perish because of some new trichinas – microscopic creatures that would inhabit the human body. These creatures were ghosts of mind and will; humans went into madness and rage. Those infected thought themselves very clever, unwavering in their truth, decided in their scientific conclusions, moral grounds, judgements and beliefs. Entire cities, entire nations got infected and were in frenzy. No one understood anyone, everybody preaching that their truth was true. No one could tell the guilty from the innocent, good from evil”… And while the time is out of joint and no one knows if we were born to set it right (but shouldn’t we still consider it our mission?)… And while the catastrophe is within us and outside of us, and the elevator of anxiety just won’t stop, at least not at the floor we called for… And while we feel great anxiety and fear and hope coming together in Porto, to the most South-Western end of the continent, from all over Europe, speaking to the surf of the Atlantic Ocean, at Finisterra, like Heiner Müller’s Hamlet… And while the mission might seem impossible… And while we might not always be capable of telling the guilty from the innocent, the good from the evil, the East from the West and, after all, Europe from the larger and greater world out there, we can still rejoice, simply because this is happening. Catastrophe. The turning point. The stargate. The point of no return. The stage. There isn’t any time for a time-check, there’s only a brief soundcheck and there’s… lights. And in the deepest winter of our discontent we might catch an echo of that song Beyoncé recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic, an echo of the chimes of freedom, of Summer Renaissance: I’m feeling way too loose to be tied down Can you see my brain open wide now? Applause, a round of applause Applause, a round of applause And the theatre will not be empty. The last and the best, the ultimate possible measure against the catastrophe.

FLORIAN HIRSCH Head Dramaturge of the Théâtre National du Luxembourg and Secretary of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe Board of Direct