Theatre of the Young: Experiments in Classical Forms

By Aušra Kaminskaitė 2020 03 30
"The Man of Fish" directed by Eglė Švedkauskaitė. Photo by Laura Vansevičienė

The Man of Fish is a play by young Russian playwright Asya Voloshina, first staged at the Moscow Art Theatre in 2018. The playwright claims she never expected that her text, which proposes chamber solutions and indirectly yet harshly criticises politics, could be presented at one of the major stages of Russia. Soon enough the play found its way into Lithuanian chamber space - young director Eglė Švedkauskaitė was invited to stage the play at the Chamber Hall of the State Youth Theatre. It was her debut on state theatre stage.

While staging the piece, director discarded significant portion of political issues and references contained in the play, focussing on topics of relevance to all people, the play's characters and their reactions towards past or current problems. Director's approach has been noticed and emphasised by Lithuanian professionals of diverse generations. Senior generation critic Julijus Lozoraitis notes that The Man of Fish of the State Youth Theatre “clearly is not a phenomenon of political theatre”, while critic of the younger generation Aušra Kaminskaitė states that “the performance told about the endeavours to survive within the system of life, a sphere of factors beyond the control of people - not within a political system.” 

The most observable solutions in The Man of Fish include a peculiar set design and continuous conversations, in which (and, inevitably - in the acting) the key accents of the play are concentrated.  Vaiva Martišauskaitė claims that “the scenery designed by Ona Juciūtė features minimalist details, which do not overwhelm the play's content. Bent mirrors hanging in the corners of the stage permit observation of both the movements of actors and the audience watching them. <...> in the centre of the stage there is an old massive park flower pot that should contain blossoming flowers, however, since such containers are usually empty, many passers-by treat it as a trash can“. The latter element is distinguished by Julijus Lozoraitis as well; he also emphasises how the set design suggests the reading of the play: “in a space in front of the stage, the set designer has placed five chairs for the actors providing for a standard situation of dramatised reading of the play. All attributes pertaining to such reading are present here: chairs placed in a row, microphones and other sound equipment, water bottles and musical instruments in the stands”.

“It is an intellectual and highly literary piece”, claims theatre critic Daiva Šabasevičienė, as if justifying the director's decision to reveal the major part of the play's content via conversations of the actors and dynamic change of static mise-en-scènes. Essentially, such expression is suggested by the play itself: The Man of Fish is a story about lives and desires of several philologists sharing an apartment. As soon as their desires start to come to fruition, the circumstances fling everything back. After returning to the old apartment Julia realises that the writer Grisha, whom she cannot forget, already has a new girlfriend named Lisa. Grisha struggles about what and how he should write, while Frenchman Benois is worshipping the Russian culture, however, when he encounters it in daily life he comes to realise the tragedy thereof; Lisa feels as a kind of nondescript character altogether, whereas Sveta Salmanova, whose husband is working abroad, stays in a tiny apartment with her young daughter, who is eventually taken away by the social service workers. These are the people whose mental states are developed in Švedkauskaitė's play; its verbal expression was described by critic Vaidas Jauniškis as reflecting a situation where “we keep talking and talking, while truly important and serious matters are happening”.

“Creators exercise anger, they mock the absurd of daily life and state the unstoppable process of decay. The play's characters are discussing current state of affairs in the society, its stable self-destruction and, eventually - the love for homeland (of the past). Their utterance and confident tone remind of the comment culture in Internet portals, where everyone has his / her opinion, safely expressing it from the comfort of one's home; silly is the one who goes to protest on the streets”, comments Martišauskaitė on the themes of the play. Her attitude is further supported by Kaminskaitė, claiming that “it seems that one of the key topics here is associated with the inherent helplessness of a human being, which he / she strives to escape throughout entire life and succeeds only when one's own path of life is found. Otherwise, this direction will be shown by another (human, organisation, state, etc), who, after becoming a saviour, authority or master, eventually demands unconditional and eternal service in return for security”.

Šabasevičienė pays great deal of attention to performers of each role, finding few flaws. She emphasises the activeness of Asta Zacharovaitė (Julia), the courage of Ieva Kaniušaitė (Lisa), an exceptional talent of Matas Dirginčius (Benois), the logic of text delivery and meaningful validity of each and every word by Viktorija Kuodytė. She describes the acting of Aleksas Kazanavičius (Stasik), who plays a drunkard passer-by stating that “he dives in a role, flourishing as a character”.

Special relation between the creators of the piece and the audience is individually emphasised by many critics reviewing the performance. Martišauskaitė sees here a continuous play with the audience: “an aesthetically clean and problematically topical performance is constantly playing with the viewers: drawing them closer and allowing to identify oneself with the characters' problems, then immediately attacking them with contexts and references, masks and shells”. Šabasevičienė identifies the attention creators pay to the conditions of viewers' self-identification: “that is how the director has devised it: she integrates an antihero person of the play so that the identification between him / her and the viewer occurred faster <...> At present, people prefer sharing their little observations in small groups to actual action”. Jauniškis notes the emerging strive in Lithuanian theatre for special relationship with an audience: “I would assume that the a parte remarks for the public devised by the dramatist, the actors' distancing from their characters were to result in an explosive comical effect within the cloth of solid realism. However, director Eglė Švedkauskaitė immediately rejected methods of life replication, stepping on an entirely different path of communication with the viewers. <...> The audience is placed at the same level and in a circular manner, thus the narrative seeks to become cosily intimate. The intended “change of addressee” is both risky and most interesting task, where the actors also need to tread their neurone paths, since it is altogether unusual on our theatre stage”. 

The relationship mentioned by Jauniškis is closer to a Brechtian theatre model and it sounds all the more interesting when one is referring to a performance primarily based on psychological acting. Martišauskaitė claims that the makers of the piece “address the situation from psychological, social and heavily literary viewpoint”, Lozoraitis emphasises the “subtle stage psychology” demonstrated by Švedkauskaitė, whereas Šabasevičienė claims to be able to read the performance's implications concluding that “theatre is reversed psychoanalysis”.

The Man of Fish by Eglė Švedkauskaitė is a piece by a young director that appears to have raised most interest among different generation critics in Lithuania in recent time. It was reviewed by those, whose texts were commissioned by the editors, as well as those who felt personal inspiration to analyse the work. Hence, it is likely that this performance has grasped something important - definitely not Russian and not necessarily Lithuanian, but something obviously human. Something that delicately excites or unpleasantly irritates the viewers with diverse backgrounds.

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