The article was published in a September/October issue of “Theater heute” magazine. Author: Anja Quickert

“Vivos voco. Mortuos plango. Fulgura frango” (“I call the living, I mourn the dead, I repel lightning.”), – says the inscription on most of the christian church bells. These lines can be found at the very beginning of a classical poem “Song of the Bell” by the German poet Friedrich Schiller (“Das Lied von der Glocke”, 1799). “To us vivos voco seemed like the perfect motto for a festival after the pandemic, – explains Kristina Žiogaitė, Head of Cultural Affairs & Customer Service Department of Klaipėda Drama Theatre. – Last fall, when we chose this motto, we really hoped that the pandemic would be over by summer. At the same time, there was a hint of impending war in the air.”
The beginning of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine on February 24th put the Baltic states on high alert and readiness, which Western EU states didn’t take seriously, seeing it as a slightly alarming situation. Although a careful look at the map of the eastern neighbours is necessary, especially from a German perspective: As the southernmost of the three Baltic states, the Republic of Lithuania, together with Estonia and Latvia, is actually disturbingly surrounded by the Baltic Sea, Russia, Belarus and the Kaliningrad Oblast – a nuclear warheads and rocket-armed Russian exclave. The only overland path connecting Lithuania with Poland and the other countries of Western Europe is the Suwalki Corridor, a 65.4 km long border of mixed forests, lush meadows, isolated lakes and fields. Not a particularly large area that Russia would have to occupy in order to connect its zones of influence of Kaliningrad and Belarus and at the same time cut off the three Baltic states from the EU and NATO, of which Lithuania has been a member since 2004.
But quite recent political history is still extremely vivid in the hearts of 2.8 million citizens of Lithuania, which was the first Soviet republic to declare its independence in 1990 during the “Singing Revolution”. In January of 1991, pro-Soviet military tried to overthrow the young republic again, several young pro-Lithuanian demonstrators died in the clashes. Only in September of the same year did the Russian President of the time Mikhail Gorbachev recognize Lithuania as an independent state. Not many people here are surprised that this independence was called into question again in the Russian parliament a few weeks ago. Nor it is surprising that the restriction of transit traffic to Kaliningrad in accordance with EU sanctions fuels further escalation of this topic. The fear of finding oneself in the next act of the imperialist drama about the rebirth of the Greater Russian empire is great and real. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the start of the war in Eastern Ukraine, in 2015 the Lithuanian parliament once again announced general conscription.

Nevertheless, for the theatre team and its 45-year-old general manager Tomas Juočys cancelling the festival was never an option: “We have learned from the pandemic that suddenly everything can become unavailable. You can’t and don’t have to prepare for that”, he explains. “Instead, we talked a lot about how we can make this journey possible for people, who want to come from abroad.” Since September 2015, T. Juočys has been managing the Klaipėda Drama Theatre with his team. He already presented his team’s ambitious plans for Klaipeda during the selection process by the Ministry of Culture: to secure the economically successful port city with almost 167,000 inhabitants, which so far has been unknown for cultural highlights, a “rightful place on the map of European theatres”. The international festival first took place in 2017, and since 2019 there has been a separate showcase for works from all over Lithuania. With 200,000 euros in funding, the festival is still underfinanced – the first festival edition was held without any public funds. “Nobody knew us, nobody trusted us, nobody believed in us, which is why in our programme we also thank the audience and many sponsors from the local businesses. We receive less state and municipal funding than any other Lithuanian theatre festival. It is only thanks to your support that we can realize our ideas and, hopefully, change the perception of Klaipeda.”

With a population of only 2.8 million potential theatregoers, the publicly funded theatre landscape in Lithuania is not exactly vast: in addition to 3 national, 10 state and 8 municipal theatres, more than 60 independent theatre companies now receive public funding for their work. However, the so-called metropolitan bias is also quite pronounced in Lithuania: attention and resources are largely concentrated in the capital, Vilnius, and the second largest city, Kaunas. (As shown in the studies by the theatre scholar Monika Jašinskaitė, theatrical reporting generally plays a very minor role in the media landscape. That is why the few published theatre reviews disproportionately increase the directors’ symbolic capital and are relevant for award ceremonies.)

So the fact that Klaipeda’s young festival has actually won international acceptance after just a few seasons may come as a surprise, but is easy to prove based on the origin of the professional festival visitors: more than 30 theatre and festival directors, curators and critics have come from Taiwan, USA, Nigeria or Pakistan upon invitation (and in cooperation with the Lithuanian Cultural Institute). The jury selected 13 theatre and dance productions from around 50 submissions, which were shown in the Drama Theatre from May 17th to 22nd, mostly including works from the institutions of Vilnius and Kaunas, but of course also the productions and formats from the independent scene. For example, the interactive (and immersive) performance “No Fake” directed by Tadas Montrimas, which was aimed to show the manipulative power of fake information in group dynamics. Equipped with a smartphone, the audience as a fictional village community of 25 members was tasked with solving the mysterious murder of a young woman. This also failed, as the programmatically announced educational nature of the performance itself did not really prove out: in a game mode via Telegram chat, one could not control the credibility and the effectiveness of neither real, nor strategically launched fake news – especially in times of “special military operations”.

Although, at the latest moment, when the studio’s small stage space was filled with balloons – a moment that was as simple as it was poetic – there was actually a “celebratory” atmosphere: Kamilė Gudmonaitė’s production the personal stories and perspectives of the mostly visually impaired amateur actors were brought so close to the empathetic audience that at the end of the production they all danced together – it was a celebration of life and (at least for this moment) completely normal differences. “The creative process wasn’t easy”, Gudmonaitė admits on the OKT City Theatre’s website, “after all, it’s not common and daring to talk about disability, especially in Lithuania.”

From the OKT Theatre in Vilnius – founded in 1998 by the internationally renowned director Oskaras Koršunovas – two other productions made it into the Best of Klaipėda. One of them – the almost four-hour long “Othello”, a production by Koršunovas himself, the premiere of which was originally planned for 2020 at the Festival d’Avignon – with the highly energetic black actress Oneida Kunsunga-Vildžiūnienė in the title role. “I don’t think today it’s possible to stage ‘Othello’ in a traditional way,” explains the director (also on the website), and continues – unflatteringly for his home country: “As a black woman, she has had some extraordinary experiences in Lithuania, which is still a closed, racist, homophobic, fearful and aggressive society.”

It plausibly justifies the gloomy, latently hysterical and menacing mood of the production. Between, on and in front of huge, movable wooden spools of various sizes, the body-conscious young ensemble fights through Shakespeare’s round dance of resentment, betrayal and deceit – in mobile, almost installation-like spatial settings that emit beautiful, precisely choreographed images. Testosterone-controlled masculinity and openly suppressed homosexuality run like a red thread through the scenes, the erotic moments of lesbian sexuality, however, move close to the border of male fantasy. Indeed, the impressive choice of a black actress for the role of Othello, says Koršunovas, “makes us feel the traditional boundaries that Desdemona has transgressed.” One can only agree with that – but at the end of the production one has to realize with soberness that the progressive gender and race-specific recasting of the main role has by no means changed the traditionally toxic course of action.

The directorial debut of the only 29-year-old Laura Kutkaitė, a highly concentrated production of Sarah Kane’s “Phaedra’s Love”, which focuses on the two main actors, was also produced at the OKT last year. L. Kutkaitė graduated Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, a Koršunovas’ course, she has also worked with international, mainly Polish directors. In terms of the scene, the bed in which Phaedra’s stepson Hippolytus cultivates his apathy (at least judging by the level of garbage around the bed) is not the only focus of the studio stage. With the same stoic stubbornness that Phaedra demonstrates her erotic desires, her stepson in controlled coldness refuses her love. While Phaedra is still on an existential quest for something or someone to lose herself in, Hippolytus reaches the stage of callous arrogance that encourages his post-traumatic depression. Here words are weapons that easily erase the ephemeral remnants of an identity. In an irritating way, the evening also seems to capture a scattered, post-pandemic zeitgeist: it tells of the temporary survivors of an existential loneliness, whose energy becomes destructive in empty circles around themselves. (“Why do you hate me?” – “Because you hate yourself!”) Ultimately, both characters die because of the impossibility of love, because they don’t have or find nothing else to die for. – Meanwhile, the monitor continues to flicker in the background.

“TheATRIUM and Sirenos (in Vilnius) are two of the most important festivals here in Lithuania, and the best way to get noticed and invited elsewhere,” explains Kutkaitė, who was hired directly by the National Theatre after her debut last autumn. “Even during my studies, I always tried to meet as many international students as possible and to visit as many theatre academies and theatres as possible. Being open is the key. And I think that’s what theatre is all about.”

The close contact between the Lithuanian and Polish theatres (with active support from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute) is also striking. In addition to the production about political intrigues “Boris Godunow”, in which director Jan Klata talks about a deeply illusionless, sometimes almost cynical betrayal of the children’s generation, and lets it drown in a veritable vortex of music, dance, colours and symbols, Agata Duda-Gracz did not shy away from an overly long title – “Between Lena’s legs. Or `The Death of the Virgin` after Michelangelo da Caravaggio” – not only the ambivalent confrontation with the great master of the early Baroque, but also the very personal confrontation with her own father, the well-known Polish painter Jerzy Duda-Gracz. She is responsible for the text, direction, costume and stage design in what is perhaps the most conceptually original production of the Klaipėda Drama Theatre. Duda-Gracz takes Caravaggio’s paintings as examples and translates them, together with her piercing historical impression, into onstage tableaus. Making the paintings “alive” means turning them into a process, inventing a context, which the director sometimes charges with feminist-based jokes or with homosexual self-assertion. For example, the scene “Judith beheads Holofernes”, which begins with the conversation between Judith and her maid Abra after the crime, is particularly funny. Anyone, who has Caravaggio’s paintings in mind can understand that Judith is extremely dissatisfied with her performance. So she decides to repeat the scene – with more focus and engagement – and makes the theatre audience witness her painting over the Old Master.

Caravaggio’s contradictory, scandalous and short biography (1571–1610), which is remembered by his stage character (Liudas Vyšniauskas) – or, more likely, possibly remembered under the influence of alcohol – serves as the dramaturgical red thread of the elaborately designed evening. Duda-Gracz is particularly interested – and probably a little too much – in the love story of the prostitute Lena, who neglects the artistic genius for career reasons and pursues him after her death.

Although the relations between Poland and Lithuania are not necessarily free of historically based and still cultivated national trench warfare, Duda-Gracz has enjoyed working with her colleagues in Klaipėda without any conflicts. “We found out that our history books are very different, and we have understood that we come from the same culture and have the same traditions. We just look at history from two different angles. That taught me a lot,” she says.

Her family has also decided to take in refugees from Ukraine. “For three months we took care of Olena, a retired teacher, who fled Kyiv. Now Tatiana and her two children live with us. Their stories, their fear, them constantly checking the phone, waiting for the news is the only perspective on the war I have.”

Klaipėda Drama Theatre management team demonstrates similar position, having uninvited the production by the Moscow Pushkin Theater and Russian director Dmitry Krymov to the international part of the festival. There are also no theatre professionals from Russia or Belarus – the ministry no longer issues visas. Krymov, a declared opponent of Putin, who left for the United States at the beginning of war, will soon come to Klaipėda to stage a production onsite.

The artist and publicist Santa Remere from Riga, Latvia, who works for the contemporary theatre festival Homo Novus and therefore visits theARTRIUM, was – like her colleagues from other Baltic states – first of all very afraid for her family. “Fear of being next because of the occupation experience that’s still fresh in our minds, because of the proportion of the Russian-speaking community here — all those tangled relationships, unresolved resentments, and an unfinished homework of integration have turned the wound that’s just begun to to heal into a deep, insurmountable abyss.” War and its narratives provoke and increase polarization of the society. And yet, Remere “feels in solidarity with the opposition, with those few protesters in Russia, who need our support. Riga, for example”, she explains, “was always like a door, like a window, through which the Germans were breaking through to the East and the Russians had a window to the West”. And maybe this window shouldn’t be completely closed.