01. January 2016 The Invisible Pain

Scene from „I’d rather dance with you“ by Oleg Soulimenko
Photo: Mats Õun

​The popularity of Estonia’s theatres. How do they reflect the fractures in society between its ties with the EU and historic responsibility? A visit to the “draamamaa-weekend” showcase in Tallinn.

Oh, dear, how disappointing. Everyone here is so friendly and Liisi Aibel from the national theatrical agency (ETA) makes every effort to please the guests. But the expectant smiles on the faces of the pan-European group of theatregoers trudging through the old town of Tallinn in the snow (it snowed in Estonia, a lot, and it’s only November!) the smiles are already noticeably frozen.

Making discoveries

It is “draamamaa-weekend,” the showcase festival by the Estonian Theatre Agency, a presentation of the nine productions chosen by a jury as the most remarkable in 2016. It attracted theatre people from Poland, a dramaturge from Finland, festival scouts from St Petersburg, a choreographer from France, a festival curator flew in from Groningen, a director from Basel, a Portuguese and a few Germans who arrived late. They blame it on the airline and the snow. All of them firmly expect to make discoveries. Yet, right now, the Estonian theatre feels like a broken promise. If you look at the figures for audience popularity, Estonia’s performing arts have no rivals. According to the ETA, 1.01 million spectators attend performances in the country’s more than fifty venues every year. The country has only 1.35 million inhabitants, making it an average of 75 percent. By comparison, theatre attendance in Germany is at 47 percent. “Maybe it would be better if a few less came,” says Priit Raud.

Raud, in his mid-fifties, wearing a dark blue jumper, short hair and glasses, is the artistic director of one of the over-sized provincial theatres, that in Rakvere, an organization with three halls, the largest of which seats 400. “In a city of 13,000,” he says. “Far too big!” Raud is also the trailblazer of Estonia’s own postdramatic performing ¬arts scene. Since its founding in 2002 he has been the director of the Kanuti Gildi Saal, a former ceremonial hall of the medieval Kanuti Guild in the centre of Tallinn that reminds one of Frankfurt’s Mousonturm theatre. 

Kanuti Gildi Saal Photo: Jana Solom / Kanuti Gildi Saal Inside the glittering old town café, Raud once again stirs his espresso, which should be empty by now, and emphasizes that his displeasure over the many spectators is not an elitist position, on the contrary! He speaks of the artists he has in the programme, like the present rising star Karl Saks, with great fondness. State and Design, Saks’s austere solo choreography, is a concentrated etude about form, presence, existence – and its destruction. He dances almost meditatively, back and forth between a plaster block and the rubble of another accompanied by the ruins of an old pop tune playing from a mangled tape. What once made hearts beat faster is now useless. 

Raud’s pessimism has something to do with the audiences. “Most of them are not even interested in what they are watching,” he says. They go to the theatre because it is what’s done. That is why the theatres are full. Acclaim is earned even by I’d Rather Dance With You, a docu-show listlessly crapped onto the stage, wreaked by the Viennese choreographer Oleg Soulimenko at the Vabalava right behind the railway station. 

It’s not the subject matter. Soulimenko takes up the nation’s chief minority conflict between the Estonian and Russian-speaking populations. It is most tangible in the Ida-Viru region around the border town of Narva in the east of Estonia. Most of the inhabitants of Narva are stateless, but not only as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are the fourth generation. According to the state heredity laws, children of Russian-speaking parents do not have Estonian blood. Indeed, the easternmost member of the EU community of values is stubbornly violating the human rights convention.

Sources of hate

These tensions are grounded in resentments from the Stalin period. At that time, attempts were made to make the Estonians a minority in their own country by the forced settlement of Russians and to expunge them with abductions. Another source of hate is buried in the little examined ambivalent behaviour of the Estonians in the Second World War. Estonians fought on both sides in the Battle of Narva, which claimed more than 500,000 lives in 1944. And perceptibly, this also has significance for the future of Europe, and therefore is pushed onto the stage where the unseen pain becomes palpable, treatable. 

But all that Soulimenko came up with is a panel discussion setting. Four carelessly cast everyday experts are thrown together, representing the peer groups involved in the conflict but unable to tell personal stories, who sit on stools and armchairs in a semicircle on stage. A dancer asks them leading questions while voguing for an hour and a half. It is far colder inside the shared taxi leaving the theatre later than outside although we sit closely together. “Alors, c’était nul...,” says José Alfarroba, searching for words. Well, that dancer, he would have liked to...well, somehow make her stop. 

Alfarroba, who fled the Portuguese dictatorship of Salazar to France in the 1960s, was until recently artistic director of the Théâtre de Vanvres and is still an important figure in the cultural life of the Île de France. He seems almost cross now. And a little worried; this was his first contact with Estonian theatre and he is supposed to work here in the coming season. 

The Vabalava, which literally means “free stage,” opened in 2014 on the site of a decommissioned brickyard. The complex directly behind the railway station was abandoned half to decay, half to unrestrained gentrification. The ETA resides in the factory’s old office wing. Posh boutiques, interior designers, the city’s best bakery and an ecological building materials shop have moved into the thoroughly refurbished manufacturing halls. And in between is this fantastically beautiful temple of the performing arts. 

Here, starting next summer, Alfarroba will collaborate in the programme, for, as director Kristina Reidolv explains, “We always have a curator from abroad and one from here.” The house is to be a place of international exchange, and this is wise as long as one finds a person like Alfarroba, who says of himself, “j’ai horreur des colonisateurs”: he abhors colonialists. 

Estonia’s theatre arose from the need for self-determination after 700 years of slavery. The first Estonian dramas were written by Lydia Koidula at the end of the 19th century. They were intended for private performances only as Estonian was prohibited on the stages of the Tsarist Empire. Theatre became a medium of the autonomous movement. According to the theatrical scholar Ott Karulin, its importance as a “bearer of national identity” increased in the Soviet period from 1941 onwards. “The theatre became a place where truths could be expressed.” 

Now, though, we need to deal with today’s snow, and rinse away our frustrations with vodka! There is no better example of the fact that theatre can have political effects, both for good and for bad, as the theatre NO 99, run by the director Ene-Liis Semper. It is a state theatre with a fixed venue. The house is also in the city centre, but beyond the city wall of Tallinn. Founded by Semper and Tiit Ojasoo, it sees itself as a temporary conceptual art work: an ensemble that will dissolve after 99 productions, at the end of the eponymous countdown.

Meddling in politics

Its meddling in Estonian politics, which sometimes reach a large audience, tens of thousands, are legendary. Conversely, the institutional reactions are also fierce. Naturally, violence against women is unacceptable. The fact that NO-99 co-founder Tiit Ojasoo struck an actress during rehearsals is inexcusable. Perhaps he should have resigned from his position on his own, even though the case was handled in court. 

The fact that all six factions of the National Assembly got together to reprimand the director by means of a motion for resolutions makes it seem as if the politicians used the opportunity to prematurely get rid of the project, which is uncomfortable although celebrated Europe-wide. At the latest, 39th premiere, it seemed as if it had not ineffectually fallen flat. Certainly it was only one of the planned 100 productions and the director had never worked with the ensemble. But Mutter Courage seemed intimidated, subdued and muffled, as if buried under a thick snow cover that only melts in the spring.