Following a day of scholarly papers and, at times, heated debate as to whether the overabundance of “blood and sperm” in modern-day theatre in general and the so-called New European Theatre in particular were grossly exploitative (by artists and the money people in an unholy alliance) or patently disgusting (defecating and vomiting on stage as artistic expression) AND how can humanism (whatever that is; countless millions have been slaughtered as acts of human kindness/progress) survive much less flourish in the avalanche of gruesome death, heartless degradation and even public cosmetic surgery that have driven the faithful to ground and killed off the last-standing convention of our most precious art form for cultural reflection, it seemed the ideal time to take in a performance of Alexander’s Morfov’s adaptation of Ivan Vazov’s Outcasts and see how it might stand the test of time and testy discussion.
Of course, we’ll have to discuss the violence first or risk sending the reader to search for criticism that has more, er, punch.
Morfov (who also directed) has crafted a broadly conceived (every inch of the National Theatre is employed and its spectacular rolling, circling, descending/ascending mechanism’s—the doomed trek in search of the “Apostle of Freedom,” Vassil Levsky, across the frozen Danube is a masterstroke of the convergence of form, function and time) vision. In its early life, we meet an angel-winged Bulgarian runaway who chooses to abandon his father in order to join the rebels biding their time in Romania (the secret committee apparently based in Bucharest is perpetually planning a spring uprising) and ending the centuries-long Turkish occupation thereby reclaiming their Motherland and their pride). And so this entire tale is rooted in violence: one country imposing its will on another with untold death, torture and humiliation drive Bulgaria’s disenfranchised men and boys (the rich managed to come to a mutually beneficial understanding with their overlords) out of their homeland, waiting to return and mercilessly slay their oppressors (“Death to the Sultan”). As with countless works of art, without horrific acts of oppression (frequently in the name of one deity or another) this play wouldn’t exist. Is that the silver lining to the reckless use of power?
Within the ragtag troop of song-singing (the “freedom” anthem remains in memory long after the final curtain)—particularly the clarinetist’s vibrant contribution to the orchestration, geography–lite nationalists fester undercurrents of anger, bitterness and despair. Having to beg, borrow and steal (and rely on the charity of an ex-pat pub-owner), violence amongst the “good guys” is a frequent, if unwelcome guest. But those eruptions and the Romanian townsfolk using the Outcasts for target practice as their crimes are discovered, provide some of the show’s funniest moments—replete with silent-movie style chase scenes. The comedy of violence (missing from the International Association of Theatre Critics discourse so far, as pointed out by an American delegate who also bemoaned the lack of references to his countrymen’s playwrights—happily, Canada’s Brad Fraser had already made the list of somewhat dodgy, depending on which side of the argument you supported, writers) added some of the funniest moments and had the capacity crowd cheering on every rifle or gun blast.
Real-time violence also took a bow. An “I can’t take the life of a dog” suicide (much of this production’s undertone of breaking the human spirit resonated with a similarly colourful canvas: Between Dog and Wolf—cross-reference below) and a particularly eerie, if discreet, gallows scene (another triumph of light and Elena Ivanova’s magnificent stage design and costume skills, provided an emotional wallop)—especially with what wasn’t seen.
The masters were well represented with Mozart’s Piano Concerto In A Major, K. 488 (underpinning the slight love story), Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance as the play-within-the play took flight, and—what else—Strauss’ Beautiful Blue Danube foreshadowing the daring crossing-over-its ice to come. Morfov’s own contributions and the stylistic advice given by Mihail Shishkov kept the ear as engaged as the eye. Just a judicious amount of editing is required to give the entire show a more compelling pace; overindulgence and long-lived tableau (notably the final railway scene where the ex-pats are preparing to return and fight for their country on a push-it-yourself utility flat; the result reminiscent of George Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851—yet another example of life imitating art. JWR