Latvians love theatre. They go to the theatre, they discuss it, actors are admired and theatre directors become opinion makers. With Alvis Hermanis alone, one of the leading theatre directors in Europe right now, Latvia’s name would have gone down in the history of theatre, but there is certainly much more on offer.
In recent years directors, actors and playwrights more often tend to work as researchers, historians, anthropologists; they collaborate in creating performances instead of staging dramatic texts. Latvian audiences have experienced theatre performances about Latvian love,1 rural life,2 the national development plan,3 recent presidents,4 as well as equivocal historical conflicts.5 Alongside post-dramatic performances, there are also excellent interpretations of literary and drama texts6 and, although without its own Broadway, Latvian theatres can be proud of their musicals,7 often with original librettos, written by contemporary authors and composers.
Traditionally the biggest Latvian theatres are state-funded repertoire theatres, but independent theatres,8 known for their successful and often brave experiments, have gained an established place on the Latvian theatre scene. The Latvian national Opera house, the tradition of which goes back over 90 years, has also been the stage for daring productions, featuring not only excellent per- formers, but also imaginative directors and stage designers. LNO’s Carmen has been set in Cuba,9 The Magic Flute has been turned into a dizzyingly stunning forest of visual metaphors. The Latvian performing arts scene is a vibrant field – with historically rich soil, lush vegetation and vibrant sprouts.
You must have heard of him. This fourty-something director has more than 55 performances to his name, staged in Rīga, Salzburg, Berlin, Vienna, Cologne, Munich, Modena, Moscow, Zurich, Tallinn. The production “Long Life”, a performance where five actors exhibit life in a flat shared by a group of elderly people, has become a benchmark of Hermanis’ documentary approach to theatre – all the dramatic material is created together with the actors, based on attentive observations of life situations and human behaviour. But it would be wrong to limit Hermanis’ style down to just that, he is also the author of proficiently done interpretations of classical literature and drama texts. Hermanis has been accurately described as a contemporary thinker who, instead of writing philosophical dissertations, stages performances; and following his thought process continues to excite audiences throughout Europe.
Māra Zālīte (1952) is the most productive and certainly the most staged Latvian playwright of recent decades. Musicals that she has created together with composer Jānis Lūsēns (1959) have been warmly received by the Latvian audience. Māra Zālīte chooses to tell complex stories often based on historical events, questioning national myths and proposing alternative sources of national identity. All that is masterly expressed in poetic and metaphoric language, often carrying references to folklore and national romanticism. Māra Zālīte is also well known for her poetry and is perceived as a public intellectual.
Wizards of the Stage
When it comes to Latvian theatre, scenography has always played an important role. The stage of the Latvian theatre could be the mythological world of Ilmārs Blumbergs (1945); the world of clean lines, ascetic forms and finely nuanced colours of Andris Freibergs (1938); or – listen up – it could also be the world of Reinis Suhanovs (1985), Freibergs’ student, recently awarded “The Most Promising Talent” title at the International Prague Quadrennial. you might also find yourself wondering around in a set full of details, reconstructing an atmosphere of a particular place or time, with or without a playful stylisation, most probably done by Monika Pormale (1974) who is now working for Berliner Festspiele, Schau-spielhaus Zürich and other European theatres.
Grand Dukes of Latvian Theatre
Eduards Smiļģis (1886-1966) founded one of the first Latvian theatres, and together with set designer and theoretician Jānis Muncis (1886-1955) developed a new kind of theatre with stylization, dynamic visual form and radical changes in stage design. Psychological realism mixed with unusual dramaturgy of scenes, circus aesthetics and even vaudeville elements were brought into theatre by Adolf Šapiro (1939). Playwright and director Pēteris Pētersons (1923-1998) invented “poetry-theatre”, using poetry as dynamite in his performances. Another grand duke of Latvian theatre, Olģerts Kroders (1921-2012), is known for his psychologically sophisticated character studies, and a form of physical existence that was consciously approximated to everyday life. Meanwhile Latvian contemporary scenography is still under influence of talented artist and scenographer Kurts Fridrihsons (1911-1991). All of them were not only outstanding personalities of their time, but they also left a traceable influence on contemporary Latvian culture.
Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863–1908) was the founder of the realistic psychological narrative and drama in Latvia. Blaumanis’ plays pushed Latvian stage art to a new level, and one of his plays – “Skroderdienas Silmačos” (Tailor Days in Silmači) – has become a tradition, it is staged and performed every year around midsummer. After Blaumanis, the question whether great literature can be created in a remote European and Russian province was no longer relevant.