Europe’s rich tapestry unites two contrasting theater fests

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

As I often go to theater festivals in Europe, I was delighted to hear about the Schweizer Theatertreffen (Swiss Theater Encounter), a brand-new event being held in May. And since I’d already planned a trip that month to the Berlin Theater Festival, it was a no-brainer to check out this new Swiss kid on the block as well.

So it was that I turned up in the small city of Winterthur 30 km from Zurich to squeeze in five days’ shows from the fledgling event’s May 22-31 schedule.

There, Thomas Guglielmetti, the program director at Theater Winterthur, its sole venue, told me, “This city was selected because it is roughly equidistant between each of the country’s four language regions, and because this theater doesn’t have its own resident ensemble.”

Guglielmetti was alluding to the fact that Switzerland has four official languages — German (the first language of 64.9 percent of the population), French (22.6 percent), Italian (8.3 percent) and Romansch (0.5 percent) — though many people speak more than one and/or English as well.

But ironically, though speakers of the three main languages have long interacted culturally with their respective fellows in Germany and Austria, France and Belgium and Italy (no-one else speaks Romansch), theater culture in Switzerland itself has traditionally been split along language lines.

In view of this, Britta Rendlen, the director of Schweizer Theatertreffen, said there has long been talk of creating a way for Switzerland’s theater people to encounter (“treffen” in German) one another — and with the new event in Winterthur, that talk finally came to fruition.

Included in the lively 10-day festival was a bilingual (German and French) co-production by Theater Basel and Theatre Vidy-Lausanne of “Das weisse vom Ei/Un ei le flottante” (“Egg-white”) directed by the acclaimed Zurich-born Christoph Marthaler. There were also three plays in German, two in French and two in Italian — as well as lectures, workshops, discussions and street performers.

And certainly, at the five works I took in, audience members were talking together in many languages. Their reactions to the works were also extremely positive — in part, perhaps, because Winterthur’s primary goal at present is to create a space where Swiss people from all backgrounds can interact culturally in a quite new context.

On the final day, Britta Rendlen was smiling as she reported to me: “Language barriers undoubtedly exist, and there were many issues facing us, but the public’s response has exceeded all expectations. At any rate, we have now managed to take the first step, and I’m very happy about the way it’s gone.”

After witnessing the birth of that new event, I headed off 600 km northwest through Germany to the long-established Holland Festival in Amsterdam, which this year ran from June 1-29.

For people in Japan, the words “international theater festival” most likely bring to mind the one that’s been held in the beautiful southern French city of Avignon since 1947, or the world’s largest annual cultural event, which started in Edinburgh in the same year.

However the Holland Festival, which also dates from 1947, is up there in a similar world-class cultural league, featuring as it does opera, concerts, plays, multimedia and more — and it’s actually on course to surpass both those two other favorites.

Despite being an extravagant affair, with no fewer than three operas this time, the Holland Festival uses a multitude of spaces besides the city’s theaters and concert halls. For example, “Programma V,” a new work by the famed, cutting-edge Nederlands Dans Theater, was staged in a market warehouse called Food Center.

In this way, the festival seems to take over the entire city, just as the Vienna Festival does the Austrian capital for five or six weeks every May and June. However, unlike the latter’s increasingly experimental programming, the Dutch event tends toward an uncontroversial lineup of high-quality pieces by established artists.

Consequently, the five productions I took in during my stay comprised works by the Paris-based English master director Peter Brook, Canada’s foremost playwright, actor and director (and creator of Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” show) Robert Lepage, the renowned Canadian opera director Robert Carsen, Germany’s acclaimed stage director Nicolas Stemann and Pierre Audi, the French-Lebanese director who was also the festival’s artistic director.

Altogether, it was all fine if somewhat unadventurous theatrical fare spiced with a few sprinklings of bold experimentation — what in Japanese may be termed teppan (sure thing). But who knows what the future holds, as this was the last Holland Festival of Audi’s 10-year tenure. From now on it will be Ruth Mackenzie, head of the highly praised London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, who will take over his directorial reins in Amsterdam.

Already, as a roving theater writer, I am excited at the prospect of revisiting the pioneering Schweizer Theatertreffen and the venerable Holland Festival next year to see where their artistic evolution has taken them to then.

For details of next year’s Swiss Theater Encounter, visit www.schweizertheatertreffen.ch. For more on Holland Festival 2015, visit www.hollandfestival.nl. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.