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European Theatre Convention – Renaissance (Austria/Sweden)

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers and Directors: Various

In looking to reflect on the pandemic and its effect on theatre, the European Theatre Convention set up a creative project centred on, and inspired by, the idea of ‘renaissance’. A boldly ambitious endeavour, the ETC gave 22 theatres from 18 countries the same brief – to make a short film about renaissance. Any genre, any take – the result is an extraordinary snapshot of a cultural community with plenty to say after emerging from a period of silence.

Austria’s contribution, filmed at the Volkstheater Wien, takes the music of Gustav Mahler as its starting point. We meet three performers – Hasti Molavian, Uwe Schmieder and pianist Leonhard Garms – on the theatre’s empty stage. Wearing the powdered wigs and formal dress of the 18th century, Molavian and Schmeider sing and speak to an auditorium, barely lit. This look at renaissance explores the gap between the theatre’s – very obvious – sense of history and being caught up in this contemporary moment.

Weaving together a text by Heiner Muller, Empty Theater, written in 1994, with Friedrich Ruckert’s poem Ich Bin der Welt Loser from 1901 – the mood is sombre and questioning. Schmeider states “I am lost to the world” – the camera roams through empty corridors and staircases. The piece ponders the role of the theatre in a pandemic world. Waiting, silent – will it return? As they come to the end of their performance, the images of those on stage become pixelated, suggesting a merging of real and virtual creative energy. This renaissance is very much focused on regrowth – not only starting again, but starting fresh.

To illustrate the breadth of response to the ETC brief, Sweden’s film, subtitled Make Theatre Great Again, takes on a surrealist slant. Shot outside the Goteborgs Stadstheater-Backa Teater, a man wearing a Harlequin suit and a gas mask, jumps up and down. Shouting the phrase “make theatre great again” on repeat, the performance piece becomes an act of endurance as the performer audibly struggles to make himself heard through the mask. What starts off as a deeply comical image, ends with us thinking about the stamina needed by the theatre industry to persevere when the way out of the crisis has seemed anything but clear-cut.

In exploring the rebirth of theatre in a post-pandemic age, Renaissance not only discusses the importance of preserving cultural heritage but looking ahead to how theatre, and the performing arts at large, can use this point in time to think about how to engage with their audience. Attuned to a digital world, the challenge for theatre may not just be rebirth, but re-imagination.

Runs here until 4 June

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