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Eimuntas Nekrošius: “The World Itself”
Šarūnė Trinkūnaitė
As theatre critic Egmontas Jansonas wrote in 1984, Eimuntas Nekrošius’ plays were not “models of the world, but the world itself: with all of its relationships, colors, sounds, aromas, dramas, tragedies – past and future. Egmontas Jansonas, „Kiekvienas žmogus – žemės dalis“, Vakarinės naujienos, 1984-02-27, p. 2.
Nekrošius first appeared on the Lithuanian stage scene in 1977 with his production at the State Youth Theatre of Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey. However he truly displayed his abilities to create “the world itself” on stage in 1980 when, after a brief interlude of creative activity in Kaunas (staging Saulius Šaltenis’ Duokiškio baladės (The Ballads of Duokiškis) in 1978 and Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov that same year), he returned to his “native” Youth Theatre and – after a “warm-up” production of Katė už durų (The Cat Behind the Door, 1980) by Šaltenis and Grigorijus Kanovičius – he stunned audiences with Kvadratas (The Square) (text by Saulius Šaltenis, set design by Adomas Jacovkis, composition by Faustas Latėnas).
The Youth Theatre was “home” for Nekrošius primarily because that is where his theatrical “family” also worked: his acting studies classmates from the Lithuanian State Conservatory (the famous “group of ten”) and, most importantly, senior director Dalia Tamulevičiūtė, Nekrošius’ first instructor in the craft. She had unselfishly handed Nekrošius over to her directing instructor colleagues in 1977, and now she was prepared, again not thinking about herself, to surrender to him the all-important title of director and even grant him exclusive artistic privileges, to “let him work peacefully and to be here to ensure that he have that peace”, as she herself told the German theatre critic Georg Menchen in 1984. Georgas Menchenas, „Pas mus nėra žvaigždžių“, Literatūra ir menas, 1984-06-16, p. 13.
Nothing seemingly groundbreaking was promised by the decision to stage Kvadratas. “Just another average holiday was coming up, Эгмонт Янсонас, „Эймунт Някрошюс: Как мы будeм выглядеть лет через сто“, Литературная газета, 1988-05-18, p. 8. recalled Nekrošius in 1988, “and we had a few months to mount a Soviet play, and there was nothing interesting left,” so they had to settle for an almost unknown documentary story by Valentina Yeliseyeva called It Was Like This…, a simple, somewhat sentimental love story between a prisoner and his teacher.
On stage, however, the story unexpectedly resounded completely differently than on the page. In the cramped space of Kvadratas, roughly framed by four posts, His (Kostas Smoriginas) one-man cell was the setting of a scene of shocking severity and an attempt to survive arising not so much from Yesilyeva’s story, but rather from the “barely suppressible desire, hanging in the air, to testify about trampled dignity, distorted existence and the lost space of personal freedom. Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė, Eimuntas Nekrošius: erdvė už žodžių, Vilnius: Scena, Kultūros barai, 2002, p. 88.
Having addressed this need more forcefully than any other production at the time, Kvadratas was the first instance in Lithuanian theatre history of a play, staged on the basis of secondary material, surpassing productions that interpreted works of great literature. It was an unequivocal triumph at the Lithuanian theatre festival in 1981 held to commemorate the 26th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, and it became legend.
Kvadratas had truly powerful competitors. It was staged almost simultaneously with Jonas Vaitkus’ production of Šarūnas (1980) that rocked the Kaunas Drama Theatre, and with Saulius Varnas’ production in Šiauliai of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, also in 1980.
Nekrošius kept his distance from great literature for a little while longer after Kvadratas. In this way, he was furthest from Saulius Varnas who, at the start of the 1980s, had already directed: Santa Cruz by Max Frisch in 1977, Death of Tarelkin by Aleksandr Sukhovo-Kobylin in 1979, Edvard Radzinsky’s Lunin, or the Death of Jacques in 1980, and Büchner’s Woyzeck in 1980, among others. In one discussion about Varnas’ theatre in 1981, however, Nekrošius spoke very charmingly about how he differed from Varnas: “Saulius Varnas’ direction reminds me of an inexperienced pianist tackling a very complicated piece of music. That is why his plays – global in their ideas and concepts – appear forced, skipping over the most elementary, basic but essential fundamentals”. „Repertuaras, režisierius, aktorius“, Literatūra ir menas, 1981-10-24, p. 7.
Kvadratas stunned the Lithuanian theatrical community first and foremost with its innovative directorial concept. Nekrošius demonstrated the full breadth of the range of meaning and what powerful emotional effect can be achieved when directing liberates the immense space that exists beyond the written word, when it is mastered by an individual’s theatrical imagination and imbued with human experiences and is expressed in independent stage imagery, through an actor’s physicality and through the unexpected relationships between objects, sounds and gestures that legitimize the uniqueness of theatrical language.
This concept of directing was most unforgettably demonstrated in Kvadratas during the famous sugar scene. In it, She (played by Dalia Overaitė, Janina Matekonytė) visits Him in prison, where He gives Her, one after another, all the pieces of sugar he has saved during their 1,002 days of separation, seemingly exposing his soul in an ever-intensifying rain of silence, testifying to the enormity of his loneliness, longing, shyness, hope, and his expectations of freedom and love. Nekrošius turned a simple piece of sugar into an incredibly expansive stage image and “forced” it to express what words alone would only demean.
Nekrošius continued to build on what he had successfully started with Kvadratas, consolidating and deepening his approach with the 1981 staging of Pirosmani, Pirosmani…, a production (script by Saulius Šaltenis, set design by A. Jacovskis, musical composition by Algirdas Martinaitis) on a popular play by Vadim Korostelev about the unrenowned Georgian artist, Niko Piromanashvili, who had died alone and impoverished. Pirosmani once again, but even more strongly, demonstrated Nekrošius' attention to the soul of the marginalized and unfortunate man, injured by life. Once again, and even more credibly, he showed his ability to expose this soul in a powerful language of stage imagery. This language was so powerful that it soon became the subject of wide discussion. People spoke of Nekrošius' stage magic, about its almost sacred aura that appears from seemingly routine, basic, even everyday items and actions.
This paradox was most visually conveyed in the finale of Pirosmani, during the funeral of the title character, played by Vladas Bagdonas. The funeral took place on a dark, empty stage. At first, the mute Guard (Vladas Petkevičius) – the protagonist’s alter ego and the only person close to him, looking very much like the figure in Niko Piromanashvili’s painting The House Porter – would kneel down and try to revive the collapsed Pirosmani. Then, from the inside of his breast pocket, he would take a large white Easter egg – the same one he received as a gift from the returning Pirosmani at the start of the play – and place it in the dead man’s palm as a symbol of hope for Resurrection. Afterward, he would quietly walk to a stack of flour bags on the stage and, opening them, pull out a handful of flour and sprinkle it over the dead body of his friend, as if to bless him. Then, Pirosmani’s final journey would begin: the Guard would place the body on one side of a scale, a set of weights on the other side, and weigh his friend. This done, he transported him offstage. The special energy of this almost hypnotic, long, slow and silent scene arose from the unique use of the most basic items – an egg, flour, a set of scales. It could also, of course, have been the result of the particularly strong energy of the actors who, in Nekrošius’ plays, not only acted but had to create a character, physically and spiritually experiencing the role with all of their being.
Nekrošius’ most powerful theatrical device came from an overwhelmingly emotional realism, from the experience of his sincerity, honesty and authenticity – qualities so rarely present but so refreshing in a time of “mature socialism” and all of its falsehoods. For this reason, Nekrošius’ complex plays, full of multifaceted scenic imagery – “plays for the elite”, in the words of BITEF director Mira Trailovič, Valdas Vasiliauskas, „Iš kur esi? Kur link eini? Svečiuose pas Jaunimo teatro režisierių Eimuntą Nekrošių“, Gimtasis kraštas, 1987-11-05–11, p. 6. who saw Pirosmani in Vilnius in 1984 – caused an ever increasing stir.
Nekrošius scored the most popularity points in 1982 when he opened the doors of the Youth Theatre to rock music and staged a rock opera entitled Meilė ir mirtis Veronoje (Love and Death in Verona) by Sigitas Geda and Kęstutis Antanėlis, based on motifs from Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet (with set design by A. Jacovkis, costumes by Nadežda Gultiajeva).
Love and Death in Verona was planned by the Youth Theatre to inaugurate its new facility on Arklių Street. Until then, the Youth Theatre had performed at the Labor Union Cultural Hall on Tauras Hill. The play was to be a kind of memorial production, a bridge back to the theatre’s first days and Aurelija Ragauskaitė’s staging of Romeo and Juliet in 1966, and to the musicals of the latter half of the 1970s which – first with Dalia Tamulevičiūtė’s 1976 staging of Ugnies medžioklė su varovais (Hunting Fire with Beaters), by Šaltenis, Leonidas Jacinevičius and Giedrius Kuprevičius – finally expressed the youthful rebelliousness and free spirit of the Youth Theatre. Love and Death in Verona did not inaugurate the new Youth Theatre space, however. The first play on Arklių Street was the cult hit Skač, mirtie, visados skač (Shoo, Death, Always Shoo). “There was no intrigue,” Tamulevičiūtė would later comment about this change in plans. “We were simply ‘informed’ that not everyone would be pleased with loud, contemporary music. Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė, Eimuntas Nekrošius: erdvė už žodžių, Vilnius: Scena, Kultūros barai, 2002, p. 137.
At the start of the 1980s, rock music meant freedom, rebellion and a challenge to all of the norms of official decency. So it was perfectly natural that Love and Death in Verona caused a bit of irritation and fostered charges that Nekrošius, with his delinquent daring, had desecrated the name of Shakespeare and refused to mount a “beautiful, moving and instructive production”, as a representative of the “Liberiškis Collective Farm in Panevėžys County“ wrote in an issue of Komjaunimo Tiesa (Communist Youth Truth) in 1984. Nevertheless, Love and Death in Verona lived on as the hottest hit of the Lithuanian stage of the early 1980s. Egmontas Jansonas, „Meilė, mirtis ir... juokas“, Komjaunimo tiesa, 1984-03-16, p. 3. Audiences flocked to see each show.
The Youth Theatre was also home to a very unique cast of so-called “night spectators” – people who gathered at the ticket windows on the eve of the 20th day of every month and spent the night together like a club of theatre enthusiasts: talking, playing music, eating breakfast together in the morning, etc. (The theatre administration would leave the doors to the building unlocked on those nights and let the group spend the night in the entrance hall).
Critics were enthralled by Love and Death in Verona, giving particular praise to Nekrošius’ deep and dramatic level of authorial direction that shaped the rock opera, and his original idea to include the role of the Jester (Remigijus Vilkaitis). The story of Romeo (played over the various runs by Kostas Smoriginas, Vytautas Taukinaitis and Saulius Bareikis) and Juliet (Kristina Kazlauskaitė, J. Matekonytė, Violeta Podolskaitė) was turned into a play performed by the Jester’s frenzied band of traveling actors, which imperceptibly “began to burn” as it turned “from theater to real life. Dovydas Judelevičius, „Meilė ir mirtis Veronoje“, Literatūra ir menas, 1982-10-09, p. 8.
Love and Death in Verona was, though, just a kind of “warm-up” for Nekrošius’ entry into the land of great literature. This was evidenced early on by the 1983 staging of Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More Than a Thousand Years (script by Grigorijus Kanovičius, set design by A. Jacovskis, composition by Faustas Latėnas), and even more resoundingly in 1986 with the mounting of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (artistic direction by N. Gultiajeva, composition by Faustas Latėnas). The last plays directed by Nekrošius in the 1980s were courageous, uniquely scandalous and were immediately recognized as evidence of the director’s creative maturity. Nekrošius was awarded the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic state prize in 1983, and the USSR state prize in 1987.
With these productions, Nekrošius seemed to reveal the deepest layers hidden beneath the façade of everyday reality, proclaiming the most courageous of condemnations of his era. In his examination of the tragedy of the Stalinist era in The Day Lasts More Than a Thousand Years, he spoke of desperate efforts to survive in a crippling, memory-erasing world that transformed its people into mindless, nationless beings, while with Uncle Vanya he portrayed the tragicomic agony of failed, tortured and utterly damaged people who were no longer able to resist these policies. This is exactly what the American playwright Arthur Miller had in mind when he spoke almost enviously of the “powerful liberating force of theatre” after seeing a production of The Day Lasts More Than a Thousand Years, in the audience with Chingiz Aitmatov and poet Allen Ginsburg, who were attending the “USSR-USA Writer’s Meeting” held in Vilnius in 1985. Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė, Eimuntas Nekrošius: erdvė už žodžių, Vilnius: Scena, Kultūros barai, 2002, p. 172.
Nekrošius most likely had his most unpleasant encounter with censors during the mounting of The Day Lasts More Than a Thousand Years: after a visit by “responsible comrades” to watch a rehearsal, the Artistic Affairs Council of the Ministry of Culture issued its demands for the removal of “dangerous” parts: shorten the scene of the main character’s interrogation, and do not dare to raise a portrait of Stalin during the funeral of the “leader of nations.” Nekrošius did not argue. “You just have to do it more artfully, you have to have a tenfold stronger concept.” And he found one. He replaced the violent interrogation scene with a peaceful and bright episode of raising an anchor, and when a smiling portrait of Stalin appeared, covered under a coat of white paint, it “looked like a smiling resurrected dead man, albeit covered in dust – but still omnipresent, still unburied”. Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė, Eimuntas Nekrošius: erdvė už žodžių, Vilnius: Scena, Kultūros barai, 2002, p. 178.
After The Day, and even more so after Uncle Vanya, few dared to think otherwise: Nekrošius had perfected to the maximum the language of original stage imagery and had proven the artistic and emotional power of “the world itself” on stage and its various sequences, permutations and configurations. Visiting the Youth Theatre in 1986, the authoritative Italian theatre critic Fraco Quadri had no doubt: Nekrošius could be compared with the famous American director Robert Wilson, the most influential representative of the Theatre of Images movement. „Jūs – mano draugai“. Juozo Pociaus pokalbis su Franco Quadri, Kultūros barai, 1986, Nr. 3, p. 25. It is fitting, then, that Nekrošius soon took Pirosmani and Uncle Vanya on a triumphant tour of the United States in 1988.
In truth, a sharp conflict between theatre professionals and literary scholars erupted after the premiere of Uncle Vanya. The world that appeared on stage was one in which strange things happened – things completely unlike other interpretations of Chekhov’s work: mournful Jewish prayers were heard, Dr. Astrov (K. Smoriginas) performed cupping therapy with glass jars on the back of the Nurse (Irena Tamošiūnaitė), after which he would inject himself with morphine; Uncle Vanya (V. Petkevičius) gave an enormous palm planted in a heavy vase to his secret love Yelena Andreyevna (Dalia Storyk), and then he would try to kill himself. It all seemed so new and unheard of that theatre critics were inspired to enthusiastically speak of a newly rediscovered Chekhov, while literary scholars were roused by the production to speak of Nekrošius’ “inability to reveal the true spirit of Chekhov, his empty ambition to always argue with tradition, and his subservience to questionable taste”. „Menas gyvenimo akivaizdoje“. Antano Staponkaus pokalbis su Albertu Zalatoriumi, Kultūros barai, 1987, Nr. 4, p. 7.
In the history of Lithuanian theatrical achievements of the 1980s, the theatre of Eimuntas Nekrošius always existed inextricably alongside that of Jonas Vaitkus. Under Vaitkus’ tutelage, another island of stagecraft thrived in Kaunas, just as powerful as the Youth Theatre in Vilnius but distinguished by a completely different artistic heritage and a different profession of faith in the stage.


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Sources and links

„Jūs – mano draugai“. Juozo Pociaus pokalbis su Franco Quadri
Kultūros barai, 1986, Nr. 3
„Menas gyvenimo akivaizdoje“. Antano Staponkaus pokalbis su Albertu Zalatoriumi
Kultūros barai, 1987, Nr. 4
„Repertuaras, režisierius, aktorius“
Literatūra ir menas, 1981 10 24
Egmontas Jansonas
„Kiekvienas žmogus – žemės dalis“
Vakarinės naujienos, 1984 02 27
Egmontas Jansonas
„Meilė, mirtis ir... juokas“
Komjaunimo tiesa, 1984 03 16
Dovydas Judelevičius
„Meilė ir mirtis Veronoje“
Literatūra ir menas, 1982 10 09, p. 8
Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė
Eimuntas Nekrošius: erdvė už žodžių
Vilnius: Scena, Kultūros barai, 2002
Georgas Menchenas
„Pas mus nėra žvaigždžių“
Literatūra ir menas, 1984 06 16
Valdas Vasiliauskas
„Iš kur esi? Kur link eini? Svečiuose pas Jaunimo teatro režisierių Eimuntą Nekrošių“
Gimtasis kraštas, 1987 11 05-11
Эгмонт Янсонас
„Эймунт Някрошюс: Как мы будeм выглядеть лет через сто“
Литературная газета, 1988, 18 мая, н. 20 (5190), с. 8
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