Who are you calling a plank?

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' may take place in the woods, but what's going on with all these wooden boards? Kate Bassett quizzes experimental theatre wunderkind Oskaras Korsunovas
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The Independent Culture

'You can never bring in a wall," cries Snout the tinker-turned-amateur thesp in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The joke is that, of course, you could with a smidgen of theatrical know-how. Bottom the weaver's response to this set-design crisis is a mix of the imaginative and lumbering: "Some man or other," he posits, "must present Wall and let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some roughcast about him to signify 'Wall'."

'You can never bring in a wall," cries Snout the tinker-turned-amateur thesp in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The joke is that, of course, you could with a smidgen of theatrical know-how. Bottom the weaver's response to this set-design crisis is a mix of the imaginative and lumbering: "Some man or other," he posits, "must present Wall and let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some roughcast about him to signify 'Wall'."

Now, Oskaras Korsunovas – who, at 34, is the hottest Lithuanian director of his generation – has a comparable idea. Yet it's a strangely brilliant concept for staging Shakespeare's Dream. In his award-winning production, which arrives at Brighton Festival this week before transferring to London for the LIFT festival, every actor enters bearing a man-sized plank of wood. It gives new meaning to the term "bare boards and a passion".

Sometimes the planks look like dancing trees or aggressive shields. And elsewhere, sleeping under their burdens, the lovers seem to lie in a mass graveyard. It seems to suggest a resurrection and I ask Korsunovas if this scene is meant to be a loaded image, perhaps touching on Lithuania's troubled history of Holocaust atrocities and Russian repression?

Korsunovas is renowned for being provocative. He tells me he was rebelling against "typical" (presumably twee or lavish) stagings of The Dream. "This play is a phantasmagoric tragicomedy, so the simple planks," he says, "suggest lots of things. They are as wide as human imagination. Yes, they're shields, walls, bridges, a stage, a piece of clothing. The plank of each actor is their identity, situation, and emotional state." The production, he says, isn't directly political, though he concedes the history of Lithuania is lamentably dark and that Puck is given an unusually "tragic hue" here. It's the universality of Shakespeare that Korsunovas espouses, exploring ephemerality, love, disobedience, vitality and madness. "The youths," he remarks, "wander in the labyrinth of love until, at the happy ending, they become grown-ups."

Of growing up in the Soviet Union, Korsunovas dryly remarks: "I had an opportunity to experience its double standards and farce. That period made us want to resist." Though his mother was an economist and his father a civil engineer, Oskaras's family tree inclined towards the arts. His grandfather was the pioneering founder of a playhouse in a northern town as well as being a church community leader.

After wanting, as a boy, to become a priest, and having challenged his Marxist philosophy teachers at school by placing a Bible on the desk, Oskaras studied directing at Vilnius's Academy. "I familiarised myself with developments in foreign theatre through reading books and magazines," he recalls. The Baltic states, he points out, were relatively "Western" compared with much of the USSR, and Lithuanian drama, art and jazz constituted "an arena of moral resistance". Then, just as he was getting his diploma, a bigger chink appeared – the Berlin Wall crumbled and Lithuania gained its independence.

Many older Communist Bloc directors, whether they'd been staging propaganda or the coded allegories of the underground, were unsure how to respond. Young Korsunovas, however, leapt to instant acclaim, winning a Fringe First at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival with his debut, There To Be Here by Daniil Kharms. His compatriots were startled by Korsunovas' assured and confrontational style, and by his reviving of the 1920's Oberiu school of radical absurdism.

Korsunovas's English may not be brilliant, and his theorising (about "going deeper into the history of the plastic") can sound abstract to British ears, but give him a stage and he excels at expressing texts physically.

British theatregoers have long-appreciated East European-style productions, as Complicite's popularity proves. What has made Korsunovas Lithuania's most exciting and exportable wunderkind is that his works are full of cultural bridges – spanning time and continents. His productions range from Oedipus Rex to Bulgakov's The Master And Margarita to Shopping and Fucking by Britain's Mark Ravenhill – depicting the far-from-dreamy underside of today's capitalism. Korsunovas' Dream harks back to Peter Brook's legendary spare production as well as the primal rawness of Grotowski. It has a retro 1960's look about it – with lithe actors playing barefoot in sexless dungarees. But it simultaneously exudes sexy, pumping, palpably fresh energy.

But life is not all roses for Korsunovas' company back home. He's not fond of his native theatre critics – they've scolded him for avant-gardism for years, he says, then called his early experiments his best. And while his independent company has drawn new audiences, the country's national theatre is in crisis and star names are in danger of pushing out dedicated ensemble playing. "For our performances we are renting stages; every year we're writing requests for state funding," he says. "At the moment, we are something like travelling players," he concludes. Which is, of course, good news for us here in the UK.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream': Brighton Festival (01273 709709), Wed to Sat; Riverside Studios (as part of LIFT), London W6 (020 7863 8012), 20-24 May

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