Theatre / Poland sets the stage for Europe

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The Independent Culture
THE WORD "kontakt" is comprehensible in every European language, as the penniless young George Weidenfeld recognised when he built his fortune on a magazine of that name. No less astutely, Krystyna Meissner spotted its potential when she took over the Wilam Horzyca Theatre in Torun, north-west Poland - the birthplace of Copernicus, otherwise renowned for its Gothic churches and tooth-breaking gingerbread. For the past five years, Torun has had another claim to fame as the home of Meissner's International Kontakt Festival, one of the great post-1989 meeting points between East and West.

Run by Meissner and two assistants, Kontakt spreads its net from western Europe to Asia, and delivers around two shows a day followed by late-night discussions and prizes awarded by a multi- national jury. Last year there were 22 productions. This year it was down to 17, which still covered a spectrum from Wales (Full Moon) to Beijing (File O, an amazing dissident piece playing at the ICA on Tuesday). Centrally, though, this was a tournament of European star directors, exercising creative liberties on a scale that still dumb- founds the British spectator. This goes for new texts as well as old. A bleak naturalistic piece by the east German Georg Seidel turned up in Torun's tram-depot, with a chorus of masked automata. And in Hamburg's version of Elfriede Jelinek's Wolken. Heim., this Cassandra-like monologue on German identity was performed by a party of gemutlich folk-singing ladies who change into a stamping pack of beer-cellar thugs.

From such products of Western self-criticism, the impression grows that the further you move east, the greater the exuberance and the energy to blast new meanings out of the classical quarry. Typifying the blend of reverence and iconoclasm was a Ukranian carve-up of The Cherry Orchard, played in a flat where the spectators became guests at the family's homecoming and musical soiree; and a Muscovite mutilation of Gogol's Marriage, dominated by a horizontal ship's mast executing phallic thrusts through the porthole of the hero's scrapyard apartment.

So much for classical desecration. The same impulse generates the mastery of Valeri Fokin's Hotel Room in the Town of N N, which is at once a classic and a new play. This Meyerhold Studio (Moscow) production consists of the scenes in Dead Souls that Gogol didn't write. It shows the con-man Chichikov in his bedroom - preparing for each day's trickery and rolling home at dead of night chortling over the his latest frauds. The words are Gogol's; the invention Fokin's and his leading actor's, the memorably named Avangard Leontiev, who makes you understand why Stanislavsky ranked the grotesque as the highest theatrical style. He works at the extremes of squalor and elegance: by night, a top-hatted hobgoblin, leering over his winnings as he mops up a greasy dinner; by cold morning- light, a dandy performing his toilette down to the last tweezered eyelash, and practising tenor arias that wind up as gargling gibberish.

In one sense, the piece is a virtuoso study of unobserved human behaviour, seen at point-blank range. The box set continues to spring surprises through to the end, when, having revealed trick doorways, traps, and a sepulchrally illuminated floor, its ceiling turns into a screen for the last of Chichikov's nightmares. So, in another sense, the piece becomes a fantasy replay of Dead Souls, with the Governor's daughter materialising in Chichikov's bed, and a procession of the exploited peasants arising from the dead and smashing through the wall to haunt his dreams: a metaphor for today's as well as Gogol's Russia.

Even bolder in its treatment of a sacred Russian text was the version of Three Sisters by the reigning Lithuanian maestro, Eimuntas Nekrosius. This was built on the unthinkable premise of denying the Chekhovian sub- text, and acting out the characters' inner lives in flat contradiction to their dialogue. The play's usual languor thus gives way to a spectacle of incessant physical action, beginning with the girls playing a cruel slapping game with their old servant, Anfisa. Later a wolfish Vershinin tears off a tablecloth as if stripping Masha naked; and the doctor drives the girls berserk by holding the rent money just out of reach. The soldiers, normally presented as charmingly civilised visitors, figure as coarse intruders, who are most at home in brutal athletics with a pair of vaulting horses - which, when upended, take on the appearance of degutted corpses in a bullring.

In discussion, Nekrosius refused to say whether this reflected Lithuania's own memories of the Red Army. Probably it does. But more important is the weight of the family's past. The protagonist on this occasion is the girls' father, whose harsh discipline continues to dominate them from beyond the grave: provoking the cruelties, obsessive frustration and rebellions of Nekrosius's three wonderful actresses. On first impact, much of the detail seems perverse. Kulygin changes from a complaisant husband into an enraged cuckold. The Baron completes his pre-duel breakfast with hardly a glance at Irina as he greedily licks his plate - which remains, ominously spinning, as he makes his death exit. But when thinking over such details afterwards, it is as if no previous production has ever told the truth.

Back here, in Regent's Park, Toyah Willcox plays a sailor- suited Puck, who conjures her enchantments out of a toybox, and variously orbits the planet on a skateboard, scooter and penny-farthing. Whether or not this is meant to reduce A Midsummer Night's Dream to a nursery game, John Doyle's production remains the kind of superficially decorative event one used to associate with this address. Brian Protheroe and Harriet Thorpe are the eloquent and spirited immortals; Robert Lang returns to the role of Bottom, now suggesting a local squire unbending into amateur theatricals. The atmosphere is oversweet, thanks to the coincidence of Moonlight decor, Black Magic action and Quality Street costume.

Dublin's Rough Magic company is on top form in Gina Moxley's Danti- Dan, a chilling comedy of sexual awakening among a pack of no-hope Cork teenagers with no prospects beyond a job in the chewing-gum factory. One couple more or less get it together - to the bitter envy of the 13-year old Cactus (Sophie Flannery, marvellous), who fatally lures a retarded boy into a "poker" game played to her own rules. A truthful text, a fine company, and a production (Lynne Parker) that never hits a false note.

Jane Coles's Crossing the Equator is no match for her Back- stroke in a Crowded Pool; but its portrait of a post-war group of Little Englanders emigrating to Australia hits their repressive manners and contradictory values with a clear-eyed wit and sympathy that Orwell would have acknowledged. Excellent performances by Paul Copley and Sophie Stanton.

`A Midsummer Night's Dream': Open Air, NW1, 0171 486 2431. `Danti-Dan': Hampstead, NW3, 0171 722 9301. `Crossing the Equator': Bush, W12, 0181 743 3388.