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Europe Theatre Prize: How Rome garlanded Jeremy Irons and Isabelle Huppert

Jeremy Irons with critic Michael Billington. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio
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For only the second time in its history, the Europe Theatre Prize has been awarded to two actors, Jeremy Irons and Isabelle Huppert. Ian Herbert went to Rome to join in the week-long celebrations and witness the best of the continent’s new theatre

They came not just from Europe, but from all over the world – actors, directors, critics, festival organisers – from the US, Argentina, Mexico, India, China, Japan and Nigeria to join the biggest theatre jamboree Europe has to offer, the Europe Theatre Prize.

The 16th prize-giving week was held in Rome from December 12-December 17, 2017, at the invitation of Italy’s president and the minister of heritage, culture and tourism. There were 500 participants in all, packing the historic Palazzo Venezia, a palace and museum that houses great art and craft from many disciplines. It held daily sessions defining the work not only of the winners of the main theatre prize, but also the six chosen for the Theatre Realities Prize, which recognises new work of note. In the evenings attendees could judge for themselves in a crowded programme of performances.

Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio
Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

The Europe Prize is decided by its administrators in conjunction with the host city and this year went to two actors, Isabelle Huppert and Jeremy Irons. The only other actor to have received the award is France’s Michel Piccoli, honoured in 2001. It usually goes to directors (Peter Brook, Giorgio Strehler, Patrice Chereau, Robert Lepage, Lev Dodin) with the occasional playwright (Harold Pinter, Heiner Muller).


Europe Theatre Prize winners

1987 – Ariane Mnouchkine
1989 – Peter Brook
1990 – Giorgio Strehler
1994 – Heiner Muller
1997 – Robert Wilson
1998 – Luca Ronconi
1999 – Pina Bausch
2001 – Lev Dodin, Michel Piccoli
2006 – Harold Pinter
2007 – Robert Lepage, Peter Zadek
2008 – Patrice Chereau
2009 – Krystian Lupa
2011 – Peter Stein
2017 – Isabelle Huppert, Jeremy Irons

The Theatre Realities winners are chosen through a long refining process. Nominations are sought from Europe’s critics, theatre directors and festival organisers. Groups or individuals receiving more than one nomination are then considered by a jury of theatremakers and critics drawn from European countries large and small, including non-EU states.

Those attending should have been treated to productions by all the Theatre Realities winners, but two were unable to bring their work. Kirill Serebrennikov, the most exciting current Russian director, could not be present because he is under house arrest in Moscow on doubtful charges. A week earlier he was also unable to attend the premiere of his latest work at the Bolshoi, a ballet based on the life of another dissident, Rudolf Nureyev.

Jernej Lorenci, the Slovenian director with a reputation for large-scale adaptations from the Iliad to the Bible, was expected until the last moment, when his leading actor, Jernej Sugman of the Slovenian National Theatre, who was due to play Ubu the King in Rome, died suddenly of a heart attack – he was 48 years old.

This did not prevent the staging of informative colloquia on Serebrennikov and Lorenci’s work. The other winners were there to speak for themselves.

The cast of Roma Armee. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio
The cast of Roma Armee. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

In the case of the two Europe Prize winners, Michael Billington introduced an all-star panel to discuss Jeremy Irons’ career and went on to quiz the actor in a revealing interview. Directors Volker Schlondorff and Bille August praised Irons’ professional commitment, his ease in front of the camera and his ability to work generously with other actors. Friend and neighbour Rob Heyland described his commitment to whatever task he had in hand, including the two years of manual labour he spent restoring his castle in Ireland, in a total break from acting.

Bernard Faivre d’Arcier, former director of the Avignon Festival, performed the same honours for Isabelle Huppert.

Among the Realities winners, the Italian choreographer Alessandro Sciarroni described his groundbreaking work that has been seen worldwide. However, Untitled_I Will Be There When You Die, the piece chosen for Rome, in which four not very competent jugglers spent an hour working with Indian clubs, hardly did justice to his manifest talent.

German director Susanne Kennedy, who works in Germany after early training in the Netherlands, admitted she had failed in some of her early productions, dismissing them as derivative. She described the show performed in Rome, her Munich Kammerspiele presentation of The Virgin Suicides, as more of a ritual than a performance. Indeed it was difficult to trace the outline of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel in a production that used extensive video and an increasing number of voice-overs, hallmarks of Kennedy’s recent work, to create an eerie if colourful atmosphere. The five male actors, dressed as the Lisbon sisters, went masked about their silent, doomed tasks.

The cast of The Virgin Suicides. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio
The cast of The Virgin Suicides. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

Yael Ronen, the second winning female director, also works in Germany, having begun her career in Israel. Her productions are often concerned with conflicts and her latest piece for the Gorki Theatre in Berlin, Roma Armee, made a deep impression on the audience in Rome. Roma Armee concerns a talented group of gypsy actors, gay, lesbian and transexual, who describe the persecution that marks their situations and that of the Roma community, in a glitteringly devised cabaret that touched even the hardest hearts. It must have had many of the festival directors in the audience reaching for their notebooks.

The sixth winner was not an individual but a company, Estonia’s NO99 theatre, led by Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper. Its name derives from its declared intent to present 99 productions, of which Filth, seen in Rome, is NO43. Earlier successes include NO75 Unified Estonia, in which the company invented a political party and brought an unsuspecting audience of thousands to its opening rally.


5 things you need to know about the Europe Theatre Prize 2017

1. Jeremy Irons and Isabelle Huppert, joint winners of the 16th Europe Theatre Prize, are the first actors to have been honoured since the ninth award went to Michel Piccoli in 2001. Irons brings a Long Day’s Journey Into Night to London’s Wyndham’s this year. His awards include a Tony, an Oscar and two Golden Globes. Huppert, whose performance in the film Elle won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination in 2016, has been nominated for more Molieres than any other actress.

2. There were six winners of the 14th Europe Prize for Theatrical Realities, awarded to “those making waves in European theatre today”. Winners in 2017 included Susanne Kennedy (Germany), Jernej Lorenci (Slovenia), Yael Ronen (Israel), Alessandro Sciarroni (Italy), Kirill Serebrennikov (Russia) and Theatre NO99 (Estonia).

3. Reaching out beyond Europe, the organisers this year gave a special award to playwright and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, with a special mention to Fadhel Jaibi, director of the Tunisian National Theatre.

4. Aside from meetings with artists, there were also meetings of the Union of European Theatres, the International Theatre Institute (European Regional Council), the International Association of Theatre Critics (Critical Stages and young critics), and a presentation of the 50th-anniversary Belgrade International Theatre Festival, which received a special jury prize.

5. This year’s event was made possible through the help of Italy’s president and ministry of culture, as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the G7 group of countries.

Filth is a dark piece, set in a glass box with a floor of earth that is liberally thrown around as the nine increasingly muddied actors explore attempts at human contact, successful and otherwise – violent, sexual, religious. It uses few words, apart from Harold Pinter’s highly scatological verses attacking the US invasion of Iraq, and a final refrain, also in English and lovingly repeated by the cast: “Lick my arse.”

The cast of Filth. Photo: Tiit Ojasoo

The week also offered opportunities to see work by previous prize-winners. Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, winner of the second Realities Prize together with Catalonia’s Els Comediants and Lithuania’s Eimuntas Nekrosius, offered a modern-dress King Lear. It started promisingly with a raunchy court scene in which Lear divided his kingdom after pleasuring the court photographer, whose video camera then covered the event. Subsequently, sadly, this rather earthbound king, shorn of his entourage, makes a prosaic descent into madness, assisted by an unfunny fool.

Peter Stein, awarded the 14th Europe Prize, directed another Italian company, from Prato, in Shakespeare’s Richard II. It was hard to recognise the work of this towering director in the sorry procession of mail-clad nonentities that crossed and recrossed the stage of the Teatro Nazionale. However, Stein’s wife, Maddalena Crippa, gave a suitably ambivalent performance as the king.

Robert Wilson, winner of the fifth Europe Prize, came to the rescue with a delightful curiosity, restaging his historic 1986 Hamletmachine. The original was performed by students of the Tisch School in New York. Here, Wilson’s visually and aurally precise illustration of Heiner Muller’s long meditation was scrupulously repeated by students of Rome’s Silvio d’Amico academy.

Europe Theatre Prize: Jeremy Irons and Isabelle Huppert to be celebrated in Rome

The week concluded with the awards ceremony itself, a long evening in Italian redeemed by the final performances of the two Europe Prize winners. Huppert and Irons read a number of letters from the actor Maria Casares to her lover Albert Camus. They then read, under Charles Sturridge’s direction, Pinter’s short Ashes to Ashes, achieving a natural partnership that was all the more remarkable as they had only begun to work together late the same afternoon.

Irons took advantage of his acceptance speech to voice his regret at Brexit. It’s unfortunate in the circumstances that his audience included hardly any British representatives: this country’s theatre community, for all its pious talk, has seldom shown much interest in the rich landscape of European theatre on display in Rome.

Profile: Europe Theatre Prize

Founded: 1987 (New Theatrical Realities Prize 1990)
Founders: European Commission under its then president Jacques Delors
Based: Rotating European capitals
Rationale: Awarded to individuals or companies that “have contributed to the realisation of cultural events that promote understanding and the exchange of knowledge between peoples”
Collaborators: International Association of Theatre Critics

Funders: Since 2002 European Parliament and European Council, host nation’s ministry of culture
Cash value: Europe Theatre Prize – 60,000 (£54,000); New Theatrical Realities Prize – 30,000 (£27,000) (increased from 20,000 [£18,000] in 2010)

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