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The European theatre festivals set to expand drama’s horizons in 2018

Ivo van Hove’s Obsession, starring Halina Reijn and Jude Law, at the Holland Festival. Photo: Jan Versweyveld Ivo van Hove’s Obsession, starring Halina Reijn and Jude Law, at the Holland Festival. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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While the UK is home to a buzzing fringe scene – not to mention the biggest arts festival in the world – many European cities host thriving events celebrating theatre in all its forms. Fergus Morgan takes his pick of what the whole continent has to offer

We do theatre festivals well in the UK. Alongside big-hitting international programmes in Edinburgh, Brighton, London, and Manchester, Britain boasts a host of fringes, mighty and miniscule, and a plethora of smaller, specialised affairs covering everything from monologue to mime.

Broaden your horizons beyond the English Channel, though, and you’re more than spoiled for choice: you’re swamped by it. Across Europe, everywhere from capitals to campsites, there are festivals offering a wide variety of performance, including contemporary dance, classical Greek drama, Ibsen and Ionesco.

So here are five accessible stops on the international touring circuit that should be on every theatremaker’s 2018 bucket list. Get that passport ready.

If Europe has a theatre festival capital, it’s Berlin. In May the German capital hosts theatre hipster favourite Theatertreffen (literally, ‘theatre meeting’), a fortnight-long affair centred around a selection of 10 notable German-speaking productions, but also featuring radical new writing from across Europe, as well as platforms, forums and debates.

Theatertreffen 2017: German theatre’s forum for radical work and debate

But April’s FINDFestival of International New Drama – is the really hardcore choice. Produced by the Schaubuhne, it has evolved since its first edition in November 2000 from a collection of ad hoc rehearsed readings and guest productions into a sleek, stellar programme of bold, border-crossing work, accompanied by FIND Plus, a series of workshops for students.

The 2017 festival, themed Democracy and Tragedy, featured Richard Nelson’s astonishing Gabriel plays, Gary Owen’s scorching Iphigenia in Splott and Dead Centre’s technological marvel Hamnet, as well as shows from Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Iran and more.

The 2018 edition runs from April 6 to 22. Under the heading The Art of Forgetting, it presents, among other shows, Thomas Ostermeier’s Returning to Reims – a hit at the Manchester International Festival – and Australian auteur Simon Stone’s glass-housed Ibsen adaptation Ibsen Huis.


5 more European festivals to visit

Festival d’Avignon, France

Taking place in July, this international festival is the flagship French stop on the international touring circuit. festival-avignon.com/en

Belgrade International Theatre Festival, Serbia

Serbia’s big-hitting, boldly contemporary international bash, founded in 1967 and running in September. festival.bitef.rs/en

Wiener Festwochen, Austria

Vienna’s multidisciplinary art week, hosting performances throughout May, often outdoors. festwochen.at/en

Malta Festival, Poland

Poznan’s not just famous for its football fans: this multidisciplinary international festival features a strand of work developed by a notable guest artist every year, among plenty else during its July run. malta-festival.pl/en

Almagro International Classical Theatre Festival, Spain

In Central Spain, this July festival is devoted to theatre of the 16th and 17th centuries: Cervantes and Shakespeare always feature heavily. festivaldealmagro.com

And with Berlin currently at the epicentre of an international conflict between globalisation and localisation, thanks to the controversial appointment of former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon as artistic director of the Volksbuhne, what better time to dip your toes into the murky waters of radical European theatre? Flights are always available and, being in Germany, it’s accessible and affordable.

If you prefer your theatre steeped in history, then your choices are scarcely limited when it comes to international festivals. Among them are Almagro International Festival of Classical Theatre in Spain and the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama in Cyprus. But to get back to where it all started, head to Greece, and to the annual Athens and Epidaurus Festival.

Founded in 1955 and stretching from June to August, this festival boasts everything from contemporary jazz to rock concerts, but the main draw for theatre fans is the chance to see a Greek tragedy performed in the open air, either at the vast Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens or at either of the two ancient theatres in Epidaurus, 140km away.

National Theatre of Greece’s production of Aristophanes’ Peace at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival. Photo: National Theatre of Greece’s production of Aristophanes’ Peace at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival
National Theatre of Greece’s production of Aristophanes’ Peace at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival. Photo: National Theatre of Greece’s production of Aristophanes’ Peace at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival

Mostly Greek companies perform, though the occasional international production crops up, but the magic of the festival is in its character, not its content. This year’s offerings at Epidaurus – shows in Athens are yet to be announced – include work from all three tragedians, as well as some Aristophanean comedy, all under the impressive-sounding theme Polis (‘city’) and the Citizen.

“What shall we export when the oil runs dry?” Norwegian actor Kare Conradi once asked. “Why, Ibsen of course.” Unsurprisingly, Norway’s most famous son is honoured by a large number of events, perhaps most famously at the Peer Gynt Festival, an annual, nine-day celebration in the rural Gudbrandsdalen valley, at the heart of which is a popular production of Ibsen’s drama.

If you love Ibsen, though – and most of Britain’s in-vogue theatremakers seem to – then the festival to tick off your list is the National Theatre of Norway’s International Ibsen Festival in Oslo. It’s an expensive but eye-opening window on the divergent legacy of the playwright.

For this biennial event, founded in 2000, the Norwegian capital is flooded with productions, adaptations and work inspired by Ibsen from around the world. You can’t move for the playwright’s work in Oslo in September.

Oslo’s International Ibsen Festival: Norway lauds its most famous son

The 2018 edition, which runs from September 8 to 19, is still being put together, but 2016’s programme – with the theme After Ibsen – gives you a clue of what to expect: a Swedish-Norwegian in-yer-face staging of Hedda Gabler; an Aussie-inflected, German-speaking, gender-swapped Peer Gynt from Simon Stone; and three shows from Forced Entertainment, that year’s winner of the prestigious International Ibsen Award, worth a whopping 2.5 million Norwegian kroner (£230,000), which is also handed out during the festival.

Theatre might not be top of your list of reasons to visit Amsterdam. It might not even make your top three, but it should. The Holland Festival, which takes place amid the canals and coffee shops of the Netherlands’ capital, is the country’s largest and oldest performing arts festival – a multidisciplinary jamboree just a short flight or ferry trip away.

Robert Lepage’s 887 at the Holland Festival. Photo: Erick Labbe
Robert Lepage’s 887 at the Holland Festival. Photo: Erick Labbe

Curated by Ruth Mackenzie (although she is moving on to head Paris’ Chatelet theatre after this year’s festival, with her successor yet to be announced), and founded in the aftermath of the Second World War – as are many theatre festivals in Europe – the Holland Festival embraces theatre, dance, music, film and opera. It takes over artistic venues across the city in June with an eclectic, international programme. The theatrical offerings are slim but solid.


5 big festivals further afield

Stratford Festival, Canada

Stratford, Ontario (not the one in Warwickshire) plays host to one of North America’s most important festivals from April to October every year. Originally a Shakespeare celebration, it now embraces all forms of contemporary and classical theatre. stratfordfestival.ca

Adelaide Fringe Festival, Australia

The Adelaide Festival is a significant international performing arts event, but the Adelaide Fringe burns brightest: a month of eclectic, extraordinary entertainment, from February 16 to March 18. It’s the second largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh of the Southern Hemisphere. adelaidefringe.com.au

Hong Kong Arts Festival, China

Now entering its 46th year, this international, multidisciplinary festival hosts a knockout selection of international theatre. This year (February 23 to March 24) it features the touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, David Greig’s The Suppliant Women, and, from South Africa, the Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope. hk.artsfestival.org

National Arts Festival, South Africa

Africa’s largest arts festival, this 11-day event from June 28 to July 8 in Grahamstown encompasses a central programme balancing local, national and international productions, and an eclectic fringe, as well as a host of smaller, subsidiary events. nationalartsfestival.co.za

Festival Internacional Cervantino, Mexico

Latin America’s answer to Edinburgh and Adelaide, and the biggest arts festival in the Spanish-speaking world, El Cervantino takes place in the city of Guanajuato every October, with national and international theatre slotting into the bill alongside dance, film, opera and more.  festivalcervantino.gob.mx

Its 2017 programme featured Robert Lepage’s perspective-altering 887, the National Theatre’s My Country – A Work in Progress, as well as works from Switzerland, America, Australia and elsewhere. This year’s programme hasn’t been fully announced, but expect big names and big shows hailing from all over the world.

The Holland Festival is also the place to go if you want to catch Ivo van Hove on home soil. The Belgian director is a fixture at the festival, and his Toneelgroep Amsterdam always presents at least one show. In 2015 it was Kings of War, then Husbands and Wives in 2016 and Obsession last year. Hedda Gabler or Roman Tragedies could both crop up again this year.

Closer to home, just across the Irish Sea, sits Europe’s oldest specialised theatre festival. Curated by artistic director Willie White since 2011, Dublin Theatre Festival offers two and a half weeks of wildly varied productions from Ireland, Europe and further afield. There’s always a sense, though, of a nation under the microscope.

Abbey Theatre’s staging of Ulysses at the Dublin Festival. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Abbey Theatre’s staging of Ulysses at the Dublin Festival. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The 2017 edition – the festival’s 60th anniversary, White’s sixth year in charge – was no different. The Abbey staged an ambitious adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Dublin-based young company ANU staged an immersive exploration of persecuted Irish women, and celebrated Dublin-born novelist Sebastian Barry made another foray into playwriting, while shows from Australia, America and Japan rubbed shoulders with the Royal Shakespeare Company and David Greig’s staging of The Suppliant Women.

Dublin Theatre Festival: ‘We put the world’s best artists on Dublin’s stages’

The programme for 2018 is yet to be announced, but the festival will run from September 27 to October 14 and will once again act as a crucible for national introspection and a catalyst for progress in Irish theatre, spread across the city and beyond. Dublin is an expensive town at the best of times, so visiting won’t be cheap, but it will be well worth the trip.

FIND, April 6-22: schaubuehne.de; Athens and Epidaurus Festival, June-August: greekfestival.gr; International Ibsen Festival, September 8-19: ibsenfestivalen.no; Holland Festival, June 7-July 1: hollandfestival.nl; Dublin Theatre Festival, September 27-October 14: dublintheatrefestival.com

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