Stop pandering to the Establishment, says Nastazja Somers – follow Eastern Europe’s lead and stand against damaging ideologies
The uncertain times we live in call for artistic leaders and theatremakers to question their role in society and fight the Establishment-imposed status quo that makes theatre obliged to remain apolitical in order to keep its funding. But by suggesting that artists engage with the UK’s ruling party, whose right-wing ideologies have devastatingly undermined this country, the National Theatre’s Rufus Norris signals the depth of the crisis in British theatre.
Perhaps it’s time for the UK to look beyond its borders for solutions – for British theatre to open its doors and learn from those who not only speak a different artistic language but also use a language connected to the act of protest within the mainstream.
For decades, artists from Eastern Europe have confronted regimes and oppressors using theatre as their weapon. In 1968, Kazimierz Dejmek revived Dziady (Forefathers), written in 1893 by Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz, at the National Theatre in Warsaw only for the production to face being banned by the communist government.
The production used Mickiewicz’s play to question the power relationship between Poland and the USSR and was seen by Moscow as anti-Soviet. Outraged by this threat of censorship, students took to the city centre and their protests led to the first significant confrontation between Polish society and the politicians.
Theatre has a great power of collective connection that should be used to create a stage for holding governments to account, rather than, as Norris suggests, working with them.
In Poland today, where the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party has won the populist game by pandering to nationalist myths and bigotry, director Jan Klata dedicated his tenure at Teatr Stary in Krakow to challenging government policies and beliefs. Sparking protests and a media backlash, his productions heavily critique Poland’s inability to abandon the glorification of its suffering as a nation and to come to terms with its complicated past.
For his 2015 production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Klata re-imagined the protagonist Thomas Stockmann as a political refugee. The previous year, his King Lear relocated the tragedy to the Vatican, tackling Poland’s entrenched relationship with the Catholic Church. Speaking against the powerful comes at a cost, and for Klata it was the non-renewal of his position. No longer at Teatr Stary, he continues to scrutinise and oppose the government through his work as a freelance director, working across Europe and building on his legacy of an artistic leader who, though constantly under pressure, stood by his principles.
The belief that theatre is a space for protest is shared among artists from all over the former Iron Curtain countries. In Serbia, for example, playwright Biljana Srbljanovic has dedicated her whole career to using theatre for bringing outsiders together. Despite being widely staged across Europe, she remains unheard of in the UK. Placing “fear for our own moral downfall if we fail to speak” at the forefront of her work, she writes to tackle the demons of Serbia’s past and to challenge the unrest of its present.
Looking towards countries like Poland and Serbia, and engaging with Eastern European artists and their practice, is an opportunity to understand how powerful theatre can be when it stands against the Establishment rather than with it. Now is the time for our artistic leaders to make space on the main stages for those who are ready to begin this battle for the sovereignty of our arts.
Nastazja Somers is a writer and theatremaker