Theatre under attack

Rising nationalism is threatening artistic freedom

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

The past decade has seen the growth of nationalist and extreme right-wing political tendencies in Europe. Politicians in various countries have launched attempts to curtail artistic freedom by measures ranging from open repression to subtle cuts in subsidies. The recent spate of renovations cannot hide the fact that theatre is under attack in Europe. Without a guarantee of freedom for the dramatic arts, these freshly renovated theatres can only be monuments to autocratic rulers and vehicles of corruption.

In 2018, the Europe Theatre Prize’s main award of 15,000 Euros – donated by the city of St. Petersburg – went to the long-standing artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theatre, Valery Fokin. Commenting on the decision, leading Russian theatre critic Marina Davidova wrote: “There really is a close link between Fokin and the political elite, both here in St. Petersburg and in the Kremlin. And between him and Putin. To me, the Europe Theatre Prize going to Fokin has nothing to do with his qualities as a director but only with the fact that he is a Big Boss of Russian theatre. Here in Russia, people don’t understand that he didn’t get the prize from a jury but from Russian officials.”

Among the winners of 2018’s Europe Prize Theatrical Realities were Milo Rau (NTGent) and Jan Klata (formerly of Stary Teatr, Krakow): interesting choices in the given context. Rau was initially refused a visa as he had angered the Putin government with his film “The Moscow Trials”.  And Jan Klata’s nomination was also anything but obvious: As director of the Stary Teatr in Krakow – the second oldest theatre in Poland, honoured with the title of Polish national theatre – since 2013, he devised a programme that cleverly combined Polish drama with innovatively adapted classics, and clearly struck a chord with the public. His production of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” at Schauspielhaus Bochum in 2015 was shortlisted for the Berlin Theatertreffen festival.            

Developments in Poland

The Law and Justice (PiS) Party’s takeover of government in 2015 marked a turning point in Poland. In 2017 the Stary Teatr advertised for a new artistic director and Klata, whose reapplication was supported by most members of the jury, was not reinstated. He was replaced by the arts journalist Marek Mikos. A philology graduate, Mikos had formerly taught Creative Writing at the John Paul II Papal University in Krakow. Critical media assessed the start of his tenure as follows: “The old theatre is drowning, Mikos can’t cope; he is wrecking, rejecting…”    

It’s not the first scandal in Poland’s recent theatre history. In 2015 the newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński tried to ban performances of the Jelinek play “Das Mädchen und der Tod” in Breslau on grounds of pornography. One year later, the artistic director in Breslau, Krzysztof Mieszkowski, was replaced after ten years in the position.

Developments in Hungary 

Hungary has taken a similar turn since the right-wing populist Civic Alliance (Fidesz) won the parliamentary elections and Viktor Orbán became Prime Minister in 2010. In 2011 the Hungarian parliament’s National Security Committee identified theatre-maker Árpád Schilling as a “potential perpetrator of hostile activities”. And in the same year, Mayor of Budapest István Tarlós had the director of the New Theatre Új Szinház replaced by István Csurka, a 77-year-old writer, dramaturge and right-wing stalwart, and the radical right-wing actor György Dörner, although a panel of experts had voted six to two in favour of retaining the previous director István Márta, who had held the post for 13 years.

At the Budapest National Theatre, Attila Vidnyánszky took over from predecessor Róbert Alföldi, and funding for various critical theatres in Budapest was slashed – as much as to a tenth of what it had been in 2010 for Theater Kreatör. 

Developments in Turkey

But it gets worse. In Turkey, theatre life is shifting increasingly to the “independent” scene, especially since the state of emergency was called in 2017. After the putsch of 15 July 2017 all theatres were banned from international cooperation. The entire acting ensemble of the theatre in Diyarbakır was fired and subsequently set up an independent theatre group. Most of the teaching staff of the Ankara Theatre Institute also lost their jobs. They now give private workshops. In 2017 some 70% of Turkey’s theatre productions were by independent groups. The Erdoğan government is especially crafty when it comes to finance. Tax on theatre tickets, which was hitherto fixed at 10%, is now “flexible”. Depending on whether the author of the piece is on a “good list” or not, the tax on tickets can be as much as 18%.

Developments in Germany

And in Germany? Here, too, forces are seeking to constrain theatre under the pretext of strengthening national culture. They are mainly from the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party. In autumn 2018, AfD member Andreas Galau challenged Brandenburg’s funding for the Piccolo Theatre in Cottbus in the federal state parliament because he objected to the production “KRG. – Eine Heimatbetrachtung” (roughly translating as “a closer look at the homeland”) by the Piccolo Theatre’s youth club. And charges were filed against the Theater Paderborn/Westfälische Kammerspiele last year because the programme for its performance of Max Frisch’s “Andorra” featured a comparison of German election results in 1928 and 1932 with those of 2013 and 2017.

In the parliament of Saxony-Anhalt, AfD member Hans-Thomas Tillschneider called to phase out funding for the opera and the Neues Theater in Halle and to fire opera director Florian Lutz: “I suggest dismissing Florian Lutz and looking for a real character of the calibre of Attila Vidnyánszky to succeed him. Then all the welcome propaganda will be taken off the programme…”. 

Many more examples could be added to the list of attempts to influence or repress the arts in the name of “nationalism”. The fact that this contravenes the third sentence of Article 5 of the German Basic Law, which states that “the arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint,” no longer concerns Europe’s demagogues. But it probably never did.                                          


BTR Ausgabe 1 2019
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 206
von Hubert Eckart

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