Letter from Latvia: In the Baltic Nation, Directors Mull on the Everyday for Spiritual Effects

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Despite being sandwiched between its Baltic neighbors Estonia (to the north) and Lithuania (to the south), Latvia is most influenced by Russian and German theatre traditions. Not surprisingly, the newly independent nation (as of 1991), which is about the size of Kentucky and has 2.23 million inhabitants, was occupied by the two superpowers throughout its history--in fact, the German composer Richard Wagner and the Russian theatre figure Michael Chekhov both lived in Riga, the nation's capital, for periods of time. On Nov. 18, 1918, Latvians declared their sovereignty at the National Theatre (annual concerts still take place to commemorate the day).


"After World War II Latvian theatre was subjected to ideological pressures from the Soviet authorities and was forced to resort to Aesop's language," says Undine Adamaite, arts journalist for Diena, Riga's daily newspaper. "Perhaps this is why Latvian theatre can seem a bit heavy and serious." Others in the arts scene concur. The scale of influence tips toward Russia--Russians make up the majority of non-Latvians living in Latvia, at 29 percent. Andra Rutkevica, marketing manager at New Riga Theatre, and Gundega Laivina, director of the New Theatre Institute of Latvia, both point to Russia's influence in education. "The majority of our directors are studying in Russia or are now teaching the younger generations," Rutkevica says. Laivina adds, "You can see the Russian impact in the actors' work as well as the domination of works made in a psychological style."

Alvis Hermanis, the darling of Latvian directors and a major figure in European theatre (he won the 2007 Europe Prize for new theatrical realities) speaks to the deeper implications of these influences. While he agrees that superpower icons Brecht and Stanislavsky have left their marks on Latvia, he suggests that native theatre has a different function. "In Germany citizens attend theatre with the expectation that it will improve society socially and politically. In Latvia, theatre is a place where you can cure your soul, where you can feed your spiritual hunger. It's almost religious, and closer to the Russian tradition."

My animus was well fed in Riga, where I attended the Latvian Theatre Showcase in March, which featured the latest offerings in Latvian theatre. First up was Latvian Love, directed by Hermanis and created in collaboration with his ensemble of actors. The four-and-a-half-hour exploration of the ordinariness of coupling delves into loneliness, loss and the failure to communicate. In many ways, the play is a love letter to the nation of Latvia: The characters transcend cultures--crotchety old men and women, sassy teens and ill-at-ease intellectuals pepper the scenes--yet the specifics of their situations are undeniably Latvian. In one episode, people gossip about a young man's move to the big city (namely Riga). In another a couple flirts at a large choral gathering. Choirs play a big role in Latvian culture--along with theatre, they provided a place where the Latvian language could survive throughout the nation's numerous occupations. (Every four years in Latvia there is a kind of choral olympics--there's even a reality TV show in which choirs compete.)

Hermanis stages his play in a deceptively simple manner. A rolling backdrop indicates an outdoor cafe, a classroom, a painter's studio. In one vignette a man and woman meet at the beach and begin to awkwardly undress in silence. The audience can't help but guffaw at the awful honesty of disrobing in front of someone you want to impress. The pair sunbathes and listens to the surf. The man swigs something dark out of a bottle. Is it Coca-Cola or Riga melnais balzams, the popular herbal liqueur local to Latvia? Doesn't matter--the aggressive manner with which he drinks makes his addictive personality clear. The lights change and the two characters--who haven't yet spoken--fill us in on a few particulars of their doomed relationship and the man's alcoholism. …