Piccolo Theatre, Milan: Present Indicative Festival 2022

Maggie Rose in Milan.

 

Present Indicative was a month long international festival celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Giorgio Strehler’s birth.  The event saw audiences and critics alike flocking back to Milan’s Piccolo theatre. It was Strehler, together with Paolo Grassi, who founded the now iconic theatre in 1947 and continued at the helm until his death in 1997. During a talk at Milan University in April, Claudio Longhi, the present director, revealed how he had decided not to revive any of Strehler’s productions but rather offer audiences a chance to explore current innovative trends in staging in light of the huge historical transition that is underway.

 

Still Life. A Chorus for Animals, People and all other Lives. Photo credit: Magda Hueckel.

During the festival more than 20 companies from Italy and around the world played at the three Piccolo venues. They were accompanied by a lively programme of platform events that offered audiences and critics a chance to meet writers, directors and actors. One particularly interesting aspect of the festival was the creation of a group of young critics, recruited from students at various universities, who reviewed each play and conducted interviews with the visiting writers and practitioners.

Marta Gornicka’s Still Life. A Chorus for Animals, People and All Other Lives is a choral manifesto presented in English and German with Italian and English surtitles. In 2009 Marta Gornicka founded Chor Kobiet (a women’s choir), and a year later the award-winning Magnificat, dubbed a Dionysius chorus, sought to give voice to the voiceless in our society, came into being. In the present show, in her dual role of writer and director, Gornicka continues to experiment with the idea of a chorus, capable of animating an audience and presenting radical ideas.

The play opens with Gornicka standing in the central aisle, conducting an eight-person chorus whose members pose questions in an unremitting manner. How can we build a world of relationships that goes beyond our current perception of relationships? How can we build a new form of community based on interdependence and care? A society, where human and non-human, the living and the dead, animals and plants, all come together? While, as one might expect, no easy answers are to be had, the voices of contemporary philosophers like Donna Haraway and Roberto Esposito, sometimes enter the arena, offering insights into what might be possible.

The idea of community and solidarity is, moreover, put into practice by the fine ensemble work of the performers in the way their roles are evenly balanced, so no single actor-singer is predominant and each gets a chance to make her or his contribution.  At times, the rapid shifts in tone and subject matter – a song from a musical Lost Without You is juxtaposed with the voices of Holocaust survivors – made me feel that too many threads were being pursued and with little practical opportunity to delve any deeper. But the overall effect was one of energy and hope, inviting spectators to make a leap and envisage a radically new society on the horizon.

 

Beckett’s Room. Photo credit: Kyle Tunney.

By contrast, Parnia Shams’s play (in Persian, with Italian and English surtitles) Is gave audiences in Milan a rare chance to see a work by a young woman dramatist and director from Iran. The set is a rather dilapidated classroom with an adjacent, half-hidden area, stage right. It is here that a group of secondary school girls are having a lesson, interacting with an invisible teacher, among themselves and at other times, finding themselves called into the adjacent area to be punished. As the dialogue unfolds the invisible teacher comes to stand for a sort of Orwellian Big Brother, governing the girls’ lives. The play, though, has lighter moments; thanks to a friendship, which develops between one of the girls and another who has just enrolled at the school, we witness female friendship, solidarity and lightheartedness that help the girls survive. In the end, though, it is what isn’t said, or what one doesn’t see – one would expect a group of young girls to let rip the minute the teacher is out of the classroom – that makes us understand the degree to which these young lives are controlled.

Beckett’s Room produced by Dublin’s Dead Centre focuses on a highly dangerous moment in Samuel Beckett’s life. It is November 1942 and Beckett and his partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, having joined the French resistance, were forced to flee their Paris apartment after the Gestapo got wind of their clandestine activity. Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, founders of Dead Centre, together with playwright Mark O’Halloran, have deftly dramatized that precise moment in time.

While on the one hand, the three have come up with a realistic narrative and imagined a realistic stage set, they exploit innovative techniques to tell a gripping story.  Audience members are given headphones, on which they can hear the dialogue, while watching events unfolding in the flat which is carefully recreated in Andrew Clancy’s two-tier set. Thanks to an astonishing range of sounds which we hear at close quarters, we feel like we are inside Beckett’s home on the day the couple were forced to flee and find shelter in the countryside of Roussillon.

The action begins with the tapping of a typewriter as Beckett turns out his coded messages, the sound of coffee brewing and the coffee pot moving from stove to table, a door shutting, the sound of the couple making love, the entrance of a puppet on castors, representing their prying next-door neighbour, the noises of Beckett and Suzanne packing and escaping, the footsteps of the Gestapo arriving, the terrifying wailing and cries of a man being tortured and shot by a German officer, whose images we can only glimpse in the shadows.

In the final part, in 1946, we hear the sound of Beckett and Suzanne’s return to a flat which hasn’t been ransacked as many were but which eerily seems to house the ghosts of those who were tortured and murdered in their absence. When one remembers that Beckett in his drama persistently sought to achieve a theatre of disembodied voices and ghostlike figures, Dead Centre would appear to have succeeded in creating something similar. As I write and the war continues to rage in Ukraine, this play, which opened at Dublin’s Gate theatre in 2019, chimes perhaps even louder today than when it was written. It is time for Beckett, the activist and freedom fighter, who risked his life to oppose the fascist regime, to take centre stage.