Venice Theatre Biennale: 2023

Maggie Rose in Italy
25 June 2023

This year’s 51st Venice Theatre Biennale (15 June to 1 July), directed by Stefano Ricci and Gianni Forte (interviewed here), like the previous two festivals, had a colour leitmotiv. This time it was emerald, alluding to the Land of Oz in the children’s story, The Magical Wizard of Oz at whose centre stands the Emerald City.


Naturae. The Valley of Permanency.
Photo credit: Andrea Avezzù.


“Green”, likewise signifies the rebirth in spring after winter but also a rebirth of theatre for the directors, pointing to a need to involve theatre in a view of the world that positions humankind firmly inside, and intrinsically connected to, Nature.

After the pandemic restrictions, this year’s Biennale is a truly international one with artists and companies coming from Italy, Palestine, Portugal, Spain, France, Croatia, Sweden and Belgium. The Golden Lion award went to Armando Punzo, the director of Volterra’s La Fortezza (The Fortress), a prison theatre company, which he founded in 1988.

The motivation for the prize, in the words of Ricci and Forte, included Punzo’s ability in his theatre-making at the Fortezza to break down social and political barriers, and “like a wise goldsmith of languages, he sifts through to find a new Man.” His production, Naturae, la valle della permanenza (Nature, the Valley of Permanency, 2022), the opening show in the programme, represents the last play in a cycle that includes, Shakespeare Know Well (2015), Dopo La Tempesta (After the Tempest, 2016), Le parole lievi (Delicate Words, 2017), Naturae Ouverture (Naturae – Ouverture, 2019), Naturae. La vita mancata (Naturae. Life Lost), Naturai. La valle dell’innocenza (Naturae, The Valley of Innocence 2020) and Naturae. La valle dell’annientamento (Naturae, The Valley of Annihilation, 2021).

In Naturae. The Valley of Permanency, this director-playwright explores the themes of happiness and desire, as well as an individual’s wish to go beyond boundaries and constrictions, aspirations that might seem impossible to achieve in a high security prison like Volterra where many inmates will serve a long sentence.


Naturae. The Valley of Permanency.
Photo credit: Andrea Avezzù.


Just the same, Punzo sets out to engage the audience and undoubtedly his actors and himself in this search for happiness, love and freedom. In the huge open space of the Tese Theatre at Venice’s Arsenale, the floor is sprinkled with fine white Volterra salt which Punzo tells us denotes purity.

As in his previous works, he stays onstage for the entire performance, sometimes making eye contact with audience members who are positioned on three sides of the playing area while at other times, his slim athletic body runs around energetically. As if creating an artwork under our very eyes, he positions and repositions a large red ball after which he starts to move his actors in the playing space.

First a woman, with long blonde hair in a red coat and a man dressed in black are invited to stand motionless, staring at a back screen filled with squares. Other actors appear, carrying two frame-like cages that they maneuver, revolve while at other times they walk through these structures.

Intermittently, a voice-off narrator relates a story about his wish to go beyond barriers and attain freedom, and to accomplish this he needs “to create a parallel present, in silence.” Two ladders are brought on, and Punzo and another actor climb to the top of these wielding fishing rods which they brandish high in the air as if searching for a catch.

The director continues to move around, changing the actors’ postures, encouraging and engaging them in various games with the cage-like- frames, visuals which indicate it is possible to change one’s perception of imprisonment and confinement, becoming more proactive and playful.

In the corner of the stage stands a third, motionless frame-cage where books are displayed, recalling the long research process in which the entire Fortezza company engages in order to create a show. As the action evolves, so do the colour arrangements; the costumes and balls display a mix of red, black and white instead of the initial single colour, now evoking the more complex nature of reality and of these actors who are markedly different in age, physical appearance and ethnicity. The joy and energy the performers exuded proved contagious and I came out of the show feeling lighthearted, and convinced that even if the themes Armando Punzo has developed in this show represent only a partial picture of theatre-making and daily life in a prison.

It’s worth remembering that the other plays in the cycle deal with these other aspects – this is most certainly a tale worth telling. The fusion of the narrator’s story with the choreographed movement and soundscape bear witness to this director-writer-performer’s unwavering search for innovative artistic forms that can transform the lives of his actors and hopefully our perceptions of them, as audience members.


The Silver Lion award went to FC Bergman, a company founded in 2006 and made up of Stef Aerts, Joè Agemans, Marie Vinck, Thomas Verstraeten. “With their creations – Stefano Ricci and Gianni Forte declared – the Flemish artists of FC Bergman, drawing inspiration from cinema, literature and art history, and blending a painterly aesthetic and the use of highly advanced technology with the great allegorical medieval biblical stories, shape an original language of site-specific-theatre-dance, poetic yet at the same time irreverent, which arouses a feeling of disconcerting apprehension in the viewer”.

These writer-performer-devisers brought Het Land Nod (The Land of Nod) to Venice, a show initially conceived in 2015 but which with each new performance, the company reworks, according to the site-specific location.


The Land of Nod.
Photo credit: Andrea Avezzù.


Their choice of venue for the Biennale debut is a huge warehouse in the industrial town of Marghera just outside Venice. The playing space displayed uneven gray walls which are empty except for a large painting, The Crucified Christ by Peter Paul Rubens. As the audience entered the space, the atmosphere was sombre and quiet, suggesting any leading museum in Europe where the Great Master painters are housed and in this specific case Antwerp’s magnificent Royal Museum where Rubens’s painting hangs and FC Bergman live and work.

I knew little about the production before I saw it so I was continually surprised by a variegated string of unexpected happenings, sounds and music, where words play only a tiny role. At the opening, an anonymous cleaner ambles back and forth, pushing a large vacuum cleaner while other male figures, carrying ladders, climb to the top of the painting, adjusting its position, one of them clumsily measuring the frame after which he grabs hold of two jutting beams positioned directly above the picture frame. He performs a tragicomic Chaplinesque mime, dangling perilously on high.

His antics had audience members on the edge of their seats, not knowing whether to laugh or cry until he landed safely on the floor. Another man appears, dressed in a smart suit, standing quietly while appraising the Rubens. For a moment, we seem to have returned to the “museum mode” when he suddenly strips naked, lolling on the floor and staring hard at the artwork. A young woman appears and runs around the edge of the space, engaging in a sort of dance with the naked man. The latter then turns his attention to perhaps a visitor to the gallery, and the two fight ferociously, rolling on the floor.


The Land of Nod.
Photo credit: Andrea Avezzù.


Actions, such as these, accompanied by music, often in sharp contrast to the physical action, like Gershwin’s “Summertime” or “Spring” in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, start and stop abruptly and inexplicably so defying our expectations of accepted attitudes and behavior in an art gallery.

As the action develops, moreover, the atmosphere grows bleak and more threatening. Smoke appears in an offstage area which we glimpse through an open door at the rear of the stage. The sound of bombing is deafening, huge blocks of what looks like concrete crash down from the ceiling while the jambs of the upstage door collapse noisily. Smoke begins to fill the stage, and two actors put up a tiny tent while others spread sleeping bags and sheets all over the playing area, lying down in the darkness. The audience has been introduced into a war zone whose proximity to where we are sitting, made me feel distinctly threatened.

Then quietness reigns as the performers hurriedly carried off the sleeping bags and sheets, and lastly, the Rubens painting. The action concludes with a single figure, sitting silent in the empty space, beside a lighted candle adjacent to where the Rubens had been.

The show would seem to explore a world out of God’s sight, namely the biblical Land of Nod, where Cain is sent after killing his brother Abel, or if one chooses another meaning of the term, a nightmarish realm where the most horrendous things can happen.

This troupe of classically trained performers, their influences including Chaplin, Marcel Marceau, Samuel Beckett and Pina Bausch, to name the most important, brilliantly succeed in going beyond their predecessors to create a vibrant theatrical form for the present. They are bent on mining our contemporary anxieties and uncertainties while at the same time questioning the role of culture and art in a world where war and violence prevail.

Only a glimmer of hope remains in the shape of the human figure, sitting silent beside the burning candle. Alongside the Biennale productions, the Biennale College programmess a number of masterclasses, offering opportunities for young emerging artists from all round the world to work with leading theatre practitioners. ( Some of these young artists, moreover, are given the opportunity to see their work turned into a full-scale production in a future festival.