Photo courtesy Temporada Alta
Catalan playwrights: (back row, left to right) Cristina Clemente, Pere Riera, Jordi Casanovas, Sergi Belbel, Jordi Galcerán, Pau Miró; (front row, left to right) Àlex Rigola (director), Guillem Clua, J.M. Benet i Jornet and Llàtzer García.
As Barcelona’s professional theatre season gets underway, it may seem to those of us less than proficient in Catalan that its performances unfold behind closed curtains. Centred on the prestigious Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, the two Teatres Lliure (on Montjuïc and in Gràcia), the Sala Beckett and the Romea, among dozens of smaller theatres, the scene seems as vibrant as it is insular. The feeling is accentuated by the prevalence of work by important international playwrights on local stages; there’s loads of Shakespeare (Coriolanus, The Tempest), Ibsen (Hedda Gabler), Oscar Wilde (Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime) as well as contemporary writers Tom Stoppard, Martin Crimp and Peter Handke. But all in Catalan. Then there are those multiple award-winning local playwrights, Sergi Belbel, Pau Miró, Lluïsa Cunillé. Are they good? No idea. Is it fair as a foreigner to gripe about it?
Well, apparently some significant Catalan directors gripe about it too. Lluís Pasqual, now 60 and a Barcelona theatre icon, has returned this year to the Lliure, which he helped found in the Seventies. “Theatre is a public service,” he says in an interview published in the programme for the Lliure’s new season, “and the public has changed. We need to share ideas, projects...costs.”
Toni Casares, 46, is artistic director of the Sala Beckett, the most established ‘alternative’ space in Barcelona. He believes in “the stamp of quality to Catalan playwriting” that has developed through significant state support of the language. “Our work is at the level of the best works in Europe; we have to share it,” he told Metropolitan. Similarly, his contemporary Calixto Bieito, one of the most famous directors in the world, is impatient with the Catalan scene. “We need to break down borders, we need input from countries with a much more defined model for culture, we need clear decisions, and we need to reach this international audience.”
Contemporary Catalan theatre is less than 40 years old, and its origins as a form of silent protest against the Spanish dictatorship still wields influence. In 1979, during the transition to democracy, one troupe started out with a shack, a donkey and some highly explicit gestures. La Fura dels Baus shot to international fame in the Eighties and have been there ever since, producing mass-audience spectacles that aim to wow, but mainly to shock. Although the troupe’s XXX—a show inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade—is an extreme example, it is a style that has become synonymous with a Catalan theatre that is easy, if expensive, to export.
However, this is clearly not the only approach. “While one style of theatre enriches another,” said Toni Casares, “we feel that it isn’t so important that the performances circulate as much as the texts themselves.” Sala Beckett launched two projects in 2009 with the objective of making Catalan scripts and theatre more international. The website www.catalandrama.com is aimed at promoting Catalan plays worldwide and offers free translations of texts into a dozen languages. While aimed at theatre professionals, with plays and readings produced in the UK and the US last year, the service is open to the public at large.
A second project is dedicated to improving quality. L’Obrador offers workshops for actors and aspiring playwrights of all levels and features international figures: last July, it was British playwright Simon Stephens, last month, actor Will Keen of London-based troupe Cheek by Jowl. The plan is to build a much larger Sala Beckett in Poblenou, says Casares. “We want to create an international house of playwrights, incorporating students and teachers from abroad.”
It is tempting to meet Casares’s enthusiasm with reticence. The economic crisis circles above us, and then there’s the ominous influence of Beckett’s Irish namesake Samuel, whose plays rotate around expectations unfulfilled. But Casares is not the only one with plans. Calixto Bieito produces multidisciplinary opera and theatre that is as extravagant as it is controversial, and it is by no means all show—complex literary and philosophical texts wind through performances that have been a hit with international audiences.
After 11 years at the Romea, Bieito and former Grec Festival director Borja Sitjà this July launched a massive global theatre project. Barcelona International Theatre, or ‘BIT’, is a privately-funded initiative with a public grant from the Institut Ramon Llull. The enterprise rides on the international reputation of the defiant Bieito, who is unmoved by the current difficult financial climate. “I’m not an economist! We launched BIT now as we have the energy and the ideas for it.”
BIT comprises seven shows created and performed by a multicultural crew, who will tour around Europe and North America. The most imminent production, The Great Theatre of the World, is co-written by Bieito and Marc Rosich, and incorporates compositions by the flamboyant pianist Carles Santos. It premiers in Freiburg, Germany this month and then travels to Barcelona. “It is a spiritual project,” Bieito summarised, “about theatre and life.”
He may have the air of it but Bieito is no Don Quixote-dreamer, or he would not have been asked to produce the final piece for the World Shakespeare Festival that is being organised for the London Olympics next year. He proposed Forests, led by dramatic actor Josep Maria Pou. “It will be 80 percent in English and 20 percent in Catalan, and will draw on images of forests in Shakespearean and contemporary texts, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”—magical, creepy, apocalyptic, “the aging process,” said Bieito. “There is a long tradition of translation of Shakespeare in Catalunya, I want to explore that too.” Forests will not arrive in Barcelona until next summer, but early in 2012, a series of lectures and workshops incorporating international artists and thinkers of all disciplines will be held at the CCCB.
Meanwhile, at the Lliure on Montjuïc, regular performances accessible to international audiences have been going on for a while. This is the place where the Grec Festival hosted English-language theatre, including London troupe the Young Vic, for three years running and Lluís Pasqual is continuing the international programme spurred on by the Lliure’s previous director Àlex Rigola. Four Catalan-language productions this season have English subtitles, but including them is an expensive procedure that means they have to focus only on those plays that run for a while, around three to four weeks. Alas, that means there’ll be no English subtitles for British director Declan Donnellan’s acclaimed The Tempest in Russian, which plays for just four days in December.
And none either at the Sala Beckett, at least for the time being. “We tend to translate foreign works into Catalan,” said Toni Casares but while they don’t currently use subtitles, he seems open to the idea. “They are a useful tool though,” he acknowledged, “and they’re getting more affordable as technology improves.” Of course, in the meantime, anyone wanting to try theatre in Catalan could take a leaf out of Casares’s book: “When I was starting to go to international productions, I read the synopsis [then] went to the play,” he hinted.
Perhaps, then, the fault lies more with the level of international interest. If that is so, let’s hope we haven’t missed the boat. Over the last six years while he was in post as the Grec director, Argentine Ricardo Szwarcer went on an internationalisation drive, splurging on companies from the UK and France. This year he has been replaced—internally—by Ramon Simó, former director of Fira de Tàrrega, the popular festival of street theatre where La Fura dels Baus made its name.
Or could it be something else entirely? “There’s a misconception that theatre is dangerous,” said Casares, “while the real problem is that politicians don’t care about it.” Yet what if young politically, socially and technologically savvy Catalan dramaturges, such as Guillem Clua and Jordi Casanovas, had the further force of the international community behind them? Theatre really could be dangerous then.
Ones to Watch—Catalan playwrights
Josep Maria Benet i Jornet (b.1940) - Veteran playwright widely published and televised in Spain; Desire (Desig) was produced in July 2010 by the White Bear Theatre Club in London.
Lluïsa Cunillé (b.1961) - Prolific, award-winning writer of dark, intricate dramas such as Barcelona, mapa de sombras. She also writes cabaret.
Sergi Belbel (b.1963) - The internationally successful author of Després de la pluja and Carícies Belbel’s Morir (o no) was made into a film by Ventura Pons. October saw the release of the film Eva, for which he co-wrote the screenplay.
Jordi Galceran (b.1964) - Best known for his play dealing with cutthroat corporate culture, El mètode Grönholm, which was made into a Spanish film.
Guillem Clua (b.1973) - An innovative playwright with international training, Clua’s background in journalism and love of cinema influence his plays with strong storylines, such as Invisibles and Marburg.
Pau Miró (b.1974) - The socially-savvy Miró marks the changes to Barcelona’s cityscape and people. It’s Raining in Barcelona (Plou) was produced by London’s Cock Tavern Theatre this year, and for the Canadian Fringe Festival in 2010.
Jordi Casanovas (b.1978) - Author of Sopar amb Battla and City/SimCity, the hip Casanovas is determined to make theatre more contemporarily relevant.
ONES TO READ
There are a few collections of contemporary Catalan plays in English: Barcelona Plays: A Collection of New Works by Catalan Playwrights—Ed. Sharon G. Feldman and Marion P. Holt (Martin E. Segal Theatre Center (CUNY), 2008); and Modern Catalan Plays— Ed. David George and John London (London: Methuen Drama, 2000).