Theater as open-heart surgery
“I enter the theatre every day like an operating room” / Interview with the director Tomaž Pandur
26. April 2014
Ljubljana - MMC RTV SLO
Tomaž Pandur, Slovene theatre’s greatest “export”. Maybe the only theatre director whom most Slovenians recognize on the street, a visionary artist, whose grand performances divide the audience into sharp critics or enthusiastic followers.
“I like to say I perform open-heart surgeries. The procedures are known, but with each project an entirely new, unpredictable world opens”, Pandur expands his surgical metaphor, speaking in the caffetereria of Ljubljana’s Drama, right after his return from Columbia where he toured with Medea on the Festival Iberoamericano del Teatro.
In these last months it was hard to overlook the news that Pandur has – after a series of international successes abroad – returned to his homeland this season, where he has – for the first time in his career – directed under the roof of our main National theatre. Richard III. + II. premiered in April, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous historical plays. A timeless author, timeless themes of the rise to power, the fall of tyrants and the lust for power. Because “in the theatre one has to go in the direction where your fear grows the most”. For more read the following interview.
Your path from Maribor to Ljubljana was, as you like to say, long and it led you through European capitals like Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Zagreb. What changed more in these last 18 years: yourself or the environment to which you returned?
The world has changed primarily. We change according to these changes; everything is changing, culture, the system of values, our awareness, and our sensations. In theatre we try to adapt to that. Of course a dissonance occurs here between the sense of the world as we wish it to be and the world dictated by circumstances. One has to stay truly awake and “constantly on guard” as Andrić says in order to capture the spirit of the times.
After the premiere of Richard III. + II. I talked to one of the performance’s creators, who mentioned he “has no doubts” that the Slovene critics will tear it apart. Do you also feel that you returned to a more sceptical, less inclined audience than abroad? How do you comment the sharp attacks in the leading Slovene newspaper on the day of the premiere?
This has more to do with the editorial policies of this newspaper than with me personally. A reporter’s court of arbitration should deal with that and I’m not going to waste my breath on it. A lack of professional criticism in our land seems to me more problematic. We know that criticism is a theatrical scientific discipline, which has for a long time unfortunately almost not been practiced in Slovenia and has already entirely disappeared from the world of performance making. What we encounter are mostly superficial commentaries and unprofessional opinions, which can’t counter any serious comparison and therefore do not influence attendance or the quality of performances and repertoires. They are nothing. That's why I’m very relaxed concerning this. Our Richards beautifully echo with the audience and with the broader international professional public as well, proving that they are truly a happy project, which grew out of dedication and peace, focused on essential authentic creative exploration.
We didn’t allow any outside pressures and interferences on our path. But I think it necessary to rethink the role and meaning of professional criticism in Slovene theatre, which could magnificently co-create the Slovene theatre space.
You have at an early stage, perhaps before many others in our land, realized that theatre isn’t just what happens on stage, but is dictated by postproduction, marketing, the building of interest in the audience. Would you agree with this assessment? Or rather, why is being grandiose here from the start considered as something negative?
Barthes once nicely put it, that the activities of the artist will always be suspicious, because they disturb the comfort of established meaning (laughter). Of course I’m surprised that we here always keep asking ourselves if two plus two equals four. Theatre is at its base a live organism, which demands a wider social integration with life itself. And mainly because it is a live organism, it still constantly enables diverse passions and is interesting to the media as well. I don’t see anything bad about this. Theatre as a form of spectacle has lived in this way for thousands of years. My way of thinking about theatre is nothing special in this regard. In the performance Jernej Šugman as Henry Bolingbroke speaks of grandiosity, in one way or another, while trimming his bonsai: “what should we play in this our garden?”
Jernej Lorenci noted while directing Shakespeare’s Othello that he was afraid of the bard for a long time and wasn’t able to tackle him. You are, on the contrary, always drawn to classical authors, archetypes, themes and stories already woven into the collective unconscious and are calling only for a reinterpretation.
It’s true, more than in titles I’m interested in themes, streams of consciousness and dynamic thoughts, which I then direct in the theatrical field. Authors and ideas are great if they can live through different times and spaces. They have maintained their freshness and were in the time of their making perhaps visionary to the extent, that they address us even more clearly now than the people in the time of their making.
A new consideration of Shakespeare today seems to me not only a beautiful challenge, but highly necessary. In his Richards Shakespeare described the rise to power, the fall and death in this moment – here and today. If the theatre can recognize and decode his matrix, which seems only at first glance ancient and a part of history. I like to rethink Dostoevsky, Goethe, Dante, the Greek classics anew – all the authors who still have a lot to say about this world and offer us the chance to travel into the matrix of the unconscious, no matter if their works were made three thousand years ago or right now. Regarding the fear of greatness let me add this: in theatre you obviously always have to go in the direction where your fear grows the most.
You probably agree that your theatre demands a lot even from the spectator? That you need someone who is familiar with the dramatic material you deconstruct and fragment, and not just someone who wandered into the theatre by chance.
Art in general consist of experience on at least four levels of consciousness. Nobody said that the performance can’t communicate with a less demanding spectator. He will simply uncover not that many layers, but the theatre’s mission is nonetheless fulfilled. Total artworks function in this way: the more the spectator demands, the more he receives. It’s the same with movies and the author’s principle of thinking in general. I was never interested in generalizations, superficial or stereotypical interpretations of plays. I think theatre exists in order to rethink anew and to stage anew the matter with which it concerns itself. I try to keep in touch with new discoveries regarding our senses and to play with them in endless combinations, so that I'm able to find the fluidity of new ideas and ways leading to the spectator … I try to penetrate the fields of the unconscious, the unresearched, open a few doors that have until now been closed, to ventilate the spirit and to pose ever new questions.
Lada Kaštelan wrote in the theatre programme that you knew “from the very beginning” the action would take place around a round table. What caused this impulse? The table motive presents us with innumerable associations – from the family to a war room – and you speak of occultism as well. What is this connection?
When you begin to study Shakespeare you can’t ignore John Dee – the occultist, astrologer and personal advisor to queen Elizabeth I. The whole renaissance and especially Shakespeare owe their “excursions to the beyond” to John Dee. In almost every Shakespeare’s tragedy there is one jump out of the real world: he writes of the dead, about ghosts and visions which happen on other levels of consciousness. “There are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt in your philosophy, Your Majesty”, Hamlet says: it’s about overcoming worldliness and to break through into the beyond, and this metaphysics draws heavily on John Dee.
The round table is a cosmic plate of destiny, an axis between heaven and earth. What we achieved with the Richards – by placing a large dysfunctional family around the same table, who have for centuries passed the crown between themselves – is the result of this very same metaphysical platform of the renaissance.
If Hamlet managed to connect the world of the living with that of the dead on the same stage, your performance achieves this with different periods of time and generations; it destroys the succession of time.
I think that Livia’s and Lada’s idea to change the succession was a stroke of genius. In the first part Richard III. we talk of the rise, and only then Richard II. follows, representing the fall, and at the end Jerusalem, death or the fear of death. This succession is interesting because it deals with the progressive and regressive principle and an universal ending. This experience is interesting also for the actors: the actors from Richard II. are present in the story of Richard III., faced with their future and vice versa: the actors of Richard III. gaze into their past. It was about elongating the lives of the characters and facing them with the blanks, with the unwritten. In this regard our process was extremely interesting: we found entirely new relations and constellations between the characters, and tried to figure out what range of the character’s development we're able to achieve, if we broaden their horizon and life-time.
Your theatre was often described as a “theatre of images”. What happens when it enters a classical theatre such as Ljubljana’s Drama? Have you minimalized your usual scenic grandeur intentionally and thereby expanded the field for the actors?
In theatre grandeur is not measured with majestic scenography and the abundance of costumes. The theatre I’m interested in can be neither a theatre of images, nor a theatre of words or a theatre of movement or of statics, because theatre has been all of this for thousands of years and because it transforms itself daily according to time and rebears itself anew.
I enter the theatre everyday like an operating room – I like to say that I perform open-heart surgery. The procedures are known, but with every project an entirely new and unpredictable world opens. Richard is dynamic exactly by being static. In a sculptured time. None of my performances are about a greater or lesser engagement or input of the actors; it’s all about what kind of habitus and dynamic the performance wants and needs. The Richards deal with a single monumental idea, one great image of space-time or chronotope.
Here the dynamism was taken over by the camera – in the theatre it is impossible to frame shots, but this is I presume our surplus value. For the first time we are able to witness the detail, the actor’s face, a tear sliding down the cheek, the trembling of his lips … Someone may therefore see this as more actor oriented. All performances rest on actors and in all the actor’s share is immense, powerful and totally original.
Jan Kott, whom you mention as an important reference in your perception of Shakespeare, writes about the mechanism of power, how every political ascent soils the man ascending and with it sows the seed of his own downfall. But you simultaneously refuse labelling your performances as direct commentaries on day-to-day politics. Through politics you therefore speak of people?
Of course, although there’s no need to concern ourselves with politics in such a direct, vulgar way; politics enters the theatre by itself, unannounced; it has already infused all the pores of our being. The performance speaks of the “intelligence of the great mechanism”, the bloody history of the rise and fall, of coronation and dethronisation. In the world and in Slovenia. Our Richards contain enough “soft” allusions to our state of mind … the men are all dressed in hunter’s uniforms, which are very familiar, dear and homey to us all (laughter). It’s about the rural rise of Richard III. and the urban fall of Richard II. The idea of the rise to power and the consequential fall is much more global and universal.
On the press conference you already renounced the connection to the Irwin collective’s aesthetics, that they “do not own the motives of nature”. But you probably consciously played with a similar idea of Nazi imagery, which you then connected through the deers with the Wilton diptych in the second act.
The image from the Wilton diptych was made in the end of the 14th century, a little before Irwin (laughter). Richard II. claimed that this image of the doe is his self-portrait, which is a wonderful, poetic metaphor. It depicts the body of a young white doe with the head of a deer with antlers, which fuses with the golden sky. And Richard II. recognized himself exactly in this duplicity, this ambivalence, which we also drew heavily on with the brilliant Saša Tabakovič in the construction of his character.
We already mentioned the camera, which has in this performance replaced your standard element of the water or mirrors. This opportunity for close-ups doesn’t just represent the intrusion of film into theatre, but also, as you mentioned, that film has lost its comparative priority and that theatre has overtaken it with its inherent characteristic of happening every time here and now.
It’s not a competition. I like to use new discoveries, which involve human perception on all levels. Our eyes are primed for all kinds of quantum deceptions, but I nonetheless think that the camera in the theatre brutally reveals everything the theatre basically tries to hide. It’s about the interplay of truth and lies and maybe we have ceased to lie with the help of this medium: to lie about feelings, in the way we think … This is a radical uncovering of the veil with which we usually like to cloud our gaze in the theatre. It is a direct, almost Buñuelian razor's cut across the eye. This is the brutality of live stream, being constantly controlled and observed. The signified, the signifier, victim and executioner … we witness scenes of violence from the frontlines everyday, from the prisons and our streets. The evil which Richard III. personifies needed a brutal eye to uncover reality – regardless of the fact it is spoken in blank verse. The contradiction that we kept his blank verse and simultaneously entered into the world of surveillance cameras seemed to me … incredibly sexy (laughter).
Speaking of films: it was said that you exchanged the intended staging of Citizen Kane for Richard III. + II. mainly because of external circumstances. Does this mean that the idea for staging Orson Welles’ masterpiece is still alive?
Certainly. I’d like to do Citizen Kane very much for I think it is a masterpiece of 20th century cinematography. It will be one of the coming projects for sure – if we manage to get the authorship rights, which are jealously guarded at Warner Brothers.
Pedro Almodóvar said while praising your performance Barocco, that it is “just like a movie”. Is the Spanish period the happiest part of your carrier? Do you feel the Iberian Peninsula was more forthcoming regarding your work?
This period isn’t over. I’m returning to Spain; I’m going to direct Faust, part one and two, in the main Spanish theatre Centro Dramático Nacional. This will be my seventh year in Spain and it is true that it might be the most forthcoming country to me, for it has given me artistic continuity, which seems to me the most important part of creativity.
Branko Šturbej, who had to discover the malice of Richard III. in himself, labelled the main theme of the performance “an inner human fascism”. Is the striving for power an inherently negative category?
Do you watch the series House of Cards? Well, there they said it all. (Laughter.) It’s interesting how Kevin Spacey’s principle affected our reading of Shakespeare. Of course it is not necessarily (something negative). Theatre isn’t here to judge. If we are dealing with evil through very picturesque characters such as Richard III. or Mephisto, we find, no doubt, very appealing personalities, which we enjoy watching more than some boring good-fellows. (Laughter.)
Saša Tabaković, your Richard II. has in a recent interview for Delo harshly commented on the state of Slovene theatre, stating that we deal above all with theatres of individual directors and their personal visions. In this regard you seem to be, on the contrary, adored by actors, while you adore them. How much weight do you afford to the original signature of the actor?
The actor is always an author; he is the real owner and ruler of the moment on stage. I keep telling my team again and again, that we are all here to make sense of, direct, dress, enlighten, and record whatever is necessary in order to create an environment where the actor can rule. Here lies the beauty of creating and that is why my relationship with actors is like a dangerous love affair. Our main mission is to create the circumstances where the actor can happen. In Drama I found terrific co-creators, a brave and daring ensemble, which doesn’t fear the toughest and riskiest tasks. Polona Juh and Silva Čušin, my queens, most eloquently prove my point. They claimed these games of male power bravely and transformed them through their female principle, the female anima, and in this way brought to the performance a completely new and not a in the least renaissance-like dimension.
Also Igor Samobor’s vision of theatre enables a beautiful flourishing and a necessary opening up across our borders. I hope I contributed at least a little to the positioning of SNG Drama as a national theatre on the world stage.
You considered the character of Richard III. with Branko Šturbej 18 years ago during your period in Maribor. This performance also happens to be the fruit of intense, although relatively short preparations. What is the intersection on which you finally conceived the performance?
The real, fatal intersection of every project lies in the chemistry during the first contact with an actor. A spark that jumps across. With Brane Šturbej this spark has been jumping across us insanely all these years, his algorithm of theatrical thought forever inspires me; he became a master of the cybernetic interplay between his brain, heart and the stage!
Let’s touch upon the final part of the show, Jerusalem. The role of the King of Kings is on one hand a synthesis of Shakespeare’s rulers, an apotheosis of power (and its transience), on the other it seems it was written especially for Radko Polič, as an homage to the actor’s opus. Was it really?
The epilogue is written for him and is also dedicated to the genius of Radko Polič. You know, whenever an artist manages to completely dissolve in his artistic work and then disappear without a trace – incredible poetry comes to light. Our epilogue is therefore a poem of a man, of a king and an actor. A poem of Radko Polič. Rac personifies theatre’s alchemic platform; everything entering the theatre transforms itself in him. It gains new content, form and meaning. He plays Shakespeare over and over with an “eternal lightness of being” given only to him, simultaneously becoming a very intimate confession by a father and son, ending with the words: “Take me to Jerusalem, / my son / There I shall die”.
The closing thought, “Wash in my blood / your hands to the elbows”, is so effective because it is so very personal. It belongs as much to Rac as it does to Shakespeare. Until one carves a verse into one’s own flesh, one cannot speak of poetry. Rac has proven this throughout his life.
Transated by Tibor H.P.
Richard III + Richard II, directed by Tomaž Pandur, is based on the motifs of William Shakespeare’s historical chronicles Richard III and Richard II. Pandur dissects the rise and fall of the ruling power, and consequently death through the psychology of Shakespearean historical personalities who, in their essence and flow of thought, are still present and recognizable to this day. The eternal battle for power and authority is a battle on various levels of consciousness, revealing human passions and weaknesses, and an unstoppable instinct for destruction and auto-destruction. The play is a vivisection of psychology of great personalities. They rule, they possess unlimited power, but they also have names and surnames, eyes and mouths and hands. Sitting around the same table they struggle ruthlessly and relentlessly. Richard III will do anything to attain the power and Richard II will do anything to sustain it. After the rise comes the fall, after the fall comes death. There only is one course; they all go to Jerusalem.
"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings; How some have been deposed; some slain in war, Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd; All murder'd." (Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2)