The Stage Long Live Premio Europa

A captivating ceremony in St. Petersburg, thanks not only to the winners, but the spectacular setting.

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The Europe Theatre Prize award ceremony, held 10 days ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the most impressive and certainly the most moving out of the five times I've had the honor of attending this event. This was due not only to this year's prize winners and their work, but also the fact that the ceremony took place in the Alexandrinsky Theatre (named for Alexandra, the wife of Czar Nikolai I; though it was since renamed the Pushkin, for the writer, everyone still uses its historic name ). This facility was inaugurated in 1756, a fact the event organizers made great use of. In addition, one prize winner turned the award ceremony itself into a theatrical spectacle, further adding to the event's overall success.

The Europe Theatre Prize (or Premio Europa ) was awarded for the first time in 1987 in Taormina, Sicily, and it is a project jointly run by a large group of organizations: the European Union, UNESCO's International Theatre Institute, the International Association of Theatre Critics, and two other somewhat competing frameworks - the Union of European Theatres and the European Union of Theatres (Habima belongs to the former and Cameri to the latter, or vice versa ).

The famed Alexandrinsky Theatre, where Russian greats like Pushkin and Gogol once sat.Credit: Phocus Agency

The center of Premio Europa activity remains in Sicily; this year marked the 14th year that prizes were awarded, out of the collective body's 24 years of existence - because while good intentions are always abundant, money is sometimes scarce. The ceremony depends on the readiness of a city to both host and fund it.

Initially, such ceremonies were held irregularly, once every few years (with prizes awarded, among others, to Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook, Heiner Mueller, Robert Wilson and Lev Dodin ). In recent years, it has been held rather regularly, though the plan for Istanbul to host it last year did not pan out. It is still unclear where (and if I'm not mistaken, if ) it will take place next year. This year's main laureate was German director Peter Stein, founder of Berlin's Schaubuhne Theatre.

A few years after the prize was inaugurated, a category was added for "New Theatrical Realities," to honor the next generation of artists, with the age limit set at 35. But because the prize is not awarded annually, some artists over the age limit have been candidates for years without ever receiving the prize. This year it was awarded to six theater artists (or groups ), with the length of time they'd spent on the list of candidates duly noted.

Czarist splendor

The centerpiece of this event was not just the ceremony, which in years past was fairly anticlimactic (a series of speeches, the parade of winners receiving their certificates and statuettes and shaking hands; three years ago, in Saloniki, the speeches dragged on for so long that an actress from the Berliner Ensemble who was to perform afterward burst on stage from behind the curtains and demanded the talking stop so the performance could start ). The prelude to it was also quite something.

But first thing is the hall itself, in all its czarist splendor (a picture of it is worth more than a thousand words ). The ceremony began with a song about the greatness of Russia and its soul, which started with a singer-pianist and continued with an orchestra. The curtain went up, revealing a singer in a white ball gown inside billows of smoke, a handful of little girls in tutus pirouetting charmingly, and an abundance of strange and imaginary animal figures.

When the song ended, a horse-drawn carriage driven by a blonde woman wearing a black robe carried the evening's two masters of ceremonies to the center of the stage: an older man with a gleaming bald head, in evening-wear, and a young woman in jeans. They opened the ceremony, welcomed the guests and handed the floor over to the manager of the Alexandrinsky, who spoke from the front row of the theatre, an elegant binder in his hands.

This was essentially just the prelude, but it managed to wonderfully highlight the special thread between a theater performance, a passing moment on stage and the marvelous tradition and legacy of its creators through the ages. The manager told a story (I do not discount the possibility that he made it up, and if he did, it was a brilliant and touching piece of fiction ) about how the theater keeps an archived list of ticket-holders of yore and where they had been seated.

Chekhov's hot seat

And so, for example, in the box next to the central one, in the first balcony, once sat the journalist Soborov, and in later years, playwright Anton Chekhov (he left out the part about how, in this very theater, the opening night of "The Seagull" had been a crushing failure ). Tonight, the manager said, we have seated there the Europe Theatre Prize laureate, director Peter Stein (who directed, among many others, an unforgettable production of "The Cherry Orchard" ). A spotlight lit up the box and Stein took a bow.

But this was only the beginning. Ivan Turgenev, whose play "The Bachelor" was presented here in 1849, once sat in the box closest to the stage on the second balcony. Now director Katie Mitchell sat there, lit by a spotlight and taking a bow. Gogol had sat in the sixth row (the manager counted them out ); now the seats were occupied by members of Viliam Docolomansky's troupe, who won one of the New Theatrical Realities awards, and who later performed their energetic physical theater bordering on dance.

In Pushkin's places sat director Kristian Smeds, who that week put on his production of Paul Auster's "Mr. Vertigo" with extensive audience participation. In one of the first rows in the performance hall, where Ostrovsky had sat so many years ago, were now members of the Icelandic company Vesturport, and in Lermontov's seats, members of Portugal's Teatro Meridional.

The center of the theater, the manager said, is where Dostoevsky would sit. Somehow it was hard for me to imagine Dostoevsky as a theatergoer (he did not write plays, though adaptations of his books were performed at the Alexandrinsky ). On that night, Yuri Lyubimov, more than 90 years old and whose new show "Honey" by Italian writer Tonino Guerra was performed that week by his Taganka Theatre, had the honor of being seated there. When the spotlight reached him, Lyubimov rose, as did the audience in applause. In Russia he enjoys the status of a national hero.

The theater manager also told the audience that Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had run the Alexandrinsky almost 100 years ago, created a "director's pulpit" at the back of the stalls; that evening one of the prize laureates was rightfully seated there, Russian director Andrey Moguchiy, who directed the award ceremony (along with Emanuela Pistone ). And to prove that the Alexandrinsky doesn't just tell stories from its archive, the prelude ended with the backdrop for Meyerhold's 1917 production of Lermontov's "Masquerade" descending from the tower above the huge stage.

The ceremony itself followed the Oscar mold. Celebratory applause preceded the bestowing of every prize, with each award presented by an actor or director and a representative of the cultural bodies granting them. The representative read a summary of the judges' explanations for their decisions, and before the winners received their certificates, the horse and buggy returned to the stage, carrying a group of young ballerinas in ballet poses - one holding a bouquet of flowers, another the statuette, both then handed to the presenters to award to the happy winners.

The recipients gave their short, pointed thank-you speeches. Some thanked actors and technicians, others their parents and spouses; Katie Mitchell thanked her 6-year-old daughter.

Faust on a trampoline

Members of the Vesturport company offered a surprise during the spectacular event. (In the week leading up to the ceremony, they performed their version of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" as well as an interpretation of Faust that's set in a retirement home for actors, some of which was acted out on a safety net - a kind of trampoline above the audience's heads. The actors are also trained acrobats, who flew above the spectators below. ) When it was their turn to receive the prize, only one shy member of the troupe mounted the stage. But when the horse-drawn carriage returned, it carried the rest of the joyful group.

And all this was still only a warm-up. When it was Stein's turn to receive his prize (his most recent work, Kleist's "The Broken Jug," was presented during the week by the Berliner Ensemble with Klaus Maria Brandauer in the lead role; a conservative but impressive production, theater as it should be, by the book ), another curtain rose at the back of the stage - revealing a monstrous, giant Moloch-like puppet which approached the audience marching mechanically while brandishing its fists and making other threatening motions.

It was accompanied by rows of sailors, the young ballerinas, and strange animal figures with Stein at the lead, looking amused by the grotesquely threatening demonstration. When the procession stopped, the German director turned around, bowed to the giant puppet, and stood before it in a stance characteristic of tyrants: legs slightly splayed and hands joined at groin height.

Russian director Lev Dodin spoke in praise of his colleague. A Russian actor who had performed "Hamlet" under Stein's direction described his experiences and Stein's favorite word, Scheisse ("shit"; when the actor repeated it over and over, Stein tapped his back from behind as if signaling him to move on ).

Stein appeared to understand the spirit of the spectacle that accompanied him very well; he began his thanks by saying that in St. Petersburg, whose stages survived the Nazi siege when the city was called Leningrad, he understood that he was better off not speaking in German. And so he gave his thanks in English.

This was of course not the place for the horse-drawn carriage and ballerinas; the girls stood to the side, fidgeting and conversing among themselves, hesitant about what to do with the now-empty flower baskets in their small hands. One put the basket on her head.

Then it was time to give a special prize to Lyubimov. As he made his way forward, four of the sailors approached the front of the stage, and two of them almost lifted him over the steps and onto the stage. The nonagenarian recalled, among other things, how he had spent World War II in Leningrad, where he learned the basics of directing. He petted the beak of one of the strange animal figures that presented him with a statuette, and the audience members returned to their feet.

A mouthful of vodka

An intermission was called, to prepare the audience and the stage for the artistic portion of the evening: Peter Stein in a monodrama, "Faust Fantasy," with composer Arturo Annecchino at the piano. Members of the audience who returned early to their seats had the opportunity to watch director Stein call on the sound and lighting crews to accede to his demands. He himself presented a taste of a monologue from Faust, and while I dare doubt the press release issued by the event's organizers, which claimed he "captivated the audience," I could not but agree with the Guardian's theater reviewer Michael Billington, who said, just a few hours after the ceremony, "Show me one English director who is capable of performing such a theatrical piece."

Why did a few hours pass between the end of the ceremony and the discussion at the hotel bar? Because there was a reception in between. Four lovely Russian women stood at the entrance in period costumes, their hands holding trays filled with shots of vodka, and with a smile offered guests to drink "to the Czar's health." I considered drinking to Stalin's health, but in the end I decided to fill my mouth with vodka. To the health of the Europe Theatre Prize ceremony next year; they should only find a city to host it.

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