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August 23, 2012

Edinburgh's festival: experiments lost in translation

Underground? Odd venues for Edinburgh fringeThe summer festivals in Edinburgh, and in particular the Fringe, pride themselves of being the most democratic large cultural festival in the world. This year, though, they had a worse-than-usual press. First, the creeping commercialisation of the Fringe caused a sort of controversial ‘split’ (fringe’s fringe?) at the Assembly Rooms. Then the Olympics overshadowed its build-up. Finally, some stand-up comedians had the brilliant idea to joke about rape – placing themselves at the same low level as Republican wannabe senators. And in the meanwhile, the main shows received lukewarm reviews.

We spent the week-end between the main festival and the fringe, and it was worth it, even though the Scottish weather prevented us to take purt in the night walk-cum-light show Speed of Light on Arthur Seat.

No interest in stand-up comedies: with all respect to the performers, it is really a minor genre anbd a result of cost-cutting. A silly guy standing in front of an audience telling jokes on politics/sex/stereotypes - really something I can do myself at home, thanks. But we did go to two of the highlights of the International Festival, 2008: Macbeth and Meine Faire Dame, in the Royal Highland Centre – a huge hangar adjacent to Edinburgh Airport.

Macbeth was an unusual Shakespeare experience. Not so much because it was in Polish: as I had already written, on stage (as opposed to on paper) I prefer Shakespeare in translation than in English, because director and performers can only flourish outside the iron cage of verse and the burden of five centuries of previous recitations. All the more for Macbeth, which literarily is one of the least fascinating plays, with hardly any worthy speech (speeches are admittedly better in English, and an excellent solution is the one of repeating them in both the performers’ language and in English, as in Langhoff's Hamlet: A Cabaret). 2008: Macbeth is set in contemporary occupied Iraq, it was first performed in a weapon factory outside Warsaw, and experiments bravely with screens, pyrothecnics and sound effects: it really seems that a helicopter is landing. The scene is split into four quadrants and the amount of video connections makes the theatre scene as close as ever to the idea of hypertext. All this has not been appreciated by most British critics, complaining that Shakespeare does not need pyrothecnics (Daily Telegraph). What a double pointless argument: of course he does not need them. Yet Macbeth, as said, is with Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s plays where action prevails over word – and the director’s art is making the most of it, and giving it a meaning. Only last year I saw Macbeth in the kingdom of Shakespearean orthodoxy, the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by the RSC Director Michael Boyd. Even Boyd had to innovate to get something out of Macbeth, replacing the witches with children, adding a historical shift to the Reformation and even... pyrotechnics. Yet Grzegorz Jarzyna (who in 1998, aged only 30, became director of the experimental Teatr Rozmaitosci in Warsaw) goes much further and adds much more. The ghost scene is the best of any Macbeth I have seen, the witches are scary, the whispering sounds make the rise of evil almost palpable. Moreover, the setting in Iraq is the open references to Abu Ghraib jail’s horrors add more food for thought than it is usually delivered by this play.

Given the amount of effort on the set, the actual acting is not so prominent in 2008: Macbeth, and only occasionally (as in the ghost’s scene) is Cezary Kosiński really gripping. The opposite can be said of the second show we saw, Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler. The extremely loose adaptation of My Fair Lady is not placed in some topical historical setting, but in a language laboratory of functional but grey and unfashionable 1970s’s Switzerland (which hits the memory of any Milanese who watched Italian Swiss TV in that decade). There is hardly any plot, and the little plot that is there has no logic. Moreover, there is a disconnection between sound and action, and between sounds, and between characters. It is more absurd than the theatre of absurd, which still maintains unity of time and space. But in this fragmentation of meaning, it opens an avenue for the best possible expression of actors’ talent: moving arhythmically while singing, for instance, is actually more difficult than moving rhythmically. And playing not just with different accents, but with different sounds, pronunciations, talking speeds and languages is a sort of artistic Olympics. I had my eyes wide open in admiration, when not weeping for too much laughing, for the whole 120 minutes. But British critics did not like it, expressing their indignation at the apparent lack of any meaning (Guardian).

What we saw at the Fringe was, paradoxically, much more conventional. Karen’s Way: A Kindertransport Life was a very moving play-story telling on Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany, on the difficult reception of Jewish child refugees, and oin survivers' guilt-trap feelings. It was played simultaneously by a young and a mature actor, representing the past and present of poet Karen Gershon, and in particular director-actor Vanessa Rosenthal is convinging with her German accent, contrasting with the accentless young Karen (because when young, she was actually speaking native-language German).

A more difficult, but less convincing, game with accents occurred in Sister Annunciata’s Secret, a monologue where the actress personifies a Canadian nun, but also her New Yorker and Irish interlocutors. In sum, deciphering languages and accents was important in all four plays we saw, but the experimental nature of the Swiss-German and Polish shows was the most memorable thing I took from this year’s Edinburgh. Rather than too commercial, it looked too innovative (and polyglot?) for the habits of British critics. But it is fortunate that the Edimburgh Festival, like the Olympics, are giving the world a fresher, more modern, open and attractive image of the UK than the embarassingly old-fashioned one given by royal weddings and queen's jubilees (or princely strips).

March 06, 2012

Post–shakespearean sexual and religious politics in Stratford–upon–Avon

Royal Shakespeare CompanyIf Coventry is not exactly a cultural heavyweight, at least it is very close to Stratford-upon-Avon, which during the day is little more than a theme park packed with American tourists but in the evening, after day-tourists have left, becomes more silent and allows hearing Shakespeare’s echo. During the last few weeks back in Coventry, while in continental-culture withdrawal crisis, three times I headed to Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company and its theatres for comfort – and as always, I did not regret it.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is devoted to, guess what, Shakespeare, and the main theatre only shows its plays. The other two, the Swan and the Courtyard (recently built to host the main plays during the Shakespeare’s theatre transformation in 2006-11), show also different texts, and generally experiment with slightly edgier ideas, although even there texts need about five centuries before being considered. But one splendid thing of all three is the setting: the Guthrie-inspired thrust stages, whereby scenic illusion (quite pointless in the era of cinema) is abandoned to make the actors play in the middle of the audience and exalt theatrical skills. In this regard, the RSC theatre, which before the renovation had a traditional stage, as it reopened last year is particularly impressive: it fits over 1,000 people, all very close to the stage. The downside may be that seats are cramped, but well worth it. Thanks to generous subventions (theatre cannot compete without public support), prices are affordable, with generous subsidies tickets and some very cheap occasions for places with ‘reduced’ (but fully sufficient) view. Last year we run to see the Macbeth as soon it reopened, and we found the transformation as the best improvement in the whole region foe the last decade...

As to the content, if poetically Shakespeare’s texts are hardly surpassable, I must say, to the disgust of my English-speaking texts, that when it comes to the scene, it is better in translation. My best Shakespeare experiences were all in other languages, from Strehler’s Tempest in Milan, to Cieplak’s King Lear in Warsaw with Zapasiewicz, to Langhoff’s Hamlet (in cabaret-adaptation) at Paris’ Odéon, and even a Ninagawa’s Titus Andronicus in Japanese in Stratford-upon-Avon. The simple fact is that translation disentangles actors and direction from the iron cage of the verse and allows the liberty to express the text as best.

This is not to diminish RSC work – rather the opposite: all shows I have seen are, if not the best, absolutely excellent technically, thanks to near-unlimited material means, great actors and skilful directors. In particular, the RSC manages to strike a very difficult balance between updating Shakespeare to attract new audiences, and be faithful to the text and to the core of its spectators (who are not so young nor so progressive). This is usually done by locating the scene in modern or semi-modern times. Both Richard III and Macbeth were set in contemporary times, with some of the baddies dressed up as terrorists. Last month, The Taming of the Shrew was set in post-war Italy, which is both very attractive visually at a time of retro-fashion, and pertinent as an hyperbole of patriarchy – although a Berlusconi-times Italy could have been even more intriguing.

I was curious about The Taming of the Shrew because it is two most politically incorrect play by Shakespeare besides the anti-Semitic Merchant of Venice. How will the RSC make it palatable for a modern audience in a very PC country? With a female director, Lucy Bailay, who makes of Christopher Sly’s Induction the pillar of the show. The Induction was often omitted in classic times, but by putting the Shrew’s story in the head of a drunken tinker, it reverses like in a mirror the meaning of the plot: it objectifies male chauvinism, which is no longer the meaning, but rather the object of Sly’s wicked imagination and therefore of our laugh. The stage becomes a big bed, covered by a huge lines under which Sly sleeps and moves comically, and which underlines the sexual content of the play. The result is a very funny and guilt-free play.

The other two visits to Stratford-upon-Avon were at the Swan, and for non-Shakespearean plays. The first was The Song of Songs, an experimental work by the RSC Movement Department. The text, originally much older than Shakespeare, is the whole 22nd book of the Old Testament in King James Version – itself more or less contemporary to Shakespeare. This is the most poetic of Bible’s books, and it sounds divine even if it never mentions God. I'd say that even for Shakespeare God is a hard act to follow... I had heard beautiful readings of it before – first of all by my wife at our wedding – but taking it to stage is another matter. Director Struan Leslie does it by leaving any theological content apart, focussing on the erotic poetry, adding minimalistic, oriental-sounding music and letting six dancers create follow the rhythm and the narrative. The experiment was for me extremely successful, even if in its originality it did not attract the crowds that it deserved and that more standard RSC productions ensure. By the way, also on a 3,000 year-old erotic text the RSC manages to be politically correct – the performers are four women and two men and the dances and readings, starting from the opening ‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,’ are not always heterosexual matches, and the mentions of sisterly love are particularly stressed, even if the highest points of the show are heterosexual (by the way, nothing explicit in this institution – the RSC had recently to refund offended spectators after an edgy Marat/Sade.

And the last play was a rare modern one - but paradoxically, the only onw which on stage was set in the past: Helen Edmundson's The Heresy of Love, directed by Nancy Meckler, telling the story of Sor Juana, the XVII Century Mexican nun and writer, repressed by an obscurantist Church. You can hardly get a more feminine production - and this is well suited to Mexico, a country where violence against women is ripe, but whose identity was shaped by women, starting from Malinche (see on her the very instructive Malinche's Conquest by Anna Lanyon), to Sor Juana and then artists like Frida Kahlo, and passing from the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The play might be a bit too long, and I found the subplot on Sor Juana's sister rather redundant. The stage and period costumes were beautiful, although bishop Santa Cruz was dressed in a misplaced papal white (tacit anti-Catholicism?), and the nuns were simply overdressed. But above all this was a very interesting play, both on Mexico identity, and on obscurantism, repression and women segregation. And if you think that these were problems of the XVII Century, well, think of the rapidly shrinking academic freedom in Universities and on the enduring female disadvantage on the labour market. Actually, repression of free thought is still ripe: only in the last few days it was revealed that in the UK the police collaborated with construction employers in the blacklisting of union-activist workers - and even on academics, like Charles Woolfson, who dared investigating Health & Safety matters...

Seconds after the end of the play, while we were still clapping, the fire alarm broke out and everybody left the theatre: for some ten minutes, the shores of the river Avon were populated with mysterious XVII Century aristocrats, nuns and bishops... Stratford is a good place to dream.

January 16, 2012

Don Giovanni's triumph at La Scala (but failure at La Scala del calcio)

scala.jpgLa Scala summarises Milan’s modern history for good and bad. Built under Austrian empress Maria Theresa, home of music under Enlightenment and then romanticism, symbol of the Risorgimento when Verdi lived down the road and the Nabucco inspired patriotism, destroyed by Allied bombing and then immediately rebuilt (se sta mai cuj man in man) and re-inaugurated by Toscanini with a Tosca in strong antifascist tone. From 1968, its season opening on the 7th of December (Milan’s holyday, Sant’Ambrogio), the poshest of all events in Italy, is on and off the opportunity for political protest, including occasional egg-throwing at aristocrats, nouveaux riches and fur-dressed ladies. At the peak of Berlusconism it was privatised (1997) and completely renovated (2002-05). Love or hate opera, this is THE place to love it or hate it.

This year’s season was opened by the most important opera of all, Don Giovanni, and it was attended by fresh new prime minister Monti, who had just replaced a prime minister that had not come to the previous openings but believed to be himself the best embodiment of Don Giovanni. Given Monti’s symbolic (not yet regulatory, unfortunately) heavy hand on tax fraud, maybe for next year’s première tax police will make on-spot checks on the public – as they did for last new year eve in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the most exclusive Italian resort. It was also the first opening for a long time under a leftwing mayor, who made sure that no tickets were given for free to authorities and arranged big screens for live broadcasting around the city.

What a symbolic occasion for a turning point, it would seem: after a taste of Haendel, here comes Mozart to celebrate, with the most popular of all operas, the descent into hell of the Great Seductor and maybe the rise of new morality. However, Mozart stands in the way: too complex for instrumental readings, and especially so in the minimalistic and modern staging of Robert Carsen. In the most remarkable of a few coups-de-théâtre, at the end Don Giovanni, after falling into hell, reappears, and nonchalantly lights a cigarette smiling at the other characters descending themselves into the abyss... contrary to any moralizing, Don Giovanni wasn’t so evil and the others were not so innocent. Already the initial mirror behind the scene, portraying the theatre behind the theatre, had exhorted to look at ourselves and find the Don Giovanni in each and every one of us...

I didn’t go to the première, of course, but I managed to get in to the last show on Saturday. Opera tickets at La Scala are very expensive and big shows sell within minutes, but if you don’t mind standing in queue for a few hours in the freezing cold, on the day of the performance 140 gallery tickets are sold for just 12 Euros or less. This is especially for the cash-poor music fanatics, those known for whistling and throwing tomatoes at the slightest misinterpretation: this is the most difficult opera audience in the world. The two high galleries have a separate side entrance and you cannot mix up with the upper crust of the other levels of the theatre, least of all peak in into the foyer and disturb those who paid twenty times more: the reason they paid is not the music, it is exactly not mixing with you.

In my student days, the cheap day entrance tickets were more numerous but standing. Now, it is all-seated, and with E we were in the closest seats to the scene, at the very top (sixth) level: we had to dangerously lean out, but we could see almost all quite well. For the January shows unfortunately the best attraction for us (the direction of Barenboin, and Bryn Terfel as Leporetto) were missing, but replaced very well (by Steffens and D’Arcangelo). And if opera’s usual attraction is the over-the-top staging, this minimalistic one allowed welcome space for singers’ acting skills, and provided food-for-thought for further heated discussions on competing interpretations on the icy Piazza del Duomo.

La Scala del calcioIf there were only two isolated whistles for Don Giovanni on Saturday, there were 80,000 people whistling a disappointing Alexandre Pato on Sunday at the second Scala of Milan: that ‘of calcio’, itself long all-seated, for Milan-Inter. Unlike the triumph of last Spring, this was the most frustrating of Milan derbies: lot of Milan sterile possession only to be punished by an Inter break. Pato had been nearly sold to PSG on Thursday, but then held back by Berlusconi, whose daugher and AC Milan executive has been romantically conquered by the 22-year old player...... messy seductions go on.

November 27, 2011

Westwind: on two Germanies, twentytwo years later

Movie image
4 out of 5 stars

I saw this beautiful German film in Paris, at the opening of the German film festival, which requires two preliminary notes.

Paris, while having a very strong (not necessarily positive) self-identity, has more open eyes on the rest of the world than any other city. Berlin is more European, but with very little attention to other continents. London may be more cosmopolitan, but you struggle to find any movie, books or music that is not Angloamerican.

In Paris, they are everywhere. Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Théatre d’Europe at the Odéon, with a rotating direction by different directors from different countries (the first was the unforgettable Milanese Giorgio Strehler). At the Odéon, a beautiful monument that was occupied for years after 1968, and which by the way is just out of my window, two years ago I saw an exhilarating German Swiss Hamlet directed by Mathias Langhoff, half in French and half in English, and this year I saw a reading of Toni Negri’s last play, Prometeo (a rant on alienation and multitude, as you would expect, but at least with some humour). Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Bouffes du Nord, directed for decades by Peter Brook (he just left and I was lucky to see a few of his shows recently) in an amazing essential setting and offering the most universally cosmopolitan programs. Some of this may be due to the large expatriate population in Paris, like the Americans romanticised by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and to the millions of tourists, which explains the unbelievable success of a stand-up comedy like ‘How to become Parisian in an hour’ by Olivier Giraud at the Theatre de la Main D’Or (very funny, but very basic - or in other words, for Americans). But it goes a bit deeper than just expatriates and tourists. My experience of Paris may be biased towards the Quartier Latin, but I have the feeling that nowhere else people know about other places as much as here.

In particular, there is a deep mutual understanding with Germany, which has historical reasons and should be remembered when assessing the current Merkozy phenomenon. French and Germans do not often agree - but they understand each other. See the interest in the last issue of Esprit, ‘La France vue de Berlin’ (which is actually more a ‘Berlin vu de France’). Or the success, every year, of the festival of German cinema, at the Arlequin cinema. It is sad that very little more than the most commercial German films (e.g. Goodbye Lenin, Downfall, Baader Meinhof Complex) nowadays make it to foreign cinemas, and fortunately here in Paris they have a stronger following – not just by the many Germans in Paris.

Westwind, by Robert Thalheim, opened this year’s festival and it is an appropriate German celebration. It tells the story of two sisters from the DDR (specifically, from a small unknown town near Leipzig) on a summer camp on the Hungarian Balaton lake in 1988, meeting (something absolutely forbidden) boys from Western Germany (Hamburg, for maximum contrast), one falling in love, and facing the crucial dilemma of whether to escape to the West with them... 1988 was the last summer the two Germanies were clearly split: the following summer, the human flow to the West via Hungary will have started, and by the autumn the wall will have fallen. I spent in Eastern Europe (Poland, with a stop in divided Berlin) the 1989 summer, and this film catches very well the atmosphere of the end of an era, with good irony on DDR absurdities but also on western mentality. It does not work much as a romantic comedy: the west German boys look so stupid that one wonders what the girls could see in them – but maybe this actually strengthens the topic of the ‘wind from the west’, which was stronger than the attractiveness or not of individual westerners. The film is more successful as a classic ‘escape’ film – even though it seems to underestimate the consequences of escape for eastern Germans. German ‘Ostalgia’, besides some trite celebration and tourist exploitation, continues to be artistically productive.

October 30, 2011

Do zobaczenia Warszawo

Polish autumnAt the end of a month in Warsaw, it’s time for putting down some impressions as I had done for Berlin and more fragmentarily for Madrid and Barcelona. Unlike those previous stops of my investigation, Warsaw is not, and probably will never be, a prime tourist destination. Which alone makes it an interesting and exciting place to my eyes. University library - best contemporary building in town

Warsaw is a very young city – architecturally and demographically. Levelled to the ground by German dynamite after the 1944 insurrection, it was rebuilt (including the Old Town) in a hurry and cheaply, but at least with some good ideas and a lot of green space by the communist regimes. The transition to capitalism was the opportunity for another wave of hurried and cheap wave of construction – this time of skyscrapers, shopping malls and pretentious villas for the rich. The urban tissue has suffered for it, as described on the Za Żelazną Bramą estate, but now, with increasing wealth, also some interesting, more ambitious architecture makes its mark. Warsaw will probably have the highest European skyscraper soon, the University library, with its façade with different alphabets and its roof gardens is one of the most beautiful library buildings I have ever seen, the High Court is extremely elegant... and Warsaw keeps growing and surprising.Supreme Court & Krasinskich Palace Public transport is also improving, but slowly: the first line of the tube was completed a few years ago - after a few decades works. The second line, which connects to the new national stadium on the other side of the river, will spectacularly miss the planned opening date of next year: Euro 2012 fans should expect inconvenient transport, and residents a month of extra traffic jams.

Demographically, first the loss of over a third of the population during the war, then high birth rate and the huge baby boom of the early 1980s (martial law: a year of curfew, nothing interesting on TV and shortage of contraceptives), and finally strong internal migration (Warsaw’s unemployment is three times lower, and pay level twice as high as in the rest of the country) and some good universities give Warsaw a much younger look than most western capitals. The result is a fast changing place where things happen and nightlife is as vibrant as anywhere.

Even if the cultural capital of Poland is still considered to be Kraków, Warsaw has a much more cutting-edge scene. Warsaw is now full of klubokawiarnie, intellectual cafés for the most disparate tastes where young people discuss books, politics, travel, try new tunes on the guitar.... I have already written a blog on the leftist ‘New Brave World’ café, but there are plenty more, especially near the University, but also hidden in the various neighbourhoods. Concerts (very strong jazz and classic traditions, open to innovation) and especially theatres are first-class. Polish stages are marked by experimental and absurd streams (Kantor, Lupa, Grotowski, Mrożek, Gombrowicz) and thanks to a tradition of generous subventions are particularly popular. The most famous Polish cinema actors who appeared in Wajda and Kieslowski’s films are above all theatre actors, and give their best live – actually, if they can be criticised, it is for being too theatrical on film. Among the recent novelties there is Teatr Polonia, a new independent theatre set up by the most famous Polish actress, Krystyna Janda, who has played 700 times her pièce de résistancemonologue, Shirley Valentine. A live transmission of a comedy from Polonia had some 3million viewers last Monday, more than most Polish national team matches (and deservedly so).

During my stay I sadly did not find the time or the tickets to go to her theatre, nor to see the best plays in town (Mrożek’s Tango at the neoclassic National Theatre and the Dostoyevsky-adapted Idiot at the Studio Theatre in Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science). I went instead to some more cutting edge shows. Wyzwolenie (Liberation), at the Teatr na Woli, is a re-adaptation of the neoromantic play by Stanisław Wyspiański, who already one-hundred years ago offered a smart sardonic view of Polish nationalism (my favourite Wyspianski poem/play is Wesele, the Wedding, a satire of the unconsummated marriage between peasantry and revolutionary intellectuals – you can see the film transposition by Wajda if you can’t go to theatre in Poland). In this adaptation, director Piotr Jędrzejas brings the action to our days, and the satire is of current rightwing nationalism, including the use of the Cross, in an absurd set reminding of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: actors repeat Wyspiański’s verses but don’t know what to do with them. Besides the provocative aim (some rightwing journalists asked to stop the show and incriminate the director) and the good (but short) performance of Jerzy Trela, the play was a bit unconvincing, to most of the audience and especially to somebody like me who has not read the original Wyspiański’s text. For this reason I was in a position to enjoy more fully, at the Teatr Powszechny,“jesteś piękne... mówię życiu’ (You are bueatiful... I say to life), based on the poems by Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize 2006 and one of my favourite poets. Unlike Wyspiański and much of the Polish literature, Szymborska does not deal with big historical issues, but with intimate everyday experiences – which are not necessarily less political. The play, in which three women around a table tell each other their life impressions through Szymborska’s words, is a triumph for both the fragmented, ironic short poems, and the art of reading of them.

Warsaw is also a city of cinema. The setting of Kieslowski's masterpiece Dekalog, and host of an incredible varieties of cinemas for the most cosmopolitan programming. Besides the new multiscreen, 3-D complexes, a handful of splendid or intimate vintage cinemas, like Muranow. I went to a new cinema, KC Kino, opened in the projection room of the monumental building that used to host the communist party's Central Committee (KC stands for Komitet Centralny), and in a sign of the times in 1990 was turned into the stock exchange. I watched there Czerwony Czwartek (Black Thursday) by Krauze, a film on the December 1970 worker rebellion in the Polish costal cities, which was brutally repressed by the army killing 41 demostrators. The movie is clearly inspired to 'Bloody Sunday' by Greengrass, and it avoids the heavy nationalist rhetoric of most Polish historical movies, although the whole second half is filled by typically Polish martirology, i.e. the portrait of families' grief and victims' funerals - which are not historically irrelevant though: to avoid demonstrations, the funerals took place in the middle of the night, with families given only 30 minutes advance notice. Anyway, the interesting experience was that the movie presents many scenes of Gomulka deciding the repression in the Central Committee, exactly one floor above where I was watching the film...

With so much food for the soul, what about food for the body? When I spent a few years here in the mid Nineties, there were just a handful of acceptable restaurants: the pseudo-Jewish Pod Sansonem in the old town, the pseudo-Japanese Tokyo, the new creative Kuchnia Artystyczna in the Ujazdowski castle, and a couple of communist-era places with extremely slow and bureaucratic service (Lotos, Mozajka – happily for gastronomic archaeologists they still exist and they have not changed). Now, Warsaw’s wealth and curiosity for the world have filled the city with all kinds of restaurants, from revisits of Polish traditions to all corners of the world. The restaurant critic of the main newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (still one of the best newspapers in the world, and the best for information on the eastern part of Europe), Macjej Nowak, for many years wrote nearly exclusively caustic reviews: eating out in Warsaw looked more like a masochistic adventure than a pleasure. But recently, he asked in a column if Warsaw has become the food capital of Europe. The answer is no, but just the fact that the question can be raised tells about the progress made: and in terms of value for money ratio, there are really not many places in Europe where eating out is so enjoyable. Try for instance Przy Trakcie or Papu for smart Polish cuisine, Zgoda for unpretentious traditional Polish food, Izumi Sushi for spectacular Japanese, R20 for very good French, and, especially for desserts, the very feminine Słodki i słony of Magda Gessler. From next week, while in Paris, I will miss Warsaw prices and friendly service.

December 16, 2010

Arabqueen: "Volkstheater" in Neukölln, Berlin's integration front

Neukölln, in South Berlin, has been elevated to the status of the most infamous neighbourhood of German politics by Thilo Sarrazin. The (ex)socialdemocratic Bundesbank board member, in his xenophobic, eugenetics bestseller “Deutschland schaffts sich ab”, devoted a long part to Neukölln as a dangerous ghetto demonstrating the impossibility of integrating Turks, and the necessity of hard “help less, ask more” policies towards immigrants. He largely quotes is party-comrade Buschkowsky, mayor of Neukölln who had warned about the failures of multiculturalism, in contrast to the equally socialdemocratic, but more politically correct and inclusive Berlin’s gay president Klaus Wowereit, keen on developing a ‘diversity-friendly’ image for the capital.

But if you go to Neukölln expecting some thrilling emotions, to see flying knives, masked terrorists or anything of the like, you will be bitterly disappointed. Coming from the city centre, when entering Neukölln you actually first go through the trendiest part of today’s Berlin (“Kreuzkölln”, or crossing between gentrified-Kreuzberg and Neukölln): here are the most fashionable clubs, and in a grid of pleasant, leafy streets there is a variety of cafés, ethnic delicatessen, art shops and bookshops – often combined in the same outlet. At Hermannplatz the more ethnic part of Neukölln starts, and the 20%-plus unemployment is reflected in the poorest standard of shops and bars. But still, coming from the West Midlands and being familiar with its 80%-Asian neighbourhoods (Sparkbrook), I wonder how they can call this heterogeneous mix of Arabs, Turks, blacks, eastern Europeans, South Europeans and, indeed, Germans, a “ghetto”. The schools of the area had gained a bad reputation of segregation, failure, drop out and violence – but over recent years they have shown mark improvements with a series of pragmatic integration policies such as longer school hours (despite his sometimes alarmist tones, on pragmatic grounds Buschkowsky is certainly capable and widely appreciated). Social housing is sometimes controversial (i.e. the high towers Gropiusstadt, setting of Christiane F.'s "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo"), but better than certain British council estates or French HLM. Green areas are pleasant and there are popular playgrounds with spontaneous multi-ethnic social activity, but are now threatened by developers: who should be blamed then if integration fails? The nearby recently closed historic airport of Tempelhof, now a huge park, offers opportunites of regeneration - or speculation.

Neukölln main street is Karl-Marx Straße, and in the middle of it, behind a pleasant courtyard, is hidden a surviving, stylish XIX-Century Ballroom, now turned into café, cultural centre and theatre, Heimathafen. The café Rix is in old Berlinese style but mixes German with Middle-Eastern food. The theatre is austere, as it receives no public funding, but its program exciting. I went to "Arabqueen", directed by Nicole Oder, loosely based on the recent novel on forced marriage “Arabqueen oder der Geschmack der Freiheit” by the young feminist writer and journalist of Turkish origins Günner Yasemin Balci. German literature is currently being reinvigorated by a lively generation of writers with immigration background: four of the six authors, including the winner, of this year Deutscher Buchpreis have non-German origins. In Arabqueen, just three actresses (Tanya Erartsin, Inka Löwendorf, Sascha Ö.Soydan) play a dozen parts, sometimes changing role during the same scene: the two sisters Fatme and Mariam, their mother, their Paris-raised hippy friend Lena, a few other funny local characters and, with great effect, the Middle-Eastern macho-acting boys. Thanks to their outstanding acting skills, this multiple interpretation has the effect of highlighting the complex, contrasted variety of humanity in Neukölln – starting from the ambivalence of the headscarf. The only character who never appears on stage, despite being heavily felt, is the tyrannic, double-standard moral father, who interrupts Fatme’s flirting and imposes a forced marriage.

The play is very well received, by critics and by the audience, as a revival of "Volkstheater", people’s theatre’: close representation of local everyday working-class life, by local actresses, with no political tones but still a political message. But after so much funny and moving theatre, once the lights on, with everybody clapping, it was impossible not to notice that, in the middle of Neukölln, Turks made just about 10% of the audience (although a good thing with Turks is that you can’t always tell them apart…). Which is better than in many other cases of ‘ethnic arts’ (i.e. blues music in Chicago, where the only blacks are unavoidably the performers), but reminds that cultural segregation is a reality.

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