Alma Alter’s Mini-Festival “Shakespeare: Cruel and True” @ Sofia University, April 2014

An Open Source Hamlet? Review of Hamlet or Three Boys and One Girl (adapted and directed by Nikolay Georgiev and the @lma @lter Student Theatre-Laboratory) at the Theatre Hall of Sofia University

Georgi Niagolov

@@hamletHamlet or three boys and one girl, directed by Nikolay Georgiev and currently performed at the University of Sofia by the Student Theatre-Laboratory @lma @lter,is clearly a scholarly production of Shakespeare’s play. It builds upon three major theoretical cornerstones: i) Jan Kott’s essay Hamlet of the Mid-Century, ii) Heiner Mueller’s play Hamletmachine, and Jerzy Grotowski’s approach to theatre.

Drawing upon a memorable 1956 production in Cracow, Kott shows that Hamlet is like a sponge which immediately absorbs all political, moral and philosophical problems of the time of its staging. He argues that the play is a tragic scenario imposed on the characters without clearly defining who these characters are: every age has its own Claudiuses, Gertrudes, Poloniuses, Rosenkrantzes and Guildensterns. Moreover, it is actually the story of three boys and one girl – Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras and Ophelia. These characters are not only united by the fact that they have lost their fathers, but also because they are not firmly bound to their respective situation in the play, i.e. Claudius is a murderer, Polonius is a plotting politician and a despotic father, while Hamlet and Laertes are not avengers, Ophelia is not a traitor, Fortinbras is not the king of Denmark, they are just forced to act like this and suffer the consequences of their actions. The key to the Hamlet-gene, Kott claims, can be grasped only through a comparative analysis of these young personages (“Hamlet of the Mid-Century”in Shakespeare Our Contemporary).

Mueller’s script distils a potentially six-hour play to eight dense pages of radical political, moral and philosophical reverberations. His use of Shakespeare is grounded in the urge, explained by Mueller in his Reflections on Post-Modernism, for freeing the text from the authorial and scholastic dictates of the past by crossing it with topical voices. Although Nikolay Georgiev’s production chooses not to show Marx, Lenin and Mao as naked women shouting that the aim of revolutionary struggle is “to overthrow all those conditions in which man is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being,” it echoes Mueller’s text often enough to import its alarming poignancy as well as its political and philosophical ambivalence.

In Towards Poor Theatre Jerzy Grotowski explains his idiosyncratic approach to theatre as a complete stripping down of dramatic effects and pretence to lay bare the actor’s own intimacy, a fundamental rethinking of theatrical space to bring the spectators onstage, a continuous search into the actor-audience relationship by provoking and involving the viewers. Grotowski’s theatre is the theatre of “here and now”, the theatre of improvisation, the theatre of discovering oneself and encountering the others.

These three approaches are productively combined in Hamlet or three boys and one girl to a quite interesting effect. The show opens up with an easy, rehearsal-like atmosphere the young actors come out on the stage and choose four among them to act the parts of Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras and Ophelia. The Hamlet-condition, they suggest, is so fundamental that it can be found in everyone’s personality. Costumes are not important. What is crucial, however, is to give Hamlet a modern face. Suddenly, it becomes clear that there is an extra character onstage. She powerfully asserts herself into the centre of the action dominating and commanding the others in a markedly imperious and slightly cynical tone. This is Death. Next thing, everyone drops dead and the play starts backwards but not chronologically. It deconstructs the familiar narrative into symbolic episodes, fragmented soliloquies, and single cues. Shakespeare’s text is at the heart of those fragments, yet it is interspersed with echoes from Macbeth, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, Mueller’s Hamletmachine and other sources. The actors are given complete freedom to improvise comments on the action and address the audience ex tempore – thus, challenging the viewers to join in. Another important code in this performance is dance. It is used generously in such a way as to boost as much as possible the semiotic function of the actor’s body. The behaviour of Death onstage, she often assumes the function of the director of the show, and the ongoing dialogue between the actors and the audience give a tangible metadramatic angle to the performance. The overall effect being: “Look, clearly enough we are actors and this is a play. But it is important. Therefore, we will show you the mechanics of theatre. We will give you the building blocks of Hamlet. Let us discuss, arrange and rearrange them together so that everyone can piece out his or her own version of the story, his or her own meaning.”

The reason I am bringing up the case of Hamlet or three boys and one girl is that when I saw it last month it struck me as something truly progressive. To my mind, it attempts to apply the philosophy of open source to theatrical production. Now, open source is, of course, not a term that is traditionally associated with theatre. It was coined in 1998 in relation to free software, but the understanding behind it is quickly spreading over other areas of human life: today we talk about “open source knowledge databases,” “open source governance,” even “open source religion.” The fundamental ideas behind open source are the free access and free sharing, the transparent source code so that everyone can contribute and modify, the total lack of discrimination against the users or the uses. With respect to this, what @lma @lter offers in its adaptation of Hamlet is open source at every possible level. First, access to the performances is free of charge. Second, it uses metadrama and deconstruction to lay open the source code of theatre in terms of plot, artistic rendering of characters and events, dramatic movement. Third, it is very careful to show the play in complete ideological and moral equilibrium in order not to discriminate against any possible interpretation, e.g. When Hamlet is reprimanding himself in the monologue: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” Laertes comes out and reminds him that Old Hamlet too murdered Old Fortinbras; that, in fact, it does not matter that he did so on the battlefield because his motives were the same: he simply wanted the crown of Norway for himself; and even if Claudius did not kill his brother, Fortinbras would have come, rightfully, to seek revenge. Finally, it invites contributions and modifications on part of the audience – without, however, letting the play dissipate into uncontrolled conversation.

Interestingly, Nikolay Georgiev’s approach to Hamlet started taking shape in the late 1960s. It was then that he offered an earlier version of Hamlet or three boys and one girl to the Bulgarian audience in Varna: naturally, not influenced by Mueller’s text, but the touches of Kott and Grotowski were already there. Expectably, the censors of the ruling communist regime found his adaptation subversive and quickly took care that the performance be stopped. Its tendency to deconstruct the text and foreground ambivalence was clearly in conflict with the party’s effort to cultivate a uniform, right, interpretation of Hamlet. The viewers, on the other hand, were delighted at the freedom to explode old models and create their own understanding of the play. But this is a familiar story.

Today, in a society enjoying political freedom, a less expectable scenario is taking place. Naturally, nobody is dictating to the University’s theatre-laboratory how to do their plays. @lma @lter are touring around Europe performing for international festivals to a considerable critical acclaim. Yet in Sofia they are playing before an almost empty house. I saw them three times over the last two months and on all occasions there were hardly 15-20 viewers, including the friends of the actors and a homeless woman who seems to attend all their shows, especially when it rains. I wondered at this situation and decided to invite some of my students to see the play so I could ask them later how they felt about it. All said they liked it very much but then admitted that they found it very demanding. As no story was offered to them on the stage, they had to figure out how to arrange the fragments they were seeing as they were involved and asked questions by the actors. They would do this no more than once a month, they said, at the most.

Then I thought again about open source. How many of us use open source software? Why not? It definitely is more demanding: we have to acquire more technical knowledge, we have to take more responsibility. How much time do we spend contributing to the Wikipedia. Do we participate in open source policy-making or consultative processes? Perhaps, our society is still not ripe for open source, even for open source theatre. Perhaps, it is easier to reject a forcefully imposed political or cultural order than create a new one picking up the pieces. Perhaps, it is easier to fight for freedom than use it. Well, this is what, in my opinion, the sponge of Hamlet or three boys and one girl has absorbed very recently at the University of Sofia. Yet, the very fact that there is a young and progressive theatre with vibrantly enthusiastic young actors already means that we are on a good track, as we are travelling to a better future.

A Quantum Lear: Review of Time for Lear (adapted and directed by Nikolay Georgiev and the @lma @lter Student Theatre-Laboratory) at the Theatre Hall of Sofia University, Bulgaria, 21 May 2013

Georgi Niagolov

@@timeforlearOn the eve of the 21st century a group of writers and artists voiced to the world their concern that despite a whole century of revolutionary developments in the scientific understanding of subatomic physical reality, i.e. quantum reality, most art is still mainly created and construed within the epistemological framework of Cartesian rationalism, Newtonian classical physics and 19th-century positivism, i.e. the reality of macroscopic systems. In order to fill this gap they proposed a new epistemological framework called “quantum aesthetics”, the main tenets of which are formulated, demonstrated and defended in the collection of essays The World of Quantum Culture (2002), edited by Manuel J. Caro and John W. Murphy. The main objective of this new movement is to explore the forms of art that are more in line with the philosophical implications of quantum reality, which openly contradict our traditional understanding of the surrounding world, such as complementarity (a quantum-scale object can behave simultaneously as a wave and as a particle), uncertainty (it is impossible to determine the position of a quantum-scale object, it seems to be ubiquitous, i.e. in many places at once), acausality (quantum-scale objects behave spontaneously and illogically), complexity (quantum-scale objects seem to communicate with each other within infinitely complex systems), possibility (quantum reality is a multiverse of coexisting parallel possibilities, the human mind, as an instrument of observation, filters these possibilities until they collapse into a linear non-contradictory state of affairs) (1-34).

Expectably, some of the explorations of quantum aesthetics bear immediate relevance to the field of theatrical production. As Paul Johnson observes in his study: Quantum Theatre: Science and Contemporary Performance (2012), quantum theory can provide a fresh perspective on essential theatrical elements, such as identity, observation and reality (9-12). The traditional view of the self as a temporally continuous identity is challenged by the suggestion that human consciousness is a quantum system which is fundamentally multiple, non-causal and temporally non-linear. The traditionally passive role of the observer is also reconsidered: multiple possibilities collapse into non-contradictory states only when measured or observed. In other words, the quantum multiverse is converted into the familiar universe of macroscopic systems by the demiurgic capacity of the observing consciousness. The traditional view of reality as a solid and objective state of affairs is interrogated by the quantum reality of the wave function with its numerous possible states and non-deterministic behaviour. In the context of the theatre, play texts, sets, properties, actors and audiences can be understood as concrete initial factors but the performance itself evolves as a wave function in the space and time, i.e. the here and now, in which all these factors interact.

Against this background, it is my opinion that Nikolay Georgiev’s experimental adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, entitled Time for Lear, which premiered on 21 May 2013, at the Theatre Hall of Sofia University, is an excellent example of quantum theatre, because it immerses the viewer in an experience that can be best described in terms of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: “everything truly exists in a state that cannot be pinned down to one perspective at a time and anything in its true nature is really a wash of possibilities, a vast sea of potential. The way we perceive reality is only relative to the way we frame or measure reality” (Wilson in The World of Quantum Culture 98).

True to his approach to Shakespeare, Georgiev starts from Jan Kott’s reading of King Lear through Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (Kott 126-168). In his essay Kott demonstrates that Shakespeare’s tragedy contains a high concentration of grotesque elements and therefore has more in common with the Theatre of the Absurd than with nineteenth-century romantic or naturalistic drama. This form of theatre, he argues, takes the viewer beyond the verge of tragedy into a world where god, nature and history are defunct, where the characters are pushed over the edge of reason into an abyss of madness. It maims and mutilates the character to peel off all his layers like an onion to reveal the ultimately naked state of humanity, but where does an onion end, what is in its core?

Georgiev takes this question further by turning Lear into a quantum object. The king behaves both as a particle: a body on the stage, and as a wave: an idea that runs through the whole play. We are uncertain of where he is located because he is not individuated in a single character, but pervades all characters simultaneously: the King (Petya Yosifova), the Fool (Valeria Dimitrova), Goneril (Kalina Paleeva), Regan (Teodora Atanasova), Cordelia (again Valeria Dimitrova), Kent (Dimitar Dimitrov), Edmund (Marko Dzhenev), Edgar (Georgi Arsov), Gloucester (Krasimir Kostov), even an extra figure, Lear’s Shadow (Ivan Stoianov), which frames the action soliloquizingphilosophically about the self and subjectivity. Lear behaves spontaneously and illogically as he appears and disappears at the toss of a coin, switches on and off, or cuts his own head in the absurdist scenes inserted into Shakespeare’s plot. The construction of the Lear’s character in the production is so incredibly complex and multiple that in order to arrive at a reasonable understanding, i.e. to bring the theatrical experience within the framework of a single-world view, the observer must reduce (collapse) it to non-contradictory terms.

In Time for Lear the members of the Theatre Laboratory use Alexander Shurbanov’s recent Bulgarian translation of the play text, which alone refreshes the viewers’ understanding of King Lear with its point-device, up-to-date, mellifluous language. What is more, the cuts and adaptations they have made to the text are informed by a close reading of the play with the foremost Bulgarian Shakespeare scholar and translator. Expectably, in the production @lma @lter also employ their overarching principle – Jerzy Grotowski’s idea of stripping down histrionic pretence to lay bare the actors’ genuine intimacy and opening theatrical space, both material and mental, to involve the audience as much as possible – which is, as usual, rendered on the stage by means of metadrama, improvisation, interaction with the audience and physical theatre (under the choreography of Petya Yosifova). This time the Grotowski effect is enhanced further by the creative and unconventional (de)construction of the central hero of the play.

All in all, by providing this innovative perspective on the tragedy and reminding its viewers that the human consciousness actually works in quantum reality, Time for Lear foregrounds some of the main concerns of Shakespeare’s play – that reality is not casual and reductionist and that the individual is not a stable construct but rather a dynamic, infinitely complex process of oscillation between possible states of affairs: life and death, wisdom and madness, something and nothing, light and shadow, nature and culture, stability and catastrophe, past and future, self and other, parent and child, etc. Thus, the viewer can either agree with Beckett that life is simply too complex to be understood and therefore meaningless, or with the proponents of Quantum Aesthetics that life itself is the meaning and as such should be enjoyed in its multiplicity and complexity rather than reduced into rational non-contradictory terms.

Keeping Me Up All Night: Review of Richard, Richard Who? (adapted and directed by Nikolay Georgiev and the @lma @lter Student Theatre-Laboratory) at the Theatre Hall of Sofia University, Bulgaria, 9 April 2012

Georgi Niagolov

@@richardIn terms of structure Nikolay Georgiev’s adaptation of Richard III is almost entirely informed by Jan Kott’s essay The Kings (in Shakespeare Our Contemporary). In the essay Kott considers Shakespeare’s history plays and extracts from them an overarching repetitive pattern: “Each of these great historical tragedies begins with a struggle for the throne … the legitimate ruler drags behind him a long chain of crimes … he murders first his enemies, then his former allies, he executes possible successors and pretenders for the crown … from banishment a young prince returns – the son, grandson, or brother of those murdered … [t]he rejected lords gather round him, he personifies the hope for a new order and justice … but every step to power continues to be marked by murder, violence, treachery; [a]nd so when the new prince finds himself near the throne, he drags behind him a chain of crimes as long as that of the until now legitimate ruler.” This pattern, Kott argues, not only foreshadows the momentous problems addressed in Shakespeare’s great tragedies: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, but also uncovers “the Grand Mechanism” of history – a scenario that has been repeating inexorably over and over again at the time of kings and princes, people’s revolutions, political struggles, and has only taken more sophisticated forms in our self-declaredly more civilized present time.

Furthermore, Kott compares the world dominated by the Grand Mechanism to the hopeless and meaningless world of absurdist theatre. Nikolay Georgiev and @lma @lter go a step further – they insert elements from Samuel Becket’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot into Shakespeare’s play. They also blend into the play Albert Camus’s Caligula – a play where the emperor is confronted with the limitations of the human condition and seeks to gain his freedom by murder and perversion of human values, translating his passion for life into a living rage against the machine. Finally, Nikolay Georgiev and @lma @lter mix Richard III with Richard II, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet as well as Heiner Mueller’s Hamletmachine.

This dense synthesis of allusions was immediately introduced by Georgi Arsov (Richard) in the very beginning of the performance. He did not start with the opening soliloquy of Shakespeare’s play but used some of its general ideas to metadramatically inquire about his identity: “Well, I am Richard, but Richard who? Which one? The first, the second, the third? Henry … Edward … Old Hamlet … Claudius … Hamlet … Lear …Macbeth … Caligula?” These hypostases of the hero are gradually fleshed out by scenes and speeches, e.g. Richard pulled out a crown of barbwire musing: “for within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits” (Richard II); “In the same figure, like the king that’s dead … Why Hamlet? I have never been to Denmark … Who kills the kings? The machine of power. Heiner Mueller aptly called it ‘the Hamletmachine.’ Maybe it would have been even better if he called it ‘the Hamletcog,’ because each of us is just a cog in the machine without realizing it … The history of Richard begins and ends with the realization that it does not matter who you are once you know that you are part of the machine” (Hamlet and Hamletmachine); “What do you want? The moon … What do you want that for? Well, it’s one of the things I don’t have … some days ago a woman that I loved died. But what is love? … It is only the omen of a truth which makes the moon necessary to me” (Caligula); “Nature has forgotten us … There is no more nature” (Endgame); “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” (King Lear), etc.

All this is fittingly fused with the main emphases of Shakespeare’s plot: the seduction of Lady Anne (very powerful presence of Valeria Dimitrova); the murder of Clarence and the death of King Edward (fantastic farcical rendition of the murderers); the coronation (the barbwire crown is used); the short and hateful conversation between Richard and his mother – the Duchess of York; the courtship of Elizabeth; the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field. In the final scene Richard metamorphoses into one of the Beckettian characters that regularly appeared on the stage and metadramatically observed that if this were the script of a play, he could have ignored it, but this was the script written by history and according to it he would have to die and just before this cry: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” In a final act of revolt against the Grand Mechanism Richard calls history a strumpet (Fuck you, history, fuck you! … Fuck you instead of farewell!”) and changes his last words to: “my kingdom for a mole” dragging into the performance a final string of allusions: in The Kings Kott discusses the mole as an image of history, but borrows it from Karl Marx (“The Old Mole”) for whom it epitomizes the struggle of the working class, laboring out of sight in capitalist society until the moment when revolution erupts (Das Kapital) as well as the persevering nature of true philosophical knowledge (Lectures), who in turn borrows it from Hamlet: “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast? / A worthy pioner!” And so Richard ends: “Shut up, my heart! Silence! The rest is silence. Maybe in this silence I will meet this boy Hamlet that I so much wanted to be.”

So far this review may have created the impression that Nikolay Georgiev’s adaptation is beyond the reach of those unable to follow the profusion of clever external references, which together construct and deconstruct the identity of the central hero – that it is some kind of caviar to the general indelectable to ordinary people. This is however not so. It seems that a strand of the experimental dramatic work of the @lma @lter Student Theatre-Laboratory of Sofia University can be compared to intellectual DJ mixing and scratching. In his article Is the DJ an Artist? philosopher Brent Silby argues that the art of mixing is related to the creation of a mixset, i.e. a continuous suite of songs, which flow seamlessly into one another, whose elements interact meaningfully and symphonically keep the audience on the dance floor through ups and downs, highs and lows, light and shade, crucially, without them being aware of the transitions between individual tracks. Conversely, scratching stresses or creates patterns and conveys emotions through repetition or improvisation. I believe this is an apt comparison because I know that most viewers of Richard, Richard Who? will not be able to trace all references and allusions down to their sources, but they are mixed and scratched in such a way that this is not necessary in order to groove on to the intellectual cadence of looking for Richard. It has been certainly keeping me up all night.

Who is There to Help You? Review of Romeo and Juliet: A Sonnet of Immortal Love (adapted and directed by Nikolay Georgiev and the @lma @lter Student Theatre-Laboratory) at the Theatre Hall of Sofia University, Bulgaria, 30 January 2014

Georgi Niagolov

@@r&j2Philosophers have grappled with the problem of fatalism for many centuries approaching it from different perspectives: through the belief in theological intervention, e.g. the participation of the Greek gods in the Trojan war; theological omniscience, e.g. God’s awareness that Adam will be tempted to eat from the forbidden tree and thus commit the original sin; physical determinism, i.e. the idea that the universe is governed by strict laws of nature and given all necessary data, everything can be mathematically predicted; causal determinism, i.e. the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events; logical determinism, or the possibility to prove logically that what actually obtains is the only way things could have been and they could not have been otherwise, etc. Each of these lines of reasoning normally leads to the conviction that “human action has no influence on events” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Fatalism) or, in other words, what philosophers call “the Idle Argument”: If you are fated to die, as of course we all are, you will die regardless of whether you are taking any precautions or not. So there is no point in doing anything.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is traditionally read as a play about destiny. It is the story of “star-cross’d lovers,” things are “hanging in the stars,” Romeo feels like “fortune’s fool,” Juliet fears her “ill-divining soul,” they both have to deal with “fickle fortune,” “inauspicious stars,” “lamentable chance” and “greater power than [they] can contradict.” It is also seen as a tragedy of unawareness (see Bertrand Evans. The Brevity of Friar Laurence. PMLA, 1950), in which the characters act unaware of important information (that is however not withheld from the audience), e.g. the Montagues and the Capulets loath each other without knowing why, Romeo falls in love with Juliet without knowing that she is a Capulet, Tybalt fights with Romeo without knowing that he is the husband of his cousin, similarly Capulet pressures Juliet to marry Paris without knowing that she is already married, etc. The character that comes closest to omniscience in the play is Friar Laurence, but he crucially failed to foresee that his message will not be delivered to Romeo in Mantua, which consequently ruined his clever ruse that could have otherwise saved the day (compare with Much Ado About Nothing). In hindsight, the woeful story of the young lovers appears to be a series of unavoidable accidents that may be grimly rationalized as necessary evil to end the ruinous and futile feud of the two households, or even more pessimistically, as a moral story instructing young people to abide by the rules of their social environment.

Nikolay Georgiev’s adaptation used this dimension of the play as a dramatic background. The production began by a brief prologue, delivered by the director, in which he considered Shakespeare’s play as a Petrarchan sonnet – a bitter-sweet melancholic poem that explores the irreconcilable conflict between the limitations of life and the overpowering desire for true love. Subsequently, the concept of the sonnet was traced back to the original Old Provencal sense (little song) in a scene that framed the Shakespearean plot and was repeated again in the end. In it Konstantin Kuchev, who would later play the part of Friar Laurence, sang behind the curtain, accompanying himself on the guitar, a sad song composed by him especially for the production: “Abandoned by everyone, abandoning everyone … being lost to everyone, losing everyone … who is there to help you?” Georgi Arsov and Tanita Genova, who would play the parts of Romeo and Juliet, were kneeling on the black linoleum floor, writing on it the words of the song with chalk. Their emotional response gradually increased until they started feverishly scribbling over and over again only one word – “who.”

Against this background, Nikolay Georgiev and @lma @lter orchestrated their main concern in exploring Shakespeare’s play – the antithetical notion of free will. They rendered it on the stage through a number of theatrical means. First, they introduced a second frame to the main story, this time a metadramatic one. Before Shakespeare’s plot buckled down Georgi Arsov and Tanita Genova came out on the stage and declared “I am not Romeo … I am not Juliet.” So they figured they had to “take off the ‘not’… i.e. what they are not, and leave on only what they are.” Then, they decided that they needed two people from the audience to help them “be” Romeo and Juliet. The selected couple was placed in a special central place, thus becoming a privileged part of the audience that was consulted from time to time on what they would do or say if they had to act out a particular scene. This stratagem immediately created a play within a play within a play, by which the lead actors emancipated themselves from Shakespeare’s text – it was clearly going to be their own version of the story – and shared the responsibility for this with the audience. Second, Georgi Arsov and Tanita Genova fused together self-performed music (it turned out that Romeo could also sing and play the guitar), powerful passages from Shakespeare’s lyrical text: the shared sonnet (Act I, scene 4), the balcony scene (Act II, Scene 2), the morning scene (Act III, Scene 5) and emotionally touching make-believe: when Romeo found that they have no balcony on the stage, he got down on all fours and let Juliet climb on his back – a gesture that was later returned by Juliet who made the parapet by placing her forearms on top of each other. In effect Georgi Arsov and Tanita Genova managed to convey to the audience that love is a force of freedom – a force that may transcend the limitations of time and space, fact and fiction, physical, casual or logical determinism. Third, Nikolay Georgiev’s adaptation foregrounds three main characters: naturally Romeo and Juliet, and … Friar Laurence. In fact, Konstantin Kuchev’s psychedelic, long-haired, zen-guru-hipster Friar Laurence, who played the guitar and the violin and communicated mainly through his self-composed songs and short, deep philosophical reflections – almost stole the whole show. Everything in the stylization of the good old Friar, who was of course spared any display of remorse, was a sheer celebration of liberty and free will. Although he could not help the legendary pair avoid the tragic end, he helped them defy their destiny in another dimension, that of lyrical poetry, and write the sonnet of immortal love.

The conflict between fatalism and free will may not be a particularly innovative scholarly perspective on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but it captures a very important current problem in Bulgarian society – the passivity and pessimism of its citizens. After 45 years of communist rule and 25 more of re-feudalization, corruption, clientelism, simulation of democracy and equality before the law, many Bulgarians feel that little depends on them and prefer to do nothing to change their fate because of the conviction that such efforts are destined to fail. The situation is not dissimilar in the field of education – students are encouraged to repeat and reproduce, rather than take initiative and ask unexpected questions. There is an urgent need for a force of freedom – something like Friar Laurence. The good news, however, is that establishments like the Student Theatre-Laboratory of Sofia University seem committed not only to remind us artistically of these issues, but also to work with young people and help them gain individual and social freedom through art.

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