Theatre Zong, Sofia (guest performance at Atelje 212)
This Bulgarian production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s allegorical drama, presented by the independent company Zong Theatre, is fittingly atmospheric and dreamlike.
Adaptor and director Dina Markova, together with the actor Bojan Arsov, who choreographed the show as well as creating its visual identity, has set the play in a vaguely dystopian landscape, a dreamspace as imagined by Tim Burton. The world it presents is moody and dark. It is populated by weird and sinister characters, including a goth clown, a chap in a dandyish jacket and a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, a man sporting a Bane-style facemask and wielding a baseball bat, and numerous black-sheeted creatures who look a bit like the wraiths from the TV comedy What We Do in the Shadows – faceless, hissing things.
The show opens with two perky, chirpy figures in black-and-white striped bodystockings – looking very much like the twin offspring of Beetlejuice – playing children’s games. They blow dust off a book (also black-and-white striped), and open it up, underlining one of the play’s key themes about the slppery nature of reality.
Prophesised to overthrow the kingdom when he grows up, Polish prince Segismundo has been kept imprisoned in a tower until he reaches adulthood, when he’s abruptly spat back into the world to ascertain whether or not he has grown into the usurper he was foretold to be. Unaccustomed to life outside his cell, he – perhaps inevitably – struggles with his briefly granted freedom.
Arsov plays Segismundo with his hair hidden under a bald cap, making him look like an elongated infant. He sits huddled in a cell made of stepladders, eventually emerging from his prison blinking and Bambi-limbed, naked except for a tiny black loincloth. These stepladders are the production’s main prop, They form not just his cell, but the world of the play. The actors clamber up and down them or lay planks between the rungs on which they place Segismundo’s prone body.
Arsov gives a committed and intensely physical performance. He tumbles around the stage, rolling around like a child’s wind-up toy, while staring in wonder at his new surroundings. He really throws himself to the role of this unworldly child-man, though there are moments when his performance, with his high-pitched, sing-song delivery, feels a bit grating.
There are obvious parallels to Frankenstein in the way the play explores the question of nature vs nurture, the way monsters are made – I was reminded of the way Robert de Niro’s Monster emerged from his amniotic sack in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version of Mary Shelley’s novel as Segismundo splashed about in a paddling pool on stage, water raining down on him from above. Burton’s Edward Scissorhands also came to mind as Segismundo tottered around the stage splay-fingered, uncomprehending both his environment and his own capacity to do harm. The Matrix is another obvious reference point, particularly the scene in the Wachowksis’ film in which the prisoners of the system are ‘woken’ from their captivity, hairless and weak as babies.
The question of who shapes our fate permeates the play. After various torments, Segismundo slowly evolves, becoming increasingly confident and hungrier for power. To denote this, he swaps his loincloth for a pair of gold bloomers as he sets about trying to take down his tyrannical dad.
The look of the production is one of its main strengths. Markova and Arsov excel at creating visually striking scenes. A golden gowned and crowned harpist, Irina Prvanova, plays throughout much of the production. The performers wave sparklers over their heads and let off gold glitter cannons. Arsov’s mouth becomes smeared in crimson making him look a little bit like the Joker.
The production, however, also feels quite dramaturgically one-note, even as Segismundo grows in power. Later, the stage is filled with red flashing lights and Arsov pops one down his trousers, which makes it look like he has a red throbbing cock, but this doesn’t invigorate things as much as you would hope or imagine. In spite of its visual playfulness, the production maintains a fable-like texture throughout even when Arsov is bellowing into a microphone. It remains stuck in the same register.
As atmospheric as it is and pleasing to look at, the show lacks momentum, something which is not helped by the fact that the English translation of the abridged verse play is decidedly clunky and the subtitles are often out of sync with the performance. The ensemble cast, however, provide more than capable support for Arsov and the production has a strong aesthetic sense but the show as a whole is more of a lullaby than an alarm clock.
Adaption and direction: Dina Markova//Visual identity and choreography: Bojan Arsov
Cast: Bojan Arsov, Vyara Kolarova, Konstantin Ikonomov, Ralica Petrova, Rumen Mikhailov, Vencislav Sariev, Kalojan Katitscharov
For more information, visit: ZongTheatre.com
Natasha Tripney is a writer, editor and critic based in London and Belgrade. She is the international editor for The Stage, the newspaper of the UK theatre industry. In 2011, she co-founded Exeunt, an online theatre magazine, which she edited until 2016. She is a contributor to the Guardian, Evening Standard, the BBC, Tortoise and Kosovo 2.0