How theatre can help to reawaken our faith in Europe

Some things appear in waves, others in shocks – lightning rods of clarity. My sense of how theatre might be able to deepen our understanding of what Europe is or could be came from two different shocks: one of which happened while working in China, the other in St Petersburg.

While in Beijing to rehearse The Tempest, I was invited to a Romanian production of the play that happened to be on tour. I sat next to our Chinese set designer, and when the play finished, he turned to me and said that it was “very European”.

The curious thing was that I understood exactly what he meant. I realised that while it was hard for me to think of the concrete qualities that would define contemporary European visual art, music or cinema, the idea of “European theatre” referred to something so clear that it could be casually used in conversation.

What it meant was a kind of theatre that deconstructs texts and that brings in technology, most often through video installations, microphones and projection. In this Romanian Tempest there were new scenes, a new order to the play and the use of video: a way of thinking about dramaturgy and design that I had found in recent productions from Germany, the Netherlands and in France. I thought in particular of Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III, which invents completely new sequences and works with microphones, and of Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War, which compresses three of Shakespeare’s histories into one play and uses live projection.

I also thought about how these qualities appear in the work of the most European of British directors, Katie Mitchell, whom Benedict Cumberbatch once called “a real European master craftswoman”. Her recent reworking of La Maladie de la Mort involves a live projection of a hotel room.

It dawned on me that there is such a thing as a European aesthetic: a way of making art that stretches across nations, that is highly contemporary and that – unlike many other hoped-for expressions of European identity – is actually happening. What struck me as most strange was that this aesthetic has nothing to do with the way I imagine Europe currently. When I think of Europe, I don’t think of cutting-edge technology, clever design, smashing the canon or debunking myths. I think of Rembrandt and Goya, history and tradition, and an exclusionary set of old and revered literary texts: a world of yesterday, not tomorrow.

I realised that one of the reasons I have found it so difficult to get behind Europe fully is that I felt all it promised was a continuation of the past — and a past that we know hides empire and slavery behind its paintings and boulevards. In the words of Susan Sontag, “Europe, an exercise in nostalgia? … like continuing to write by hand when everyone is using a typewriter?”

What the aesthetic of contemporary European theatre provides is a vision that is not at all nostalgic. It provides a glimpse of a Europe that I could get excited about: a Europe that looks forward, not back.

The second moment of clarity struck me in St Petersburg. Coming out of an extraordinary play, I realised that I had never come across either the Norwegian playwright, Jon Fosse, or the Russian director, Yury Butusov. Both are highly influential – Fosse was tipped for the Nobel prize in 2013 and has been translated into more than 40 languages, and Butusov won his second Golden Mask, the Russian equivalent of an Olivier award, last year.

However, Fosse is practically unheard of in Britain and Butusov is little known outside of Russia and eastern Europe. While I was raised to believe that Europe was a place where ideas circulated, this experience made me realise that this circulation rarely takes place in a truly pan-European way.

To put it slightly differently: the European Union has a bigger population than the United States but has no one newspaper that is read widely across the whole continent. No one place where, in the case of theatre, you can know what is happening from Budapest to Barcelona. Where shared trends are analysed, where all the sources for funding are listed and where the industry’s structure in each country is explained. No resource that would mean an excellent new Swedish play would not go unnoticed by someone in Spain.

Before 1989, the Hungarian novelist György Konrád said: “As long as it is impossible to go over to Vienna from Budapest for an evening at the opera without special permission, we cannot be said to live in a state of peace.” Might we rephrase this for 2019? As long as someone in Vienna doesn’t really know or care what’s on at the opera in Budapest, we cannot be said to live in a Europe that is culturally unified.

I have just been given the opportunity to work on a new play about Europe, and my sense is that the best way to use it would be to imagine where Europe’s future lies. To work, in particular, from the question of how a future Europe in which I’d like to live would look and feel. A Europe that, for example, really did something about climate change.

Sparking off this meagre hope, looking into the distance to bring alive how Europe might be a means as well as a idea: this is the work of theatre. It is required, as Shakespeare told us, that we do awake our faith.

Katie Ebner-Landy is a dramaturg, currently working with Dash Arts on Imagining Europe, to be directed by Tim Supple, and a fellow at the French Ecole Normale Supérieure

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