Monday, 19 August 2013


We miss the Edinburgh Festivals. We miss the excitement of waking up when the programme is announced, of clearing our calendars at work to give us time to look at what's coming up, of haggling over what we have to book now and what can wait until the reviews start coming in. We miss those all day sessions at the Traverse, before anything has been reviewed and everything is still unknown and potentially brilliant; and of performances in strange little spaces that we didn't even know existed.

There's nothing similar in Venice. Yes, there's a theatre scene, but this is a city of less than 60,000 people and it can't hope to compare to Edinburgh in that respect.

And then we discovered that Venice has a Theatre Biennale. I say "we" - Caroline already knew about it. I just hadn't been paying attention. It's not much more than a week in length, but contains all sorts of exciting work

We'd just come back from holiday, so, being on a limited budget and having no real idea as to what things would be like, we restricted ourselves to three performances.

Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi was a huge influence on the Theatre of the Absurd, on 20th century drama in general, and on writers such as Ionesco, Beckett, Genet and Pinter. Embarrassing, then, to admit that I've never actually seen it. The performance was from the stable of Declan Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl, so we were expecting great things. We were also expecting it to be in English. A bit of a surprise, therefore, to find it was in French with Italian surtitles.

Nevertheless, it was a fantastic piece of theatre, in a blissfully cool, air-conditioned Fenice. The most striking moment was perhaps halfway through, in a scene where Ubu summons and castigates a group of magistrates, before having them taken out and executed. And it suddenly struck me : Ubu is Berlusconi. This is an extraordinary coincidence – Donnellan cannot possibly have known this in advance – but Il Cavaliere had lost his final appeal for one of his ongoing cases only a few days previously; and had spent much of the intervening period raging against plots against him by the judiciary.

The parallels are almost perfect : a stupid, corrupt man finds himself in a position of absolute power because wielding power is the one thing he happens to be good at. And the staging - a bourgeois Parisian dinner party - could serve as a metaphor for Berlusconi's  “elegant dinners” at the Villa Arcore.

Next up was Io, Banquo at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale. Again, we'd got this a bit wrong. We'd assumed it was a performance by Tim Crouch, a frequent visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe. Instead, it was actually a piece by Crouch, interpreted by an Italian actor.

There's something of a feeling of deja vu upon entering, as the space is very reminiscent of Glasgow's Tramway :-

Crouch's play is basically Macbeth through the eyes of Banquo. A dapper man in a white suit walks up to the front of the stage, surveys the audience, and points at a man in the row in front of us.

"Imagine we are friends. Imagine we are great friends. Imagine...".

He pulls up a floorboard, reaches into the space below, and withdraws his hand, now soaked in blood.

The story is a familiar one, but it's a wonderfully charismatic performance; perhaps a little bit weakened by the audience participation element - not everyone wants to get involved, and sometimes foreigners are picked out who don't understand what's going on. Thankfully, he never picked on us.

Banquo has left the building

I was back in the UK for the weekend, and so missed Ibsen's An Enemy of the People at the Teatro Goldoni, which we expected to be in Flemish, but turned to be in German. Caroline reported that this was a first-class modern production with Bowie on the soundtrack and, yes, some slightly confusing audience participation. She returned home at around 1.00 am, a proper Festival-type hour.

So that was our first year of the Theatre Bieannale, reminding us how much we've missed good theatre. A season ticket is around the 200 euro mark - I suspect we might very well be tempted in two years time.

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