Galin Stoev: “The Hague” is a playground and an exploration of our intimate understanding of good and evil

The Showcase programme of the Varna Summer International Theatre Festival 2024 opens on 3rd June with “The Hague” by Sasha Denisova directed by Galin Stoev at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. Jacqueline Dobreva talks with the director about his work on the production.

Sasha Denisova’s play “The Hague” interweaves elements of the political and ideological reality of the Russian Federation, using a lot of documentary material. You’ve said that this is the first time you’ve reached into the political theatre. What kind of public reaction did you want to provoke with this staging?

To be honest, I did not know what to expect as a reaction, and I was not particularly interested in the people who are still today trying to sow doubts about who attacked whom, who provoked whom and who has violated all possible rules and principles of international law. The answer is simple – it is the Russian Federation, headed by its ruling criminal gang, which is proclaiming an absurd ideological narrative aimed at turning its population into cannon fodder and its country into a huge concentration camp. This sounds like a fairy tale born in someone’s sick brain, but today it is an ominous reality from which there is nowhere to hide. And despite their fantastical nature, these processes are ongoing and we are witnessing the materialisation of a dazzling mythology of evil. It was this feeling that I had to convey in a form that the viewer could understand. Sasha Denisova’s text gave me this opportunity. It is brilliantly dramaturgically constructed, and it interweaves documentary texts and testimonies with phantasmagoric scenes. It is not so much a theatre text as a terrain for play and exploration of our intimate understanding of good and evil.

In the play, the narrative is led by a little girl and everything seems like a fairy tale with the avatars of real existing persons. These faces have the red nuclear button that they wave as a testament to their primal rightfulness. We are present at a sort of Satan’s ball (after Bulgakov). I wanted the audience to watch all of this as if it were a story in a child’s head, but the elements are absolutely authentic. I wanted the viewer to throw themselves into this maze and actively watch even when they’re shocked or ashamed, and also make choices at every turn. This is a court-hearing play and the stakes are high. I wanted the viewer to understand that.

Galin Stoev

What challenges did you face putting material on stage where there was no filter between it and what was (actually) happening at the time and is still happening now?

When there is nothing to filter the immediate bleeding reality, you become that filter yourself. This is the lifeblood of any artistic act. “The Hague” doesn’t deal in villainy, “The Hague” is a sweeping ancient tragedy that unfolds in real time before our eyes. There’s no distance here, and that’s the challenge – to immerse the viewer in an almost mythological context, never for a moment letting them forget that civilians are still being bombed a few hundred miles away.

There was an intrigue about who would play Putin. Why did you choose to trust actress Radena Valkanova to play the role?

Radena and I have known each other long enough and we get along almost without words. She makes an exceptional role not because it’s Putin, but because she has to interpret a deeply uninteresting and essentially meaningless character. This is not Trump or any other odious politician with an exceptional presence. This is a KGB agent from the most impersonal sector. There is no color or power in him, only mediocrity and spite for the rest of the world. Playing Putin is an impossible task, and Radena accomplishes it in brilliant fashion. This can actually be said of all the actors in “The Hague”. The vital power of the performance comes from the collective energy of the ensemble.

“The Hague” Photo: Boryana Pandova

Through your knowledge of acting, the different situations of the actor and their complicity in the process of creating a performance, was there anything specific about your directorial approach to the actors you worked with during this rehearsal process?

I was consumed with figuring out the nature and form of the future show and the actors were one of the important elements in that process. I expected radical suggestions from them and I don’t think it was always easy. Still, I insisted that we were on the same level of awareness in relation to what was happening in reality, and this accumulated an endless wonder that turned into trepidation, which the theatre offered us to voice. The actors were not supposed to imitate the relevant real existing faces, but to capture their quintessence and make them characters in a theatrical performance. There’s an element of alchemizing horror and turning it into a game just so you can traverse this space and stay alive to bear witness. There is also an element of exorcism here. There is humour here, and audacity, and an unexpected inversion of perspective.

Boris Dalchev’s scenography plays a large role in the performance. Did the original idea change during the process? If yes – how did it evolve to reach its final result?

I told myself from the beginning that I had to work with a Bulgarian team of creative collaborators. It also comes from a desire to meet people and things I miss when I’m not here. The first remarque in the play gives a very wide scope for interpretation. The action takes place in a supermarket destroyed by a bomb, or a school, or a children’s room. What I didn’t want was realistic imagery. The real setting is the field of a child’s imagination. I needed a setting that would encompass all the concrete or contingent locations in the narrative. It was more of a mental space than a physical space. Boris managed to capture the delicate balance between stylization and concreteness, to sublimate it in the silhouettes of industrial constructions or in the debris of a vanished world. In a fundamentally white environment, Kancho Kasabov’s costumes are precisely documentary and theatrical at the same time, because these are not real faces, but their avatars, born in the mind of the child who narrates. The sound design by Emilian Gatsov-Elby and the work of lighting designer Ilya Pashnin also play an important role here.

“The Hague” Photo: Boryana Pandova

Besides being a theatre maker, you are also the artistic director of ThéâtredelaCité – Centre Dramatique National Toulouse Occitanie in France. How do you think the Bulgarian theatre is situated in the European theatre landscape?

Bulgarian theatre manages to bring out quality, but this happens sporadically. There is no state policy to valorise these processes. There is no state will or competence to articulate cultural policies and priorities. And even if they are articulated, no one knows how to structure the process of their implementation. There are no serious initiatives to promote domestic performances on international stages. I think there is a general lack of awareness of the added value that any culture with original creative potential represents. This also reflects the lack of consensus in society itself on the issue.

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