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Swiss theatre director breaks with tradition at Vienna’s Rathausplatz

The idea of reflecting on the current global-political situation with the means of art and a spirit of optimism was the guiding principle of the opening evening
The idea of reflecting on the current global-political situation with the means of art and a spirit of optimism was the guiding principle of the opening evening. Keystone

Swiss theatre director Milo Rau wanted to break with tradition at the opening of his first edition of the festival on Vienna's Rathausplatz. With the proclamation of the Freien Republik Wien (Free Republic of Vienna), the start of the festival on Friday evening was unusually political.

Pop acts such as the Russian feminist protest and performance art group, Pussy Riot and Austrian group Bipolar Feminin took the stage. Statements from Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek and German ship captain and conservation scientist, Carola Rackete, evoked a spirit of resistance that had to walk a fine line between party, pathos and slogans.

It was clear prior to the beginning of the event that Swiss director Rau would not only not shy away from controversy, but instead would make it part of the programme, so to speak. With the lively discussion surrounding philosopher Omri Boehm’s Speech to Europe, the Council of the Republic, which included controversial proponents, and the ultimately cancelled invitation of Teodor Currentzis, who was accused of lacking distance from the Kremlin, the festival has been the talk of the town for weeks.

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The idea of reflecting on the current global-political situation with the means of art and a spirit of optimism was the guiding principle of the opening evening, which lasted more than an hour and a half. However, until the very end, it was not entirely clear how serious the Swiss theatre director and his team were about the idea of a revolution in civil society.

 Storming the town hall

Right at the start of the show, the takeover of the Freien Republik Wien (Free Republic of Vienna), was staged as an assault on City Hall. A video was shown on the screens in which Festival Director Rau, Burg actress Bibiana Beglau acted as a moderating  duo throughout the evening. Herwig Zamernik, also going by Fuzzman, the musical director of the opening programme, took a seat at the mayor’s desk and then, followed by the camera, hurried through the corridors of City Hall towards the stage, while snatching folders from the hands of supposed bureaucrats. Irony or platitude? We don’t really know.

At the same time, an armada of insurgents, which later functioned as a choir, made it up on stage to sing the first of the two republic anthems All Colours is Happiness with Fuzzman: “Go home, capitalists! You’ve achieved nothing!” was the catch phrase, “We’ve made ourselves beautiful for you fucking racists!”

When selecting the musical acts, which made up around half of the programme, Zamernik opted for politically active pop group of various kinds. The Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, for example, performed their protest song “Putin has pissed himself” to the estimated 36,000 visitors on site.

Swiss representation also present

The musical performances were intertwined with recorded greetings and live statements from international activists and artists such as the nature conservation ecologist Carola Rackete, Pussy Riot member Diana Burkot, the Ukrainian director Stas Zhyrkov, the Swiss non-binary author Kim de l’Horizon, who won the German Book Prize two years ago, and also Swiss author Sybille Berg.

Here, the current issues, such as climate change, racism, war and gender identity, were discussed.  The Freien Republik Wien (Free Republic of Vienna), was touted as a possible place of solidarity, equality and self-empowerment, sometimes rather humorously, sometimes combatively, sometimes with a tendency towards pathos.

However, the seriousness of arguably important concerns was in danger of being undermined by sometimes strange visual language. For example, at one pint the screens suddenly showed a Molotov cocktail being thrown or Austrian rapper with Croatian roots, Kid Pex made a statement of “Guantanamo of Austria”.

The Middle East conflict also crept into the evening, although not as part of the show. A banner appeared on stage demanding peace and freedom for Palestine. It later disappeared. You can of course express your opinion in the Free Republic, but you also have to realise “that you are waving the flag for a terrorist regime here”, responded Fuzzman, while director Rau more or less ignored the matter.

No sparks of a revolution

Rau scored a small victory with the video message from the publicity-shy Nobel Prize winner for literature, Elfriede Jelinek. The authors video message contribution revealed a vague reservation about the absolute commonality of a cause, no matter how worthy of support: “We’ll do the cooking. I can’t cook, but I like to see what comes out, and then I want to be a part of it too, without being consumed by the fire I’m carefully circling.”

At the end, Fuzzman and his Singing Rebels performed the Hymne der Republik (Anthem of the Republic). The audience did not fully engage in the call to sing along.

Over 100 performances at 34 venues

There is still time to catch a show, as the Freien Republik Wien (Free Republic of Vienna), with its 100-strong “Council of the Republic” which is made up of experts, intellectuals and citizens – Jelinek, Berg and Zhyrkov – will continue until June 23. This year’s festival features a total of 47 productions and artistic projects, with a focus on participatory formats and projects with free admission. Some of the best-known names include Kornél Mundruczó, Florentina Holzinger, Kirill Serebrennikov and Tim Etchells. A total of 45,000 tickets will be sold for the 143 performances, which are planned between 34 venues.

The political programme is likely to continue to occupy more than just the festival community. The Vienna branch of the Austrian People’s Party announced on Friday that it would be submitting an urgent request of revision to Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig at the upcoming council meeting next Wednesday, as the festival – “sponsored by the City of Vienna – provides a stage for extremist views”.

Adapted from German by DeepL/amva

This news story has been written and carefully fact-checked by an external editorial team. At SWI swissinfo.ch we select the most relevant news for an international audience and use automatic translation tools such as DeepL to translate it into English. Providing you with automatically translated news gives us the time to write more in-depth articles. 

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