- The Winter’s Tale
“Sfumato,” the technique of painting devised by Leonardo da Vinci, which achieves imperceptible transitions between the object and the surrounding air, is the ambitiously chosen name of this distinguished experimental theatre in Sofia. Their logo, the circle and square of the golden section, takes up another Leonardo image. In its center, however, instead of a perfectly proportioned figure, a stooping digitized human shape, somewhat too tall for the perfect proportion, is set on an endless journey. For Sfumato, the essence of theatre-making is process.
The website describes the theatre’s mission in the forceful language characteristic of manifestos: to make theatre that is not “deadly” (in Peter Brook’s sense of the word), nor slavishly fashionable, nor based on consumerist-driven foreign models (currently prevalent in Bulgarian culture), nor committed to a single formalized acting system, but one that reaches back for the ritual roots of theatre as communal experience; to be unabashedly Bulgarian in character.
In the context of the radical socio-economic and cultural change of the last twenty years, Sfumato has tried and, so far, managed to create an independent space for promoting work that is not commercially-driven. Though sometimes looked down upon as a minority theatre for cognoscenti and literati, Sfumato has consistently produced work of a high quality, involving both classic and modern plays. Co-founded by directors Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev in 1989 and housed, since 2004, [End Page 579] in the atmospherically restored building of a former public bath house, its 120-seat main house and two studios, have become a site of vigorous professional activity. Though the theatre does not have its own troupe, a number of actors who share its ethos regularly appear in its productions. In addition, Sfumato co-produces plays and is a venue for new writing, directors, and visiting local and international groups.
The style of programming is to organize seasons around the work of a single author—Gogol, Strindberg, Shakespeare—involving two or three productions by and about him, which continue over the next couple of seasons. Project Shakespeare includes The Winter’s Tale, and a modern play, entitled Wittenberg Revisited, by Gerogi Tanev and Ivan Dobchev, which deals with Horatio’s history after Hamlet. From what I have seen of their work, it seems that Sfumato does not deliberately load classical plays with modern issues, but seeks to find in them intonations and depths which tap into the emotional and moral passions of contemporary Bulgaria life. In a broad context still marked by painful adjustments in the aftermath of a historical tempest which transformed the country not so long ago, The Winter’s Tale, with its story of the disastrous consequences of irrational behavior and the destruction of things sacred—as friendship, family, children—abounds in situations spectators empathize with. The night I saw the play, the performance was sold out to a predominantly young audience. Just before it started, a throng of students was allowed in to sit on the aisle steps, as at Ariane Mnouchkine’s Cartoucherie in Paris. This might have run against considerations of health and safety, but made for a precious sense of excitement and togetherness. One might take a cynical view and say that the driving impulse behind this interest was not Shakespeare, but the presence of a favorite film star in the cast. Judging by the responses and silences, however, the young people were deeply involved with the play itself.
In the program blurb, director Margarita Mladenova spoke about what attracted her to The Winter’s Tale. For her, this is a spooky tale for adults–about how easy it is to destroy the things one loves, about contrition which...