(Afrifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/15; Photo: Maria Aberg in the south of Sweden where she grew up. Photograph: Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz.)
The acclaimed Swedish director’s Projekt Europa will have a UK residency in Kent and collaborate with migrant theatre-makers
Maria Aberg was having one of the busiest times of her 20-year theatre career when the pandemic hit. But a month after theatres closed last spring, she was almost ready to give up on being a director despite a sparkling track record. Much of it was down to the disappointment of an aborted season of European theatre she had conceived for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which meant years of work down the pan. “It was completely devastating,” she says.
Aberg had begun preparing the RSC season, Projekt Europa, just after the EU referendum in 2016, and its focus on European theatre felt profoundly personal. “I’m a Swede who has lived in Italy, Berlin, Ireland and then in the UK for 20 years [she moved to London to study drama at Mountview]. I consider myself totally European. It was the culmination of years of interest and curiosity about European theatre-makers.”
Aberg was “not going to let it all disappear” and has launched a phoenix-like theatre company, Projekt Europa, whose focus is emphatically outward-looking. It will work with migrant theatre-makers, and hopes to configure new ways to stage work across the UK, Europe and the world. “I want to collaborate in a profound way, not just arrive somewhere, perform the show and pack up our bags again. I’m interested in collaborating in a deeper way with community groups and audiences.”
Setting up an international theatre company when the industry lies in fearful pause might be seen as high risk but what interested Aberg was the enthusiasm she encountered from so many quarters. “I began contacting people around Europe, from production houses to festivals and agents. I also started thinking about international collaboration. Because of the pandemic, people really wanted to talk, and they were excited about the work and ideas. Brexit hadn’t made anyone think that Britain wasn’t interesting any more.”
Neither does she think that British theatre will be diminished by Brexit or be any less European in its tradition. “It is a part of Europe whether or not it is in the EU. Britain’s history is European history. That legacy cannot be denied. It’s rich and it’s an asset. It’s food for creativity and thought.”
Her company has already found a UK residency at the Marlowe theatre in Canterbury, whose chief executive, Deborah Shaw, is a “real internationalist” says Aberg. “The location, which is the closest part of the UK to Europe, is very serendipitous.”