(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/7; Photo: Theodoros Terzopoulos said he would like the festival ‘to reflect the social and political reality around us’. Photograph: Marijana Jankovic.)

Festival curtain rises to debate – and discontent – over the role of drama, censorship and Russian artists

Greek theatre director Theodoros Terzopoulos recalls the piercing sense of hope that led to the staging of the first Theatre Olympics in 1995. The idea was forged somewhat befittingly, in the ancient, sacred grounds of Delphi, where he had invited luminaries of world theatre to a festival of Greek drama.

Sitting under the Greek skies to break bread and drink wine with avant-gardists and experimental dramatists he hatched a plan to bring the international community together to connect, perform and hash out artistic differences in a splendid babel of languages, all under one roof.

“It was the end of the cold war and there was hope that the world would step into a peaceful period,” says Terzopoulos, one of the founders of the Theatre Olympics and chair of its international committee. But at exactly that moment, the Balkan wars erupted. “It made me think about the ancient Greek idea for peace on which the Olympic Games are based. I thought it would be a way to meet each other in the spirit of dialogue, openness and curiosity.”

Almost three decades on from Terzopoulos’s dream of cross-industry communion, all is not well on this Olympic mount. The 10th gathering is under way in Budapest, where 400 theatre companies from 58 countries are performing their work until 1 July. It is an international gathering on a mammoth scale: 750 shows across 100 venues, with presences from as far afield as India, Mexico and Japan, as well as eminent UK companies Complicité and Cheek by Jowl in attendance.

Even before the event began, there were rumbles of discontent on the home front, with some Hungarian theatre companies refusing to take part. At the heart of the 10th festival stands the divisive figure of Attila Vidnyánszky, artistic director of the Theatre Olympics and director of the National Theatre in Budapest. Vidnyánszky is a vocal supporter of Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán – who he hails as a man of “family values” – and has been embroiled in protests staged by arts and theatre students in recent years.

The war in Ukraine, and the question of whether Russian performers can and should take part, has sparked its own protest. Vidnyánszky’s programme had a visible Ukrainian presence, with two highly anticipated productions by the Kyiv-based Ivan Franko National Academic Drama theatre. It was due to stage Albert Camus’ Caligula and Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, both plays exploring power and authoritarianism, and bearing clear parallels to the Russian invasion. But the company has pulled out over the inclusion of Russian artists, claiming that it was assured, by Vidnyánszky, that there would be no such presence in his programme.

The company cites a new work by Valery Fokin, artistic director of the Alexandrinsky theatre in St Petersburg, who sits on the Olympics committee, and a screening of the film, Petropolis, starring Anton Shagin, a Russian actor who it alleges supports the war against Ukraine.

Vidnyánszky, who had told the Guardian that the war made it “impossible” to invite Russian companies, said he found the withdrawal regrettable but defended his decision to stage Fokin’s play: “I promised that there would be no Russian troupe and there is no Russian troupe. The play entitled Rex is the Hungarian National theatre’s production, directed by Valery Fokin and written by Kirill Fokin.”

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