“TO be or not to be, that is the question.” This is probably the most famous phrase in theater history, pronounced by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in a soliloquy in the first scene of the third act of William Shakespeare’s homonymous tragedy.
It is natural to recall it now, on the occasion of the celebrations for World Theater Day, established in 1961 on a UNESCO proposal, as a tribute to the inauguration in Paris on March 27, 1948, of the International Theater Institute (ITI), which brings together representatives from all countries of the world.
French playwright Jean Cocteau was asked to write the first Message to mark the date in 1962, and every year since, a personality from the world of theater has been invited to do the same, with past stars including Dario Fo, Edward Albee, Peter Brook, Wole Soyinka, Eugene Ionescu, Arthur Miller, Luchino Visconti, Maurice Bejart, John Malcovich and Richard Burton.
Mexican playwright Victor Hugo Rascón Banda (1948-2008) proclaimed in his Message in 2006: “Theatre moves, illuminates, disquiets, disturbs, lifts the spirit, reveals, provokes and violates conventions. It is a conversation shared with society. Theatre is the first art to confront emptiness, shadows and silence to make words, movement, lights and life surge forth.”
This year was the turn of French star Isabelle Huppert who, like all her performances, provided a great speech.
THEATER IS DIALOGUE, THE ABSENCE OF HATRED
This year’s message read: “So, here we are once more. Gathered again in Spring, 55 years since our inaugural meeting, to celebrate World Theatre Day… Indeed, theatre has such a thriving life that it defies space and time; its most contemporary pieces are nourished by the achievements of past centuries, and even the most classical repertories become modern and vital each time they are played anew. Theatre is always reborn from its ashes, shedding only its previous conventions in its new-fangled forms: that is how it stays alive.”
For Huppert, “World Theatre Day then, is obviously no ordinary day to be lumped in with the procession of others… When thinking of this message, that I feel honoured to have been asked to write, I remembered all the dreams of all these scenes. As such, it is fair to say that I did not come to this UNESCO hall alone; every character I have ever played is here with me… Phaedra, Araminte, Orlando, Hedda Gabbler, Medea, Merteuil, Blanche DuBois…. Also supplementing me as I stand before you today are all the characters I loved and applauded as a spectator. And so it is, therefore, that I belong to the world. I am Greek, African, Syrian, Venetian, Russian, Brazilian, Persian, Roman, Japanese, a New Yorker, a Marseillais, Filipino, Argentinian, Norwegian, Korean, German, Austrian, English – a true citizen of the world, by virtue of the personal ensemble that exists within me. For it is here, on the stage and in the theatre, that we find true globalization.”
This icon of European cinema recalled that her predecessors in this role spoke about “the theater of imagination, freedom, origin, and originality in order to evoke beauty, multiculturalism and pose unanswerable questions.” She noted that for her the theater is “dialogue, and it is the absence of hatred. ‘Friendship between peoples’ – now, I do not know too much about what this means, but I believe in community, in friendship between spectators and actors, in the lasting union between all the peoples theatre brings together – translators, educators, costume designers, stage artists, academics, practitioners and audiences.”
THE OMAR VALDÉS PRIZE AWARDED IN HAVANA
Huppert, one of the greatest contemporary actresses with an impeccable filmography, is also greatly admired in Cuba, with audiences recalling her participation in the 2012 Havana French Film Festival, when she attended a retrospective of her films, including Story of Women, by Claude Chabrol. This year she was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, for her impressive performance in the film Elle, directed by Dutchman Paul Verhoeven.
Havana also saw celebrations to mark World Theater Day 2017, and the Message by the French actress was read by Cuban actor Alexis Días de Villegas at the headquarters of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC).
As part of the festivities, the 2017 Omar Valdés Prize, awarded by the Association of Performing Artists to prominent figures of Cuban theater for their life’s work, was presented.
It should be remembered that Omar Valdés (1929-1993) formed part of important theater companies such as Ocuje, Conjunto Dramático Nacional, La Rueda, Taller Dramático Latinoamericano and Teatro Estudio.
On this occasion, four prizes were awarded, to Freddy Núñez Estenoz, theater director from Camagüey; and Humberto Rodríguez, director of the theater group of the Olga Alonso amateur artists’ movement, from which Cuban stars such as Corina Mestre, Jorge Perugorría and Bárbaro Marín have emerged.
The other two winners were renowned stage designer Vladimir Cuenca, who has worked with important companies such as Teatro El Público, and on numerous Cuban films and international productions; and celebrated children’s theater director, Martha Díaz Farré.
Every day is an opportunity to celebrate the theater. Let us return then to Isabelle Huppert and her wise Message: “Theatre is always reborn from its ashes.”