Exit, pursued by a panda: the Brits bringing eye-popping Shakespeare to the Baltics

<span>Not your traditional Shakespeare … Winter's Tale at Dailes theatre. Latvia.</span><span>Photograph: Marcis Baltskars</span>
Not your traditional Shakespeare … Winter's Tale at Dailes theatre. Latvia.Photograph: Marcis Baltskars

John Malkovich is directing Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, there are dramas by Dennis Kelly and Duncan Macmillan, Sarah Ruhl adapts Eurydice, and The Play That Goes Wrong is packed to the rafters. You might well be surveying London-wide theatre listings but this is the singular programme at Dailes theatre in Riga, Latvia’s capital where, alongside some American heavyweights, British talents are at the forefront this season.

Among them are writer-director Jeff James and designer Rosanna Vize with an eye-popping version of The Winter’s Tale, commissioned by Dailes’s artistic director, Viesturs Kairišs. It opens with Hermione pleasuring herself to VR porn, reimagines Bohemia as a deadly video game and turns theatre’s most famous stage direction into the supporting character of a hot-headed panda.

Time’s “swift passage” speech, fast-forwarding 16 years in the plot, is just about all that remains from the original text, although Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) is shrewdly added and complemented by a scene featuring Leonard Cohen’s Treaty (“I wish there was a treaty / between your love and mine”). It ends with a full ensemble jig to Beyoncé’s Texas Hold ’Em. Did I mention the nuptials are officiated by a banana avatar?

“What I am doing would be illegal in the UK,” says James with a laugh, a couple of hours before the show’s premiere on a sweltering May evening. Completely rewriting Shakespeare could well be met with frosty suspicion at home. Never mind setting half the play inside a video game filmed with characters wearing “beautiful, insane, faux heads” and shown on a huge screen which mostly obscures the stage actors who stomp around behind, their oversized red boots poking out underneath.

“These are quite obviously distancing effects,” he deadpans. “But I would say that even these effects in combination are not as distancing as performing The Winter’s Tale in the original Shakespearean verse. I think that is the ultimate alienation effect. To take the story and structure of the play and find a kind of contemporary language and world for it, makes the play – I hope – much more immediate to an audience today.” It is an often daft yet clever and ultimately moving evening, which knowingly toys with the risible elements of the original play yet honours its delicate blend of hope and regret.

Vize has designed an office playground in pink and yellow to suit this play about injured innocence and a childish tyrant. The Silicon Valley company AppZapp is ruled by billionaire boss Leo (the Leontes role) who has built a Bohemia metaverse, where baby Rose will be spirited away. Everyone is in disguise in Shakespeare’s Bohemia, James points out. “I thought: where do people go today and appear to be someone they are not? The internet.”

The trial runs for Leo’s game have led to the deaths of several players, ratcheting up his trepidation and helping to explain his suspicion that Hermione is having an affair – something directors often have to work hard to establish. James, who happened to be expecting a second child with his partner while writing the script, was interested less in Leontes’s sexual jealousy than in the character’s anxiety about having another child. “I thought, is there a story here of birth trauma and postnatal depression, and a really complex shared experience that Hermione and Leontes had?” It is this fear that ultimately leads Leo to accuse Hermione of infidelity. “If you’ve got someone who is shaping the whole world through their technologies, and has staggering wealth, what could a man like that do if he had this mistaken idea?”

How did Kairišs react to James’s suggestion that he totally rewrite the play? “He said ‘you can do whatever the fuck you like’,” laughs James, who got the gig after being recommended by Ivo van Hove, with whom he worked as an associate director on several productions. Directors may be given greater power outside the UK, James says, “but therefore you have more responsibility, as Spider-Man tells us! So they will go with your idea, but it’s on you whether it lives or dies.”

Vize, who is preparing for collaborations in Sweden next year with director Maria Aberg, says that we tend to simplify a contrast between how theatre is made in the UK and the rest of Europe. “It seems to me that every theatre in every European city, even separately from the others in that city, have a different sort of style.”

Dailes has an ensemble of 40 actors on staff, boasts Latvia’s biggest stage (“wider than the Lyttelton, basically the same as the Coliseum [in London]” says James) and receives substantial state funding. “They need big shows. They do not want a three-hander. Viesturs basically said the more of our actors you can use the better because we want them to be used and they want the work.” In the UK, by contrast, the conversation is more often about how few actors you could get away with using.

James recognised a chance to create something on a bigger scale than he had ever been offered in the UK, where he has worked at venues including the Royal Exchange in Manchester and Nottingham Playhouse. He and Vize say it has been an empowering experience. For Vize, that is ironically partly down to the language barrier. “The actors speak English, and the heads of the workshops do, but the actual people building and painting and sewing, they don’t really. And it forces you to properly know what it is that you want to make … I need to hand something over that doesn’t require language to express it. That pushed me to be more decisive. I think you then find yourself in a conceptually stronger place.”

When he invited Vize to design the set and costumes, James said: “We have to go big or go home … we can use this opportunity to make something as exciting as we can possibly imagine.” Brexit does not seem to have hindered the enterprise. The creative team includes their British contemporaries – dramaturg James Yeatman, composer Kieran Lucas, lighting designer Adam Silverman – as well as video artist Jakub Lech from Poland and Latvian choreographer Elīna Gediņa. Kintija Rogers, who translated James’s script into Latvian, often joined rehearsals to continue fine-tuning. Several performances will have English surtitles – Kairišs suggests that one day they will be standard for every show.

At Dailes, a show will first be programmed for a handful of performances and its reception determines how long it stays in the repertoire. (Its biggest current hit is Anka Herbut’s Rotkho, which reflects on authenticity in the art world and is directed by Lukasz Twarkowski.) There is not the immediate pressure to sell a long run of performances and there is also no preview system like the UK’s; the show opens after two dress rehearsals which are available to the public. Having a permanent acting ensemble and their own workshop allows the theatre to take more risks, James suggests, as they are not hiring freelance cast and creatives for each production.

What else is different here? A better range of desserts on offer to audiences, a longer interval – all the more time to eat them – and the procedure for taking a bow, they explain. Also, much to Vize’s delight, there are rarely dirty fingerprints left on her set. A stage cleaner regularly steps in during rehearsals. “It’s like an amazing sort of perfectionist dream.”

James and Vize say the pay is far greater than they are used to at home as Dailes is so well supported by the government; the subsidy it receives could pretty much cover the whole acting ensemble’s salaries, explains Kairišs. Both Mārtiņš Meiers (who plays Leo) and Madara Viļčuka (who plays Rose as a teenager) are new to the ensemble. Viļčuka has balanced her heart-wrenching Shakespearean role with some British-style farce courtesy of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, one of two Mischief Theatre comedies produced at Dailes this season. She also appeared in The Night of the Shining Princess by Latvian playwright Rainis (“he’s our Shakespeare”) and Leopoldstadt directed by Malkovich, who has himself performed at the Dailes and hailed the ensemble as terrifically talented.

Meiers says he has found his roles “extraordinarily demanding”, physically and emotionally. The pair agree it has been a rollercoaster start but that the ensemble quickly felt like family. Viļčuka says that, as an actor, “you can fool a lot of people, even sometimes lie to yourself, but when you’re in a company working with the same people for years they know you – and know when you are fooling yourself. They’ll tell you.” There is also a Latvian tradition of newer actors being assigned “godparents”, Meiers explains: “Someone you can talk to who will have a different perspective – actors are doubtful creatures.”

Big houses with ensembles still dominate the country’s theatre culture but nimble, smaller independent companies are emerging. Meiers says that getting a placement in a repertory theatre after training used to be vital for a stage actor, but that’s not quite the case any more.

In the past, the sheer size of the Dailes theatre has daunted some. Meiers says it makes or breaks young directors: “It requires some sort of extraordinary talent to fill this space.” James “had a precise vision” of the story he wanted to tell, he adds.

“We’ve never had anything like this on the Latvian stage,” Kairišs says of the audacious production. When he took over at the venue in 2020, he decided to showcase rising creative talent from across Europe rather than host established international megastars such as Van Hove. He likens it to a football club signing players: they don’t have the deep pockets of the Bundesliga’s Bayern Munich but are more like Borussia Dortmund, fielding future legends. He is also developing work with another of Van Hove’s British associate directors, Daniel Raggett.

Dailes’s internationalism helps to distinguish it from Riga’s other venues which include Latvia’s National theatre and the Mikhail Chekhov Riga Russian theatre, where Kairišs recently directed Hamlet: Wartime Chronicle, drawing a parallel between the war in Ukraine and the relationship between “brother nations” Denmark and Norway. “We must be a real European theatre,” he says of Dailes. “We must sell European ideas to society because of Russia propaganda … we still must fight for Europe, somehow.”

With opening night over, James boards a flight home the next day and – in another key cultural contrast – it turns out the actors will soon be leaving the theatre too. “When the sun is shining, the tickets don’t sell as well,” says Viļčuka. Winter’s Tale will pause for summer along with most of the repetory. But in cooler weather, the actors will re-enter with that panda in hot pursuit.

  • Winter’s Tale is at Dailes theatre, Riga, with English surtitles on 12 October. Chris Wiegand’s trip was provided by the theatre.