If you’re passing the Palau de la Virreina on the Rambles or staring up at any of the lampposts around Barcelona, you’ll see some rather optically-challenging ads for a summer event called the Grec, an annual performing arts festival of some 141 acts, plus discussions and other activities that go on through July. Its name derives from the expansive amphitheatre a bit up Montjuic, built in 1929, and close to the Plaça Margarida Xirgu (Plaça Espanya metro) where the Teatre Lliure, the Institut de Teatre and the dance space Mercat de les Flors are pinpointing this space as the apex of the festival. This concrete square, variably used as a cricket ground for local Catalan-Pakistani kids, a scenario for skateboarders or a car park for the above venues, has never really taken off as the hub of the arts it was meant to be, but they keep plugging at it, and a pop-up café outside the Mercat helps.
The Grec itself is a stunning space at night, with a garden up top and the amphitheatre semi-circular and backed by a rocky wall making certain acts there a lovely experience for an audience. Staging dance, however, can be either spectacular or a bit lost, depending on the production. Last year, Valencian troupe La Veronal found competing with the setting and playing to such a big audience a bit of a challenge, a fact taken into account by the festival organisers, for much of the festival unfolds in the city’s main theatres: the Lliure and Mercat, the Romea, the CCCB, La Villarroel … Sala Hiroshima with its burlesque – if pricey – bar and the Antic Teatre with its enviable terrace does the wackier stuff; and there is some wacky stuff, with a very Barcelonesque nudge to the ‘new’ – “new formats, new productions, new creators, new angles”. Among them, a 7-hour piece called F.R.A.U, that, the festival director Ramon Simó admitted (with typical good humour): “God knows how will turn out … but is sure to leave no one indifferent!”. Buy a ticket if you dare.
The Grec plugs itself as international, hybrid and accessible to all publics – combining dance, theatre, music and visual arts, plus things for the kids. It has a website in English. Yet it is mainly theatre in Catalan. There are a few significant productions brought in from beyond Catalonia: Spanish, Latin American and this year you’re in luck if you’re Flemish/Dutch – with Ivo Van Hove’s De Stille Kracht (La Força Oculta) based on the writings on Java by the 19th century travelling Dutchman Louis Couperus, and Anton Chekhov’s lesser-known play Platonov staged by Belgian troupe NTGent – both productions are subtitled in Catalan only.
By ‘international’ then, Simó refers, in terms of theatre, to the playwrights: this year, Catalan versions of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (Les Bruixes de Salem) opens the festival, Miller’s The Price (El Preu) is also on, and there is contemporary stuff with Abi Morgan’s Splendour (Esplendor), and Jennifer Haley’s contemplation of the virtual world The Nether (L’Inframón) – all of which you can buy and read beforehand if you like. Simó also may refer to co-productions with ‘international creators’ – again generally in Catalan, or to ‘prescient themes’ that concern the international community – such as the nasty world of finance (see the Spanish-language piece by local troupe Conservas: Hazte Banquero. Tarjetas Black, a take on the ongoing dreadful Bankia saga, or the Italian playwright Stefano’s Massini’s Lehman Trilogy, in Catalan, that explores the Lehman Bros. breakdown), there are also pieces on the (related) world of politics, such as Confessió d’un ExPresident, gender issues (MDLSX by troupe Motus is in Italian subtitled in Catalan), the digital world…, and so forth – all swivelled in a local direction.
This encourages, the director says, a “thorough interrogation of ourselves”, albeit one that takes place behind the curtain of language. There is the oft-mentioned ‘international projection of Catalan acts’, too, the job of which, in the absence of English subtitles, is mainly done by Looking For Drama.
Circus / Dance / Musical Productions
If the language worries you, it’s not all theatre. Simó, in his last year (of 5) as director, comes from a visual theatre background and was formerly the director of the Fira de Tàrrega. As a consequence, in recent years the festival has swung in this direction: musical theatre and circus are worth looking out for as they’ll be less language leaning and likely high quality.
His predecessor, the Argentine Ricardo Szwarcer, tried to introduce more international dance to the festival – budget permitting, and there is still a bit… international highlights this year are the prestigious Alonzo King Lines Ballet company from the US and the Israeli troupe Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company – both pretty prominent.
Music is probably the biggest draw for a non-Catalan speaking audience. See the list of musical acts here – it’s well worth catching one put on in the Grec itself.
More soon …