RIGA - The Baltic history of World War II is a loaded topic, so too, the artists at Riga’s Gertrudes ielas Teatris, it was one ripe for exploration on stage. From the first line of the program, you might guess “Legionnaires” won’t be an easy play – it’s tagged as a “discussion with fight.”
With collaboration between the Gertrudes ielas theater, Sweden’s Turteatern and Finland’s Kokoteatteri, the performance is based on the story of a legion of Baltic soldiers serving in the German army who ended up in Sweden at the end of the war after the army had escaped the front. The soldiers, the majority of whom were Latvian, were predominantly conscripted into the army during the Nazi occupation of the Baltic States. They were the subject of debate between Sweden and the Soviet Union, then occupying the countries, who demanded the extradition of these soldiers.
Repatriation of displaced people was a major issue across Europe immediately after the war, and other countries where Baltic soldiers and civilians had escaped, including Britain and the United States, refused to recognize the Soviet occupation and ignored Soviet demands for repatriation. Many of those who were repatriated faced exile or prosecution, and soldiers who had served in the German army were treated as war criminals. Sweden was one of the few countries to comply with the Soviet Union.
Using the story as a basis, the play tackles the loaded topics of collective memory and historical guilt, in which Latvia’s wounds from the Second World War still feel fresh.
The play creates a space for imagining that time, when the war wounds really were fresh, when these issues were debated as current events and German was an important language in Riga; but by investigating this issue, it also looks at Latvia’s future, director Valters Silis explains.
Created by Silis with actors and writers Karlis Krumins and Carl Alm and set designer Inga Kaulina, the play is built on Latvian-Swedish tension. Set in the present day, the play takes place as an onstage discussion between the Latvian Krumins and Alm, a Finnish director from the country’s Swedish-speaking minority. The action takes place half in Latvian and half in English, with bits in German, Swedish and Finnish as well. No translation is provided, because the play is in part “about communicating when you don’t have a common language,” Valters Silis explains, a situation that frequently arose during the war. All of the dialogue is meant to be simple to understand, or understandable in the context of the emotions and action. During performances in Estonia in December, more English will be used, he says.
The story of the legionnaires is part of an ongoing historical discussion. “This historical story gives a chance to talk about what we do with history,” Silis says. The stories of Latvians conscripted into, or volunteering for the German army are exploited by the country’s right-wing movement in the present day, but alternate viewpoints sometimes suggest it’s best to forbid any discussion of this past. “These events happened a few months after World War II, and the Swedish parliament and society didn’t know what to do with these legionnaires, and we still don’t know what to do with them,” Silis says.
“It’s a nice way to talk about what’s happening in our own countries,” he says. “We are interested in these social and political questions... maybe we have to be patriots but in a different way.” Silis believes the story of these Latvian soldiers serving in the German army is one that should be discussed, but in a context where it’s not used to fuel nationalistic ideology.
The performance aims to interact with the audience, using different approaches throughout the place, including “a lot of comedy” and “political theater.” The audience plays roles in the discussion too, Silis explains – the actors address them as members of the 1940s Swedish parliament, as others in the detainee camps in Sweden, and others. “You have to participate – at least with your imagination,” Silis explains, admitting that he hated performances requiring audience participation as a shy child, but has grown to love it as an adult and uses it in his work as a director.
The ‘fight’ portion of this discussion is an example of “very physical theater” and is a manifestation of the complexity of this topic, the point at which this discussion becomes irrational. “Even rational conversation can end with a fight,” Silis says.
Performance will take place:
Oct. 7-10, Gertrudes ielas teatris, Riga (reservations email@example.com)
Oct. 13, St. Petersburg, “Baltijskij Dom” theater festival
Dec. 5, Tartu
Dec. 6, Tallinn