Friday, 29 June 2018

Theatre: Astoria (4 Stars)

This is a play written by the Austrian playwright Jura Soyfer in 1930. It's about the fictional kingdom of Astoria. An American countess – is there such a thing? – wants to give her husband a country for his birthday. She creates the country of Astoria with its own language and culture; it's only missing one thing: it has no land. This makes it a paradise on Earth. There's no unemployment and no poverty. Thousands of people want to become Astorians, so they're given citizenship, but they aren't allowed to live in the country. The Astorian population is in exile. When Astoria declares war it's at an advantage, because its enemies don't know where to drop their bombs.

Despite the comedy it's a philosophical play. What makes a country a country? Does Astoria exist or doesn't it?

The play was performed by amateur actors, the Obersontheim Theatre Group, to which my son also belongs. They put on a magnificent performance. An alienation technique was used to separate the play from reality. At the beginning the theatre director came out and addressed the actors. He told them, "This isn't a performance, it's the dress rehearsal. You can ignore anyone watching you. Your performance doesn't have to be perfect. If you forget your lines you can pick up the script and read it".

It's difficult to believe the play was written as early as 1930, because there seemed to be parallels with the Nazi regime. In one shocking scene there was a military putsch in Astoria. The leader of the army said, "I can restore law and order in Astoria on one condition: you have to give me control of the country".

Jura Soyfer was a Jew who was born in Ukraine in 1912. His family fled to Austria in 1921 after Russia occupied Ukraine. He became a politically active Marxist. He wrote satirical pieces for Communist newspapers in Vienna. He was arrested in 1938 for his Communist activities and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. Interestingly, it was not known that he was Jewish. He died of typhoid on 16th February 1939, one day before he was due to be released and allowed to emigrate to the USA.

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