Not afraid of unexpected paths
NO99 might be considered the currently most interesting theatre in Estonia. Interesting in many aspects. They are a kind of aesthetic link between the Estonian and the European theatre scene. Their work is often original in terms of ideas, scenic solutions and themes and at the same time one can clearly see that it has influences from major current European theatre practicioners (mainly German, but also from the Benelux coutries). Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper – the founders and artistic leaders of NO99 – have themselves stated certain aesthetic influences from Castorf, Gotscheff, Gosch and Pollesch. I would add Alain Platel from what I’ve observed.
NO99 was founded in 2004 and saw it’s first premiere in early 2005. Since the very start they have tried to make a few things clear. Their intent is to stage new productions only when there is artistic will and a challenging idea, thus trying to break the tradition of theatre being a kind production line factory for entertainment. This intent was both in writing and their work stated since very early on and it seems they have managed to hold on to it fairly well.
But why this weird name – NO99? The idea behind it is that considering that routine has a somewhat deadening effect on theatre, the founders wanted themselves to be constatly reminded of the ephemeral quality of their work, of time running out. Hence the productions of NO99 are (besides having a title) always numbered in the dimishing order – NO99, NO98, NO98, NO97 etc. Narrowing in to zero, as it were. And smaller, experimental forms or performace art like projects are numbered with fractions (94.5, 93.5 etc). Thus, they said, it would take roughly 15 years to come to zero. Good to have a perspective.
I have seen most of what NO99 has done this far, but unfortunately „Oncle Tom’s Cabin“ – that is now visiting Budapest - is one of their works that I haven’t seen. So I can’t say much about it. What I however can say is that there seems for me to be a recurrent theme in many of their productions. It is a kind of alertness of the actor, a constant state of improvisation, of trying to be open for the unexpected on stage, of checking boudaries of the safe. Maybe the best example of this theme is their recent production - titled as a hommage to the happening by Joseph Beuys - „How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare“. There actors seem to be lead by Ojasoo and Semper into looking for a way of performing that has more to do with performace art and less with pure theatre. Not having a psychological role to play, no role structure and developement to follow, and having just a performance art like essential score (and lots of space in it for more or less free improvisation with no reference points) to follow is a professional challenge for the actors and undoubtedly did bring something aesthetically new into Estonian theatre.
Having visited the Budapest Festival last year I think what Ojasoo’s way of working most resembles is the Victor Bodó’s production “Council House Stories 0.1” being also rather divised theatre like in structure.
I hope NO99 will do well in Budapest and have a good contact with the Hungarian audience, a contact just as lively has it usually is when they are playing at their own house back in Tallinn.