VILNIUS, Lithuania - The curtain rises on a "Macbeth" with much of the dialogue and half the characters thrown out, and it was already Shakespeare's shortest play. No matter. The curtain doesn't fall again for another four hours.
It's the spaces between the words that count when director Eimontas Nekrosius puts on a play - and there are plenty of them. Once, when he was a young man and his foes were Soviet censors, his audiences could fill those spaces with sharp and revelatory political meanings. But for the past decade, politics has been banished to the newspapers. Now, with Shakespeare himself as his antagonist, Nekrosius is looking to fill those spaces with something else, with visual meditations on weakness, destiny and sin.
For 10 full minutes, the three witches - the Weird Sisters, who aren't weird at all but are attractive, mischievous young women - worry and fuss over a cauldron without a word being spoken, finally turning it over and propping it up as a trap for whoever should come along. Who comes along, of course, is Macbeth.
Vilnius is a city of just under 600,000. Fewer than 4 million people speak Lithuanian. Working here, without a theater to call his own, Nekrosius has become one of the most heralded directors in Europe, if not the world.
He was once a rebel, and now he's the giant of the theater here. He's been weighted down with decorations. He has astonished audiences at festivals in Paris, in Milan, in Warsaw, in England, in Chicago, in Moscow - especially in his beloved Moscow. He once filled his productions with pain and sincerity, but he says he's moved beyond that now. His friends say the move was a brilliant step that took him to a higher level. His critics say he has been abandoning his roots.
At the age of 47, Nekrosius has achieved distinction and, like Macbeth, finds himself staring into a trap - the trap of his audiences' expectations, of the small world of Vilnius, of success itself. A talent like his, says Marina Zayonts, a Moscow critic and longtime friend, either flourishes or fades. The choice belongs to the artist.
But Nekrosius is a difficult man, and he's not going to make it easy on himself. He demands a sort of perfection, and as he gets older that becomes harder, not easier. He has told friends he would quit the theater in a minute, if he could figure out how to support himself and his family.
In some ways it's the classic dilemma of the artist who's not only at the peak of his powers but coming to some understanding of those powers as well - except that in Nekrosius' case, that dilemma is amplified by the changed world he finds himself in, a personal and political context that has transformed utterly since he first took to the stage.
He grew up in a little village in the lowlands of western Lithuania, and throughout his career his plays have been filled with allusions to the pagan folklore of the Raseiniai region. In his early 20s, he studied at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theater Art in Moscow, where his potential as a director was quickly spotted. These were what he calls "the beautiful days of my youth."
From backwater to capital, from nothing to the center of the Soviet theater world. Here were the living traditions of the Russian stage. To this day, he said in a recent interview, he finds a mediocre production in Moscow more stimulating than the best anywhere else in the world.
Nekrosius, given a post with the Vilnius State Theater, returned in 1977. In those Brezhnev years, the theater was where the boundaries could most successfully be pushed. An actor could give an entirely new meaning to a line with a simple gesture, a raised eyebrow perhaps. What could the authorities do about implications, particularly in a live performance, which leaves no permanent record?
Nekrosius' fans saw politics in everything he did, though it was a personal sort of politics. But even to think about politics in the Brezhnev era was to dwell upon pain, betrayal, the distortion of human relations. In this, Nekrosius excelled.
"He's always been very talented," says Zayonts, "but this talent was that of a man who had been clamped down. His fantasies were virtually those of a sick person. He just splashed out everything that was inside him. He was trying to get rid of his own personal complexes."
In the Soviet era, says the Lithuanian critic Ramune Marcinkeviciute, when words had lost all meaning, Nekrosius sought authenticity in metaphorical imagery. His plays were, above all, visual experiences. Nekrosius subordinated the text to the image. He became director-as-playwright.
In 1984, Nekrosius took the first Lithuanian troupe abroad since before World War II. (They went to Belgrade.) In 1985, American playwright Arthur Miller, in Vilnius for a conference, proclaimed Nekrosius "some kind of genius."
Aleksei Bartoshevich, a theater professor in Moscow who once had Nekrosius as a student in his course on Shakespeare, calls the director "a visionary and a mystic."
"His plays were manifestations of his dreams, of his inner complexes," Bartoshevich says. "He would have died if he hadn't had this release."
In January 1991, Soviet troops attacked protesters at the television tower in Vilnius, killing 14. In August, a hard-line coup collapsed in Moscow, and Lithuania proclaimed its independence. After that bright moment the country descended into a period of stalled reforms, vicious recriminations, back-stabbing politics and gangsterism.
Nekrosius went into a sort of parallel crisis. His father died. He may have had heart trouble himself - he definitely had health problems. He tried to do a "King Lear" and gave up. He went home to his boyhood village. For three years he produced nothing.
In 1994, he reappeared in Vilnius with a trio of Alexander Pushkin's "Little Tragedies."
It was as if a leash had been taken off," says Zayonts. "It was a performance staged by a free man without any personal complexes. Something happened to him that now allows him to stage works of genius."
Since then he has put on "The Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov, "Hamlet," with the Lithuanian rock star Andrius Mamontovas in the lead role, and "Macbeth."
No longer constrained by Soviet restrictions, he has taken these productions to theater festivals throughout Europe, earning the money to keep his projects going and winning widespread acclaim.
"It was Nekrosius who made the outside world notice our theater," says Marcinkeviciute. "It might be boring, when the season begins, to know that Nekrosius' play will be the best one, and Nekrosius' actors will win the awards, but that's the way it is."
Capacity for sin
With the success, of course, comes resentment, particularly in the small world of Vilnius. Younger directors, who came of age in the theater admiring this one-time rebel, reproach him now for his fantasies; they earnestly advocate instead a style of "radical realism." Audiences feel that his works no longer speak to them, as Lithuanians, the way his earlier plays did.
"Of course, he's more oriented toward the audiences abroad," says Marcinkeviciute. At one time, she argues, you could feel the aspirations of the Lithuanian people in his works. "But you don't see this in 'Macbeth.' 'Macbeth' has very clearly broken away from the Lithuanian tradition. It's for an international audience."
Nekrosius spends months rehearsing a new play. Partly this is because he and his actors are often traveling. Partly, he says, it's a way to give himself time not to hurry. The conception and the imagery come together in the rehearsals. A man of very few words, he directs his actors with a slight gesture, a movement of an eye, a low muttering. He has worked with the same actors for years. Putting one of his plays together is a collaborative process in principle; in the end, the productions are strictly creations of his own imagination.
"He's always waiting, expecting something, expecting something extraordinary from you," says Dalia Storyk, who plays Lady Macbeth and has known Nekrosius since they were in school together 25 years ago.
Nekrosius works only with classics; there is nothing, he says, in the contemporary theater of any value. In his productions, text and subplots and characters are stripped away, leaving the barest essence from which to build four hours or so of theater. Some directors have staged "Macbeth" as a political play, others as a treatise on ambition. For Nekrosius, it's a play about a man's capacity for sin.
"I was always afraid to touch Shakespeare," says Storyk, who also appeared in "Hamlet." "I suddenly understood it was not that complicated. It was sort of simple. It's very human."
Simple, perhaps, but, under Nekrosius, undeniably different. Here Macbeth and his comrade Banquo first enter carrying trees on their backs, a foretaste of the end. When Banquo is murdered, it is done with axes, a choreographed storm that fall into a timber alongside the Scottish lord, nine axes embedded as if in his back, their handles ending up parallel. Later, a tree appears as Banquo's ghost.
As Macbeth, Kostas Smoriginas, another longtime Nekrosius actor, plays the dagger scene looking into a handheld mirror, trying with his free hand to keep the mundane rituals of life going, to pour some tea into a cup. But, peering only into the mirror, watching everything reversed, he spills and sloshes the tea in growing agony. He is, very visibly, undone by what he is about to do.
Stones rain from the sky. Macbeth, who derisively asks a soldier if he is afraid of geese when Birnham Wood begins moving toward Dunsinane, is taunted by honking geese. The dead appear as geese. Macbeth is decapitated in the end, his head placed in an oven that turns it red-hot.
"It's about a sin which can't be repented," says Zayonts.
Does a play like this have less to say to Lithuanians, is it less exquisite, than the daring and powerful productions of Soviet times? Is it less honest?
Nekrosius parries the criticism. "Perhaps the feelings of the people watching my plays have become more blunt," he says.
But this isn't sufficient, and he knows it. "Then again, I am no longer young, and it is only when you are young that you can express that joy and pain."
Yes, he agrees, "Macbeth" is less heartfelt. "But it is not out of some purpose. The longer you work in the theater, the less sincerity there is. All the natural sincerity comes only in youth. The longer you work, the more callused you are."
Nekrosius has refused offers to work abroad. "Among my colleagues," he says, "I can see that when the quality of their work goes down, that's when they go abroad. I shall only go to work abroad when I can't work at home. Everybody knows you here, knows your intonations, knows your routine. That's what makes it difficult. It makes you look for new edges."
And yet, he's restless for something. He has been asked to do an opera in Florence. That would be working abroad, but in another medium - one that gives the director even more autonomy than drama, and one that pays well.
"I'm tired of the theater," he says. "The theater is not literature, it's not painting, it's not music. It's nothing that stays. If you listed all the arts, I'd put it in last place."
Nekrosius' friends say he's not trying to be provocative when he says things like that. He means them. The theater is hard work that keeps getting harder, and it's unsatisfying, in some profound way, particularly when everyone expects every play to be a triumph.
It's unsatisfying because right now he's wrestling with "Othello," Shakespeare's headlong descent into evil. It's the playwright's narrowest and most concentrated tragedy; it should be a natural for Nekrosius. Yet it's been in rehearsal for months, longer than any other play he's done, and it's not there yet. He still hasn't found a way to strike down to the simplicity. He hasn't yet filled the spaces between the words.