RAINIS'S "UGUNS UN NAKTS" ("Fire and Night") stage production by Aleksis Mierlauks at the New Riga Theater, 1911

"The curtain opens. Aizkrauklis’s castle is in the foreground. The room is painted in yellowish, pinkish palette. Ornamentation is motley and fantastical. To the left is a big stove built like a fire-place; its opening is decorated with green stones. By the stove there is a wood block with an axe. [..] In the corner to the left, a bed. By the bed, a creature wrapped in a black garment, stands some creature or rather: a black, mysterious creature. That’s Spīdola." This is how the writer Antons Birkerts described his impressions of the premiere in a letter to Rainis who was living in exile in Castagnola, Switzerland.

It was this production that launched a new era in the history of Latvian theater: in keeping with the contemporary trends, director and his ability to create a unified stage composition now played an important role. An experienced actor and director, Aleksis Mierlauks took over the production of "Uguns un nakts" from another director and, coordinating the process with the author, came up with his own conceptual framework. Relying on the enthusiasm of the entire ensemble, he created a stage production where all components were in complete harmony. The first professional Latvian set designer Jānis Kuga provided painterly sets that were ethnographically accurate and stylized at the same time. The space was perfectly suited for dramatic action. "The castle rises from the deep: one can see that because the water level, weeds, fish are going down, gradually the lights change as well. [..] It is difficult to describe the costumes, but they have all been chosen in good taste." (Birkerts)

The atmosphere was complemented by the music and songs written for the production by Nikolajs Alunāns, dances choreographed by Mārtiņš Kauliņš, and the convincing acting. In Tija Banga’s and Lilija Ērika’s interpretation, Spīdola, the main character and strong female principle embodied, was complex and very different. Komplicētu un niansēs atšķirīgu Spīdolas tēlu radīja Tija Banga un Lilija Ērika. Birkerts : "One plays better in one place, the other in another, but it is impossible to unconditionally condemn or praise either one. Ērika is a better match for the parts where Spīdola is majestic, proud, regal, [Tija Banga], being more supple and lithesome, is better where Spīdola is supposed to be mysterious. And each has her own supporters among the audience." A great success in the role of the gentle Laimdota was Biruta Skujeniece. Ādolfs Kaktiņš as the male lead Lāčplēsis was also successful, but he started his music studies in Germany in 1913 and was replaced by Eduards Smiļģis. Director Aleksis Mierlauks was interesting in the complex role of Kangars tēlu; about Gustavs Žibalts as the Black Knight that symbolized oppression Birkerts wrote: "The black blind knight looks very black, very blind, and very terrifying."

Latvian actors had already had experience with plays of different genres, yet in the production of "Uguns un nakts", Mierlauks’s accomplishment was that Rainis’s symbols were fleshed out in the characters of real people and that a balanced ensemble was created between the leads and the extras. "Uguns un nakts" was a resounding success: in its first season it was shown 44 times; by April 15, 1914, it had been shown 100 times.    

The newspaper "Jaunā Dienas Lapa" wrote after the premiere that "Uguns un nakts" will be the most accomplished performance that Latvians have hitherto had a chance to see." The production made both the theater and Aleksis Mierlauks very popular, and it represented the beginning of modern stage directing in Latvian professional theater.

Jānis Siliņš

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