[ . DOC   « »   2002, ]
“The Independent” (6-03-2002)


Russian theatre is finally addressing
modern concerns — thanks, in part, to the
Royal Court. Paul Taylor went to see how a
London theatre helped Moscow's
dramatists to find a voice

06 March 2002

In one of the oldest parts of Moscow, to the east of Red Square,
there's a stocky white building called the English Court. It was
restored in honour of the Queen's state visit to Russia in 1994
and it boasts (if that's the right word) a framed photograph of Her
Majesty signing the visitors' book. Ivan the Terrible, who had
unavailing marital designs on Elizabeth I, donated the house as a
kind of embassy for the English traders who began commerce
with Russia in 1553.

A fortnight ago, I visited this place in the company of a young
Moscow dramatist, Alexander Rodionov, and confronted by one
of the rooms, we both burst out laughing. In opposite corners,
there's an exhibition of relics and facsimiles of the wares that the
two countries initially exchanged. Sixteenth-century England
does not come out of this comparison smelling of roses. In the
Russian corner, the items are all pacific and nurturing (honey,
furs, rope, caviar and mica) while the English corner is a sheer
blast of belligerence, bristling with muskets, pikes and
gunpowder.

My Moscow trip comes as a direct result of a recent, more
constructive British intervention in Russian cultural life. We in
England are just about to reap the rewards, in the shape of a
showcase at the Royal Court of the highly impressive work that
has emerged from the interchange. The season is to include a full
promenade production(with an English director and cast) of
Plasticine, a clear-eyed and bitterly comic look at provincial life in
Russia today from the hot young playwright Vassily Sigarev, and
verbatim-project pieces from two fresh Siberian companies, which
will plunge us into the experiences of workers in a mining
commune, into the revealing correspondence between Russian
conscripts sent to Chechnya and their mothers and lovers back
home, and into the lives of a poverty-stricken fishing community
adrift on an ice floe.

As I learn quickly, Moscow is on the move in many senses. Even
the street names are refusing to stay put. My first meeting is
scheduled to take place at a trendy new night-spot called Klon
(aka Clone). But the British Council's Russian driver drops me off
outside a different establishment altogether, where there's a
panic-inducing paucity of people who can understand a word I
utter. I've been in a mad rush because of a flight delay, so I am
without roubles or a map (or any Russian), and the one girl who
speaks a tiny amount of English denies that this is even the
street I'm expecting (Pushkinskaya) and directs me to a parallel
road.

I find out later that she both is and isn't right. The names of the
streets in the area are in the process of changing and migrating.
It's only because Oskolkova, the drama and dance manager at
the British Council in Moscow, has asked for a description of me
that I'm not still lost. She hails me from another door and
introduces me to Elena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov, who run the
pioneering new-writing project. The following night, this pair are
going to launch a venue that would have been inconceivable a
couple of years ago: a centre for contemporary playwriting, right
in the centre of the city, called Theatr.doc.

Klon is achingly hip and minimalist. Tatyana notices me frowning
in puzzlement at the www.youneverknow.ru logo etched out in
large, stone letters over the dining area. Having spent her life in
international relations, Tatyana has a broad, humane culture and
learned wit. She teases me that the logo is an allusion to the
French fashion designer Chanel, who even slept in full make-up
on the grounds that “you never know” when you will meet your
man and so should always look your best. I relax and think to
myself: I'm going to enjoy this trip.

It's enjoyable and inspiring to meet a gifted generation of new
twentysomething playwrights, whose sense of their own creativity
was legitimised by an intervention from a happy hook-up between
the British Council and the Royal Court's international
department. In 1999, Plasticine's fine translator, Sasha Dugdale,
then the council's cultural chief in Moscow, invited the Royal
Court to take part in a seminar about new writing, which included
translated excerpts from the work of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill
and Patrick Marber. The turmoil of post-Communist experience
has not been reflected on the stages of Moscow's 200-plus
theatres. During my own recent visit, there were 16 productions
of Chekhov's The Seagull to choose from and only 10 new plays.
So, at that packed seminar, the effect was electrifying when the
Court's literary manager, Graham Whybrow, delivered a speech
about the principles and vision of a theatre that puts the living
writer at the centre of his practice.

Everyone you speak to in Moscow theatre says that talk caused
a revolution. The stranglehold of officialdom had been such that
Russian dramatists who held similar views had kept them bottled
up. The cork was now drawn, and the response, said one of my
interviewees, bordered on “the irrational”. Russian dramatists
began to talk to one another, and then, as a result of follow-up
work by the Court, they began to talk to the people on the
streets. Elyse Dodgson, the head of the international department,
went out to hold workshops on verbatim theatre — on how to
gather and shape personal testimony to create drama of intense
immediacy. Stephen Daldry flew over and spearheaded a piece
that drew on conversations with the homeless who doss down in
Moscow's railway stations. It resulted in a wave of monologues,
collectively entitled Moscow: Open City, which became the rage
of the metropolitan nightclubs, a cross between stand-up, drama
and personal witness.

And now I'm on my way to Gorky Leninskiye, Lenin's country
retreat. Inside, a gigantic white effigy of him still looks down from
the top of a sweeping red-carpeted staircase. This place used to
be a mecca for tourists, but it is now in the throes of a
creative-identity crisis. Before Lenin, it was the home of a hero of
Borodino and of the merchant Morozov, who, strangely, gave
money to both Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre and the
Bolsheviks. Post-Communism, who would have thought it would
ever become the workshop for a new-writing project? It's
comparable to rehearsing Brecht in Hitler's bunker. Yet for 10
excited, sleepless days last autumn, that is precisely what it
was turned into, again through the input of the British Council.
My guides are the young playwright Sergei Kaluzhanov, the
theatre director Alexander Vartanov and the museum's deputy
director, Alexandra Kalyakina.

They tell me of how they did a piece on the museum's
attendants, people who have worked there for more than 30
years, and on the myths about the place that they have stoutly
cherished. They relate how Maxim Kurochkin, regarded by many
as the most talented of the new wave of dramatists, had so
internalised the testimony of the vagrants he had worked with
that he performed without a script, taking questions from the
audience and answering in character. It's not just writers who
benefit from verbatim. The process releases actors, too, from the
prison of a literary tradition that has left them unused to evoking
the contemporary on stage.

A whirlwind tour one day with Vassily Chernov, a young theatre
producer, makes me feel that every place where we alight has
potential for drama: whether it's the new Bagration Bridge — a
river-spanning megalopolis of shops and banks; or the Park of
Sculptures, a fascinating knacker's yard of discredited iconic
monuments; or the poverty-stricken apartment in the centre of
the city where an old lady occupies half a former baronial
ballroom, but has no toilet or bathing facilities.

The opening festivities at Theatr.doc are high-spirited and
low-maintenance. The venue, with its studio-sized performance
space, is still a bit of a building site and, to symbolise the
abrasive intent of the project, the writers, directors, and friends
and supporters are each given a square of black emery paper to
nail to the walls. There are tributes to and from the Royal Court,
and future verbatim schemes are outlined — one involves asking
Russia's elderly folk, who have gone through violent vicissitudes
in the past century, what ambitions they have for the rest of their
lives. I have read the work they have done in translation, and the
quality is extraordinarily high. I tease some of the playwrights
that the time will come when there's no community left to
explore. I also suggest, fancifully at first, that they should do a
verbatim piece about the dramatists of the immediately preceding
generation, whom history dealt a dud hand. Too late to be of the
Alexander Gelman anti-Soviet-corruption school, and too early to
take full flight with this new generation, to which some of them
react, apparently, with understandable jealousy.

Then it occurs to me that this might not be a bad idea: the young
making a real imaginative effort to understand their immediate
forebears, as Russian new-writing theatre moves forward into
what looks set to be an exciting future.

International Playwrights Season, Royal Court, London SW1
(020—7565  5100).'Steps to Siberia' to Sat.'Plasticine' opens 15
Mar
http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/theatre/features/story.jsp?story=271278


 
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