30 апреля 2017

Revolutions Remembered: the Golden Mask in Moscow 2017

Maria Shevtsova | New Theatre Quarterly

The 2017 Golden Mask and National Theatre Award and Festival in Moscow offered, as it usually does, a wide range of large- and small-scale theatre, musical theatre, opera, ballet, contemporary dance, and puppetry - a month and more of intensive activity that keeps its annually changing jury on its toes. Maria Shevtsova provides an overview of the Russian Case: a concentration of productions for foreign producers and critics that reflects quite accurately the Golden Mask’s complete spoken theatre selection (as distinct from other forms of theatre such as dance). She observes that a cluster of productions refers to rebellions and revolutions that preceded the 1917 October Revolution, though none deals directly with that event. Remaining works allude in various ways to more recent Russian and global history, showing how its makers are sensitive to a past that filters through the more than troubling present. Maria Shevtsova, Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, is co-editor of New Theatre Quarterly.

CURATED by the theatre critics Alyona Karas and Kristina Matvienko, the Russian Case of the Golden Mask Festival offered a fairly representative selection of works from the much larger overall programme, and it managed to include, as has not really been possible before, examples of musicals, which appear to have been a rapidly growing inter¬est in Russian theatre in the past few years. The most striking example was The Young Guard, directed by Maxim Didenko and Dmitri Yegorov from St Petersburg, based on Aleksandr Fadeyev's patriotic novel of 1946 about youthful resistance fighters against the German invaders in 1942-43 in eastern Ukraine. The Russian Case also showed contemporary dance (ballet is still beyond its scope), but generally had practical difficulties balancing the number of small-scale productions with those on the main stage.

What was especially pleasing, this time round, was the Russian Case's inclusion of several productions outside the Golden Mask competition that were available for one or two performances within its time scale. This meant that Russian Case visitors were able to see the new works of such favourites as Kirill Serebrennikov (Kafka by Valery Pecheykin at Serebrennikov's Gogol Centre), Yury Butusov (Brecht's Drums in the Night - his first play - in repertory at the Pushkin theatre, but showing only for one night), and Timofey Kulyabin (Chekhov's Ivanov at the Theatre of Nations). Fortunately, I was able to 'twin' Ivanov with Kulyabin's Three Sisters. The latter was well and truly a runner in the Golden Mask, but beyond the period of the Russian Case. (See NTQ 123, 2015, for Butusov and Kulyabin in the Golden Mask Festival of that year.)
It was intriguing to observe the indirect references to 1917 in the Golden Mask 2017. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that pro¬ductions shown at the festival skirted round 1917, picking out what their directors and companies saw either as the revolution's nefarious precedents or the post-revolution¬ary calamities in its aftermath.

To the group of 'precedents' belonged Rebels, written and directed by Aleksandr Molochnikov, an actor of the Moscow Art Theatre, for this house. A huge, rambunctious work full of satire, tomfoolery, burlesque, jokes and 1980s and 1990s 'underground' rock, it starts with a relatively gentle parody of the Decembrists' revolt against the Tsar in 1825. The iconic Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin was of these luckless heroes, most of whom Nicholas I sent to Siberia, sparing Pushkin to write for another day. A cheeky Pushkin glides by on ice skates as part of the double-edged humour of the scenes these idealistic rebels set for a violent future.

Subsequent revolutionary figures of nineteenth-century Russia are presented in a louder, sharper tone. There are sketches of incidents perpetrated by the group known as the People's Will, the terrorist Sergey Nechayev (a prototype of Dostoevsky's The Devils), the anarchist Mikhaïl Bakunin, and Marx somewhere else. All allude to the cumulative efforts that turned into October 1917, about which, other than these hints, there is nothing. Meanwhile, cinema-style pictures are projected on a screen at the back (many are of the anti-heroes on the stage), where, on a platform, bands perform their rock songs until the end of the show.

The assumption, it would seem, is that this underground music of the modern era served as a socio-political critique, without spilling blood. For all its energy and interest, it is hard to see what else Rebels might have been saying other than ' "revolutionary ideology" begets destruction, which begets more destruction'; and this generalization of 'revolutionary ideology', which is of little interpretive value, appears to be the motif justifying the production's broad sweep.

Bely. Petersburg, after Andrey Bely's 1913 phantasmagorical novel and performed by the St Petersburg Musical Comedy Theatre, provided a surprising comparison. This was so not only because it had the whole arsenal of musicals at its disposal, which spoken theatre like Rebels simply cannot muster, but also because it handled Bely's surrealistic twists and turns very skilfully in an idiom that one might be pardoned for thinking was not tuned in to Bely's kinds of concerns, his main purpose, besides evoking the city's cold, misty, but mysterious atmosphere, being to lampoon the reactionary civil servant Ableukhov and his narcissistic, wannabe bomb-throwing son, who was ordered to murder him: the time is the revolutionary year 1905. Here the theme 'reaction begets revolution' predominates, while it contends that the second is unable to correct the first. The production confidently displays its gallery of grotesques and, after working primari ly for laughs, ends with a series of powerful images of terror and war - again, projected on a screen.

These images are from documentary foot¬age recalling the revolution, the Civil War, and the First World War, followed by a fast¬forward of twentieth-century war history, which ends with a shock: the image that went round the world of the metro carriage blasted by a bomb in St Petersburg just two days earlier. And this, together with the entire production - beautiful voices to a wonderful orchestra - raises the question of whether a musical can actually handle such subjects without trivializing the human tragedies at their heart. Bely. Petersburg was my 'substitute' for The Young Guard, which I was unable to see, but a similar question might well have been pertinent to it. There is, of course, an additional issue, too large for a short review, which concerns the reasons for Russian directors choosing musicals for broaching difficult history.
Butusov's Drums in the Night belongs to the group revolving around the idea of the 'aftermath' of 1917. In his inimitable, extravagant humorous style, Butusov dresses Kragler, Brecht's returned soldier who reclaims Anna, his promised bride, in a petticoat supposed to be a wedding dress. All actions developing from this central one expose the absurd behaviour of people devoured by fear and insecurity, which breed hatred and greed. Gunshot-fire from the Spartacist uprising in Germany of 1919 - encouraged by the Russian revolution - is interspersed with an eclectic range of caba¬ret, pop, and rock, such a medley having become a Butusov signature in the last ten years. Etude-style extrapolations and variations on themes (another of his signatures) build up to a let-it-all-hang-out rock-concert conclusion (another signature) to the beat of thunderous drums. Although apparently fragmented, the production holds Brecht's text together, never losing sight of its political asides.

Drums in the Night could not have been more different from the site-specific perambulatory performance of Refugee Conversations, with spectators listening through earphones, at Moscow's Leningrad Station. Brecht wrote this play in 1940-41, at the time that he fled Germany for Finland. The performance piece is a neutralized, rather flat reading for two, placed by Petersburg directors Konstantin Uchitel and Vladimir Kuznetsov in various spots in the station. In St Petersburg, it was performed in that city's Finland Station, known for having been Lenin's destination, one hundred years ago.

Different, again, in the 'aftermath' bracket, was Magadan/Cabaret, Yury Pogrebnichko's sobre production whose very name tells a story, since it can only refer to the Magadan gulag situated in far-eastern Siberia. Its narrative is implied, as well, by the simple fact of one or two actors singing 1930s popular songs and, occasionally, songs composed in Magadan, accompanied by an accordion. These actors, within a small group, sit on tiered benches - movement, like speech, is minimal throughout; now and then, two figures in Siberian Buddhist clothing silently appear and quietly chant. The production's delicate apposition of visual and vocal images, layered by occasional screen images - a ship's funnel blowing smoke, two people struggling to walk, up to their waist in snow - recalls Siberia's long-distant religious past, plundered by the barbarism of Magadan. Magadan/Cabaret was, deservedly, the Golden Mask winner of the category 'Theatre of Small Forms'.

Turning now to the remaining Russian Case offerings, which featured Heiner Goebbels's remarkable sound score with soloist, Max Black or 62 Ways of Supporting the Head with a Hand, performed whimsically, accurately, and elegantly by Aleksandr Panteleyev, widely known for his role in Anatoly Vasilyev's path-breaking The Grown Daughter of a Young Man in 1979. This took place in the newly redesigned and refurbished, exciting Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, whose managing director and director of a number of its van-guard productions is Boris Yukhananov, also from Vasilyev's school.

Then, at the Moscow Art Theatre, there was Central Park West after Woody Allen, staged by Konstantin Bogomolov, showing his light-hearted side as well as his directorial versatility. Bogomolov can handle social comedy with as much aplomb as vertiginous satire (An Ideal Husband in 2013) or politically concentrated satire (Boris Godunov in 2014). and everything else in his mixtures of genres, not least in The Dragon (2017) after Evgeny Shvarts.

Russian Romance (winner of the Golden Mask for 'best production') by the Lithuanian Marius Ivaskevicius (winner for playwriting), focused on scenes from Sofia Tolstoy's life with her famous husband Lev, seen from a mildly comic point of view rather than in its dramatic reality. The director was the Lithuanian-born and Moscow trained Mindaugas Karbauskis who, at forty- five - together with Serebrennikov, who is forty-seven, Bogomolov (forty-two), Dmitri Volkostrelov (thirty-five), and Kulyabin (a mere thirty-two - is among the new generation of leading directors in Russia today. I have, however, seen him more adventurous in the past than he has proved to be in the present. This is probably tied up with his recently taking charge of the Mayakovsky Theatre, with its well-established ensemble company and deeply rooted practices.
Kulyabin's Ivanov neatly ironed out some of Chekhov's obtrusive problems of structure, content, and dialogue. To start with, the play rambles, its eponymous protagonist, while central, is out of focus, and his few anti-Semitic jibes against his wife are misogynistic as well as racist. Kulyabin manages to shift attention away from these negative features by shaping his production according to a sequence of genres. The first is on the lines of 1970s 'soap' domestic drama, helped along by the wonderful Evgeny Moronov, artistic director of the Theatre of Nations, who plays Ivanov. It merges in the next act into larger-than-life sitcom, punctuated by ruthless satire that exposes every aspect of 1970s Soviet culture, going from over-tight clothes, heavy make-up, and bouffon hair to crude behaviour and mindless conversation into which racism, misogyny, insularity, and cruelty seem all but to disappear. A vibrant, sassy Elizaveta Boyarskaya, borrowed from the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, who plays the infatuated Sasha as a modern woman, throws the deftly etched banality of it all into sharp relief. Kulyabin's direction reveals a new maturity in the depth and something like kindness in his observation of human ignorance, only to shift gear into the melodrama and farce of the last two acts.

Kulyabin, it seems to me, is still in search of his voice as a director, but there is a sureness of tone and touch in each of the shifting genres constituting Ivanov to suggest that, when he finds it, it will be strong and true. His Three Sisters, with his own company, the Red Torch from Novosibirsk, is part of that search as he explores the gestures of sign language with actors who are not hearing impaired. We have had, in Britain, the experience of The Theatre of the Deaf. Not so, to my knowledge, in the theatre in Russia.

It is a very sensitive question, how you adopt a language in the theatre that is not your own - in this case, a language of disability. Reponses to the question as a question will vary greatly, as they must. In the concrete instance of this production, it has to be said, for example, that, for all its finely wrought nuances, Masha's farewell to Vershinin is so heart-rending, and his brusque reaction to her feelings - violent enough to knock her over - is so wrong yet, paradoxically, so compelling, you forget the question. The Golden Mask awarded the company a special prize for its ensemble work.

Another variant on experimental probing is Volkostrelov's minimalist The Field with Teatr Post, founded in St Petersburg in 2011. According to Volkostrelov, the play, by his collaborator Pavel Pryazhko, follows the laws of quantum physics and, in this, it provides an entirely new way of writing for the theatre. Perhaps these laws are alluded to in how numbers (at the throw of a dice?) are written on blackboards at opposite ends of a by the singing voice of a tenor from the Mariinsky Opera in the role of Boris, the lover of Katerina Kabanova (Viktoria Artyukova, opposite) in this tragic tale of illicit love in a closed, profoundly traditional milieu.

It is quite clear that Moguchy did not aim to reconstruct the social daily-life patterns of the small community in which a matriarch rather than a patriarch saw to moral order and wifely obedience with an iron fist. Instead he looked closely at the ritual structures that gave such a community its misterium - its religious atmosphere and aura, and its quasisacred attitude to, and rendition of, daily life, evident in the bowed greetings, hieratical sitting, intoned conversation, and other such ceremonial behaviours.
Moguchy also created misterium by using platforms on small wheels that rolled the characters in from the back wall to the front of the stage. In this way, they appeared to glide rather than to walk into the space from out of nowhere, from the darkened areas of the stage. The impression of magic is real enough, despite the fact that visible mach¬inery produces it. Katya, outcast from her community, meets her death with dignified submission both to love and purification.

Costumes recall archaic dress in every detail. Lighting, which flashes in designer strips and jagged edges on the back wall, panels of colour, strange sounds - all sug¬gesting Robert Wilson's (perhaps unconsciously assimilated) influence - contributes to the poetic but foreboding quality of the whole. Even so, Moguchy's highly stylized approach is a little cautious, whereas it could have gone for broke. Actors presented more rigorously in the externalized Wilson style for effect, while funnelling emotional inten¬sity inwards, a la the Russian school (not a Wilson trait), might well have turned this marvellous production into a superlative one. And, speaking of Robert Wilson: his was the prize for best lighting for La Traviata (2016) at the Tchaikovsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Perm, which he also directed.
Conducting the music, as if one is hearing it for the first time, was none other than the Greek-Russian Teodor Currentzis, of great musical intelligence and rare vibration, who received the Golden Mask for best conductor - his sixth, I think, in almost as many years, but who, although honoured by the acco¬lades, does not think music is a competition like sport.

While writing, I realize that this review leans heavily on Moscow and St Petersburg. Drawing back to survey the scene, the main reason appears to be that most of the per¬formances scheduled for the Russian Case, many of which I could not see, come from these metropolises. The coordination of avail¬able performances with the short duration of the Russian Case is always a problem for its organizers. Just the same, where the category 'drama' was concerned, they reflected the predominantly metropolitan selection made by the jury of this category for the Golden Mask as a whole. There was greater regional presence in opera and musical theatre.

So, this review concludes with Hamlet from the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg- Theatre of Europe, directed by Lev Dodin. The production, having been premiered to great acclaim in its home city in spring 2016, was expected impatiently - to the point where fights broke out at the box office for tickets, while the racketeers across town resold them for the equivalent of up to £200 a pop. This extortionate price had something to do with the fact that the Dodin-school actors Elizaveta Boyarskaya, Ksenia Rappoport, and Danila Kozlovsky - Ophelia, Gertrude, and Hamlet - are film and television superstars while being permanent members of the Maly ensemble since before the end of their student days with Dodin and his co-teachers. In any case, the MDT is a magnet because of its huge reputation in Russia as well as abroad.
Hamlet is unusual, relative to the MDT's practice, in that it is billed as 'a composition by Lev Dodin after Saxo Grammaticus, Raphael Holinshed, William Shakespeare, and Boris Pasternak'. It is not the names of the production's sources that strike the eye - Pasternak is included as the renowned translator of Hamlet into Russian - but Dodin's claim to its co-authorship; and this is corroborated by how the text is shortened and its plot shaped, while sections of dialogue owe narrow rectangular space and seem to affect what each actor does in relation to a colleague near him or her. These actors sit on the mats along the two longer sides of the rectangle. Their movements are contained, and are not in the least illustrative of the situation - the harvesting of grain crops on an agricultural complex - whose 'events' are narrated by voice-over. This voice speaks in a similarly documentary way of the love and sex relationships of the two sets of partners who are said to work here.

In other words, none of this is conveyed through dialogue or embodied in action: the narration and the doing - getting up, sitting down, lying down, and other restricted movements - are on parallel tracks and do not express, interpret, or explain each other. Well, yes - to bowdlerize a layperson's vocabulary of quantum physics, with apologies - the energy levels of the particles (that is, the actors) are low. However, there seems little sense in foraging in quantum physics for a key; spectators could just as well lie back and think of Beckett, or of John Cage - whose Lecture on Nothing Volkostrelov and his team presented beautifully in white space with white veils and the disembodied voices of the actors hidden behind them in 2016, for twelve spectators for each performance.

The director who received the Golden Mask for best director was St Petersburg's Andrey Moguchy, known for many years as a champion of 'avant-garde' theatre. His highly stylized The Storm pulls out from all corners of Ostrovsky's familiar play its archaic, rural Russian universe. Thus the production renders with exquisite subtlety the incantatory quality of old and now virtually forgotten village speech - its diction, pronunciation, inflections, cadences, and overall formal phrasing, which give this speech a particular kind of gravitas and beauty. Its musicality, constructed polyphonically through the different timbres of the voices speaking, is enriched, in counterpoint, nothing to Shakespeare, let alone to Gram¬maticus or Holinshed, but are in Dodin's own words.

His inventions provide a radical reassess¬ment of established views of Hamlet: Stanislavsky's Christ-like figure saving the world; Pasternak's prince with a conscience aveng¬ing the good; the Soviet intelligentsia's mirror of itself as trapped by power, and variations on such paradigms, including Lyubimov-Vysotsky's Hamlet as a resistance freedom-fighter, doomed to perdition in repressive times. This Hamlet has nothing heroic about him, and is vicious through and through.
Further, Dodin reflects on his own relation to Shakespeare - for instance, replac-ng the First Player's speech (III, i) with Lear's on his unkind daughters - a direct reference to his own 2006 production, centred on abusive families: Boyarskaya played Goneril, and Kozlovsky was Edgar. Dodin also reflects on the world today, using pervasive realities and current language in his interpolations. What they reveal are narcissism, selfishness, harshness, hardness and, among other things, self-interested, merely transactional relations between people who, like Dodin-Kozlovsky's Hamlet, are loveless. These humans are, additionally, so intent on gratification that, after their deeds are done to get it, gratification has lost its value.

Even killing for the gratification of desires - in Hamlet's case, for driven revenge - loses its sense. It becomes increasingly clear that Hamlet's killing is not a matter of perverted satisfaction, but a process of calculated elim¬ination. When it is all done - after poisoning Gertrude and finishing off Claudius - Kozlovsky-Hamlet has nothing left to do but to kill himself. This is implied when he goes down the ladder at the centre of the stage into the pit below.

The Players suddenly appear from be¬neath the stage on this short ladder, grouped tightly on it, calm and still, like a chorus from Greek tragedy. Boyarskaya-Ophelia, as a strong-willed, decisi ve young woman who knows what she wants, is intertwined with Hamlet on it; or else she masturbates, seated on it, and then slips quietly down into the hole; Hamlet fishes out Yorick's skull with a stick from somewhere on its invisible lower rungs. By the end of the production, the ladder's biblical associations are unmissable. It is too short to go upwards. The only way is down, to hell.

Spectators face a mortifying, horrifying world view, but such is Dodin's Hamlet. It transpires, during the production's concen¬trated two hours and forty minutes with only eight actors, that Gertrude and Claudius had plotted Hamlet's father's death. Gertrude, whom Rappoport consistently draws as motivated by reason, tells Hamlet that she and Claudius loved each other, and it was she who killed his father to be rid of his cruel tyranny. (A quotation from Lady Macbeth em¬phasizes the rather obvious comparison.)

She lets the audience know, during dia¬logue with Claudius, that she had plotted with him to send Hamlet to be murdered in England. Why? Hamlet was difficult, irascible - he had killed Polonius - but, above all, he was a nuisance in her life. She and Claudius tacitly agree that Ophelia, too, has become a nuisance and has to be strangled. Without saying a word, they murder Ophelia, after a swift scuffle on the third, top level of the massive metallic scaffolding that encases the space - a metaphor for the prison of Denmark and our calamitous world, designed by Aleksandr Borovsky (the son of David, whose last design for Dodin before his death in 2006 was King Lear. The heavy, sweeping curtain - Shakespeare's arras as a visual metaphor for Lyubimov' iconic 1976 Hamlet - was David Borovksy's.)

Kozlovsky more than deserved the Golden Mask for best male actor. His was a razor-sharp performance, powerful and swift, like an arrow heading for its target. The light burning in his eyes and chameleon-like facial expressions for Hamlet's resolve were to be reckoned with, amid exceptionally strong but contained performances all round.

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