Bright sunshine gives the giant eggs on Pushkin Square an extra glitter. Cheerful Muscovites are making the most of the Easter weekend. President Putin and his prime minister appear together at the major event of the Orthodox year, the Easter Mass. There is little sign in the centre of Moscow of the weak rouble or EU sanctions, but in the theatre world all is not well.
This is the time of year when Moscow stages the Golden Mask festival, the Russian equivalent of the Olivier awards, with several weeks of performances from the nominees. Over the Easter weekend, the Russian Case showcase presents selected Golden Mask shows for critics and producers from overseas. Its emphasis is on new and unusual work, so that some of the better known Golden Mask nominees (Lev Dodin, Andrey Moguchi, Declan Donnellan) are not on offer, but the foreign guest is still spoilt for choice, with puppetry, verbatim theatre, broad farce and theatre of objects jostling for place alongside re-examined classics.
Timofei Kulyabin is among those nominated for best director with his production Kill, from Novosibirsk, a version of Schiller’s Kaballe und Liebe. He made headlines lately with his Tannhauser for that city’s opera, a production which (quite unjustifiably) enraged local churchmen and led to the firing of the theatre’s artistic director and an unsuccessful attempt to punish both men under the blasphemy law.
This, and the ambivalent official reactions to the Oscar-nominated film Leviathan, are evidence of a new hardening of conservative attempts to influence the arts. A certification system now requires theatres to label shows as unsuitable for 12, 16 or 18 year olds, backed by more general edicts, not only that forbidding blasphemy but also on-stage swearing and the more subtle, perhaps most dangerous charge of all, ‘distortion of history’.
Kulyabin’s small-scale contribution to the Russian Case, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, was for this correspondent the most memorable show of the long weekend. On a classical stage setting, which might be a deserted ballroom, two men and three women pose and engage in elegant foreplay. A soprano intrudes from time with songs from Rachmaninov’s Vocalise to Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, accompanied by a pianist whose playing is gradually reduced to tuneless pounding of his ravaged keyboard. On the opposite side of the stage two technicians, in full view in their prompt corner, move props and lights as required when not eating their packed lunch.
It is the centre-stage movement of the actors, gently erotic and beautifully attuned to the accompaniment of a dozen or so of the more disillusioned sonnets, that holds rapt attention, until a sequence of sudden, brutal but still perfectly choreographed violence breaks the languid mood of the piece to startling effect.
Other new directors appear in the showcase, with Semeon Alexandrovski a Mask nominee for Presence. This examination of a celebrated Taganka Brecht production by the great Yuri Luibimov, is also tapped for best innovation. And 22-year-old Alexander Moloshnikov, an actor in the Moscow Art Theatre company, has made an impressive debut with 19.14, an energetic cabaret-style account of the Great War which might seem inadequate to those familiar with Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War! but had a strong impact on the local audience. It stood out for a scene in which opposing soldiers from the French and German lines discover they are philosophy students with a common reading syllabus.
Golden Mask usually offers a chance to see productions from outside the great theatre centres but fewer regional companies were selected this year. One show to come from outside was Mikhail Bychkov’s production City Tales, for the Chamber Theatre of Voronezh, one of a number of pretty depressing recent documentary accounts of life in the hinterland. Bychkov is a leading Moscow director, but reprehensibly left it to his fine actors to deliver the results of their personal research in low-key, unmarshalled monologues.
The tiny Teatr.doc, a home of verbatim theatre, has gained from its recent eviction by acquiring new, larger premises as a result of a crowdfunding campaign. Here was presented another visiting performance, Vyatlag, by Boris Pavlovich, a theatre director from Kirov. He does little more than read out a year’s entries, for 1941, from the diary of a Latvian political prisoner, one of Stalin’s victims, written day by day on purloined cigarette papers. The stark picture that emerges of life in the Vyatlag gulag creates its own deeply touching theatre, however, reinforced by framing songs sung by an actress from Pavlovich’s company. The show’s real poignancy comes from its modern parallel: this actress’s husband was arrested and imprisoned a year ago for taking part in an anti-government demonstration in Moscow. The pair have vowed to continue performing this piece until he is released.
Ivan Vyrypaev, originally from Irkutsk and now one of Russia’s handful of influential modern playwrights, is a Teatr.doc discovery – his debut play Oxygen was seen there. Now, his regular director, Viktor Ryzhakov, has brought his play The Drunks (first performed in Dusseldorf, where it was commissioned), to the Moscow Art Theatre. Ryzhakov’s is a very impressive staging, beautifully designed by Maria and Alexei Tregubov, and excellently performed by a crack cast, of a play which turns out to be sadly empty. Vyrypaev has a couple of themes which can be crudely put as ‘we have lost contact with God’ and ‘life is shit’. These startling discoveries are not so much explored as shouted in endless repetition by his elegantly dressed and roaringly drunk characters.
Two other major productions saw fine actors going through motions dictated by popular directors who really ought to know better.
Konstantin Bogomolov, probably the hottest director in town, gives his response to the gathering clouds of repression by staging Gargantua and Pantagruel. Many of the scatological lists, and fantastical episodes of Rabelais’ satirical travelogue are there in their mind-numbing entirety to shock the authorities, and more immediately the Moscow bourgeoisie who have paid up to 3,000 roubles (£38) to see themselves on stage, reciting the book’s purpler passages in a tastefully furnished modern salon that might be their own. (Gargantua tickets are in fact cheap – at the beautifully restored Theatre of Nations, where it plays, you can pay 10,000 roubles (£127) to see Robert Lepage’s new solo version of Hamlet.)
Meanwhile, at what is without doubt the most idiotic playing space in town, the School of Dramatic Art built for Anatoli Vassiliev, another iconoclastic director is at work. Dmitry Krymov has trained the students of his theatre laboratory to take apart Alexander Ostrovsky’s comedy, Oh, Oh, Late Love. Grotesque costumes and clown make-up, Charley’s Aunt cross-dressing in plenty and a host of physical gags from standard slapstick to wrestling throws make a great showcase for the students, who received a standing ovation. No one seems to mind that in taking the play apart Krymov has completely failed to put it together again. A running joke about ecologically sustainable theatre, with most of the decor-free show lit by hand-held lamps, is somewhat negated by a totally unjustified sequence in which hundreds of expensive moving lanterns, hung en masse and low over the acting area and otherwise unused, come to multicoloured life for a breakdance performed by most of the cast.
It’s just possible that with productions like these two, the Moscow theatre community is not thumbing its collective nose at the authorities, but fiddling while their theatres burn.