Transfers between Russian and British theatres may seem a novelty, but Nick Awde finds a growing curiosity between the cultures
Russia’s mission to raise its overseas theatre profile over the past decade has been channelled largely through a two-way process of exporting seasons by top-notch state venues such as Moscow’s Sovremennik Theatre, while inviting foreign companies to participate in its well-funded festivals.
The Russian canon tends to take centre stage in the UK, with the expectation that we’ll reciprocate by taking our own great works. It’s unusual, therefore, to see a UK company taking a Russian work.
Cambridge-based Menagerie’s production of Bliss has just premiered at the Platonov Arts Festival in Voronezh, 300 miles south east of Moscow. Founded in 2011, the international gathering takes its name from the Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. Voronezh is his hometown and this year it’s celebrating the 120th anniversary of his birth.
Bliss is an adaptation of Platonov’s short story The River Potudan. Adapted by Fraser Grace and directed by Paul Bourne, the play traces the story of two young people as they attempt to overcome damage and build a life together in the aftermath of war. It’s the latest of several collaborations with Menagerie and the Hotbed Festival, both of which focus on new writing from their Cambridge base. The Platonov Festival heard about a workshop of Bliss at last year’s Hotbed, and promptly booked its world premiere in Voronezh.
“The festival has a passion for any project furthering the reputation and legacy of Platonov, plus a genuine curiosity about why a British writer connects so strongly with him,” says Grace. “They are interested in what – to them – is a surprising, and positive, connection between our cultures.”
UK companies that have appeared at the festival include Cheek by Jowl and Wayne McGregor’s dance company, while Germany provided an award-winning collaboration in the shape of 100% Voronezh, created by Rimini Protokoll. Bliss impressed the festival’s organiser enough to ask Grace to write an introduction to Platonov for this year’s programme.
Grace and Menagerie have excellent international credentials. Currently completing a two-year fellowship with the Royal Literary Fund, Grace has had plays such as Breakfast With Mugabe, which premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Antony Sher, transfer to the USA.
Bourne, Menagerie’s artistic director, has worked extensively in Eastern Europe and Russia including co-producing with Divadlo 6-16 in Prague, Czech National Theatre and teaching at the Meyerhold Theatre in Moscow.
Grace has always had a long-standing interest in Russian theatre and history. He set plays there such as Kalashnikov: In the Woods by the Lake about the designer of the AK47 assault rifle, produced by Pursued by a Bear. Hotbed saw a workshop of his Events from a Forgotten War, about the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. It was while researching the Kalashnikov play – now turned into a screenplay for Tempting Films – that he came across Platonov’s story.
“Tolstoy famously said Chekhov’s plays were even worse than Shakespeare’s,” observes Grace, “but the mutual curiosity between the cultures is a long-standing one, persisting whatever the current political or diplomatic differences.”
Nevertheless it is hard to ignore that the Russian government closed the British Council there in 2018, framed by increasing attacks by the authorities on its theatre practitioners.
“The collapse of the British Council makes it harder,” says Grace, “but any way of keeping communications open between Russian and British people seems a good one.”
Certainly appearing at the festival has opened up touring options. Theatre contacts from Moscow were lined up to see the Voronezh shows, “that may make a further life for the play in Russia possible. We also hope that promoters in the UK will recognise this voice and make sure a wider audience gets the chance to hear it”.