Vasily Shukshin was a Russian film-maker and writer whose short stories detailed life in a Siberian village in the Altai region during the Soviet era. This production by Moscow’s Theatre of Nations presents eight of his tales, by turns charming and melancholic.
Alvis Hermanis’ production is spare in its staging. It doesn’t try to recreate the village on stage, nor does it romanticise it. Instead the set consists of a single long, wooden bench. Behind this a different series of blown-up photographs showing the inhabitants of similar villages today are shuffled into place for every story: close-ups of faces, lakes, and fields of sunflowers.
Many of the tales are fable-like – particularly one in which a man buys his wife a pair of expensive boots. In most of them people make foolish but fundamentally human decisions. Money, and its lack, is a recurring theme, as is the interplay between the sexes.
The last story is perhaps the most moving. A man escapes prison despite only having a few weeks of his sentence left to serve, so he can return home to his village and his family, the home he has been aching for. The sense of yearning is palpable, the humour undercut with sadness.
The ensemble cast is effervescent and energetic. Its members hop between roles with ease and have strong comic skills, morphing into old men and judgemental shop girls.
Eight stories makes for a long evening, though, and some are more satisfying than others. The attitudes of the time, including the lusty ogling of women, are unquestioningly recreated, and the clunky, poorly positioned surtitles subtract from the overall pleasure of the experience.