Tag Archives: Russia

“Children of the Sun” by Maxim Gorky

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Wednesday 1st May 2013

God I love theatre. About halfway through today’s performance of Children of the Sun, the show had to be stopped due to an audience member being taken ill. Now obviously, that in itself isn’t a good thing and I wish him a speedy recovery, but the instance added a certain frisson to the rest of the performance. Until that point, it felt a little bit like the actors were going through the motions, and to be perfectly honest I wasn’t really paying attention. As soon as the stage manager entered, however, a charge became apparent, and after a short five minute break the actors returned, this time with a punch. We were back on track.

Something about seeing the actors forced to break character means we consider more intently the artistry behind their performance, Continue reading “Children of the Sun” by Maxim Gorky


“Master and Margarita”

adapted from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov

at the Barbican Centre, Wednesday 2nd January 2013

I only read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for the first time this summer (actually after being gutted at having missed the previous run of the show without knowing it was returning and wanting to see why Complicite would adapt such a text) and raced through it within a few days. Now, I’ll happily admit this isn’t the ideal way to approach such a dense, complex novel, but at the time I was solely concerned with turning the next page to see where we were taken next; I hope to return to it again in the next year or so. Anyway, I digress. What’s so astonishing about Complicite’s version is that it manages to maintain the large bulk of Bulgakov’s epic narrative without sacrificing any of his startling philosophical discussions and wide-ranging themes. It’s a production which does pretty much everything I want a piece of theatre to do.

There’s no point in me going into the narrative here because to do so would be a waste of time and energy considering there are plenty of brilliant synopses on the internet (a particularly good one is on the show’s website: http://www.manuscriptsdontburn.org/799/). I also won’t attempt to dissect or consider in any great detail what Bulgakov himself has managed to achieve in his novel and the astonishingly complex themes he wades through, as I have neither the intelligence nor the time to do so (and there is a wealth of wonderful criticism on the novel anyway). Instead, this piece will consider the ways in which Simon McBurney and his team have transposed the themes present in the original into a theatrical setting.

The most striking visual aspect of the production involves perhaps the best use of projections I’ve seen in a piece of theatre (it’ll soon become an awards category, mark my words). The vast floor and back wall of the Barbican stage can covered completely by sprawling images showing snowstorms or a satellite image of Moscow, but just as frequently the projections are used subtly to mark room layouts and even as a form of lighting. Added to this is the innovation of using an overhead camera to project certain scenes onto the back wall, so that the image of Margarita falling from her window, for example, becomes a theatrical reality played out virtually. We are also allowed multiple perspectives, as those of us sat higher up in the theatre are able to see both floor and wall, allowing us to see both reality and fiction played out simultaneously. Thus Bulgakov’s questioning of what makes a story true is played out in front of our eyes.

Similarly, the dichotomies which Bulgakov is perpetually presenting in his novel (faith vs atheism, sanity vs insanity etc) get aestheticised through a split-screen effect, whereby events ostensibly occurring within the same space are placed on either side of the stage, for example during the multiple decapitations during the show or when a scene is moved across the stage to show the differing perspectives of two different characters.

At one point, the joke is made that at some point in the future, we will have access to hoards of information “at the push of a button”, something which is heightened by the grids and bright white lines of Finn Ross’ video design (aided by Luke Halls’ animation). The past, present and future become intermingled so that even when we are witnessing the sentencing of Jesus, images and ideas from our own future are unavoidable. By contrasting these hi-res images with Es Devlin’s – for want of a better word – soviet set design, the two worlds are throughout fighting against one another and trying to gain a foothold within our consciousness.

As the space changes and boundaries are shifted by the blueprint projected onto the stage, so too does the way in which people move from one area to another. Some scenes are static, such as the Pilate/Jesus ones, taking place on a thin diagonal and focussing on no more than the text. Elsewhere, the stage is chaotic, as we are transported to the busy streets of Moscow, or eerily sparse  as when Margarita lays naked in the middle of the floor (another thing about this production is that the striking images of the book are beautifully recreated on stage). So, as the context and paradigms shift as characters enter and exit certain stages of awareness, our minds turn inwards, considering the way in which we may change when in different social spheres.

The darkly absurdist humour of Bulgakov’s original is also given just enough stage time, and is embodied brilliantly by a group of actors who take on a multitude of roles. There is a self-awareness, a theatricality, imbued in all of them, as they both maintain truth and exist wholly within the world around them. Paul Rhys as both Woland (i.e. ‘Satan’) and the Master (a tortured writer) flits easily between the two (it only dawned on me halfway through the first half that this was the case). His frantic energy as the Master is subverted wholly into a dry, humourless power as Woland. His opposite in most ways is Richard Katz’s Ivan Nikolayich. He is the beating, human heart of the piece and represents us on stage; baffled, exhausted, amazed.

What Simon McBurney’s production does particularly well is to be both modern and postmodern simultaneously, capturing the Zeitgeist of both the time of initial publishing and today. Some of the images and ideas presented by Bulgakov are somewhat archaic to our twenty-first century eyes and ears, but they are presented in such a way that allows them to be questioned, critiqued and reconsidered. Master and Margarita is a production which worms its way into your deep subconscious, finding its way into your dreams and imprinting itself on the more secluded parts of your brain. It’s capricious, it’s confusing, it’s complex. But my god it’s beautiful.

“Boris Godunov” by Alexander Pushkin (translated by Adrian Mitchell)

at the Swan Theatre, Wednesday 28th November 2012

Originally written for Exeunt.

After a slow-burning first hour, Michael Boyd’s production of Boris Godunov comes into its own in the final sixty minutes, as he throws Alexander Pushin’s drama about autocracy and rebellion into fifth gear, hurtling towards a powerful conclusion. And though it’s not Boyd’s most inventive, exciting or powerful production, it makes some nods towards his style as Artistic Director and is a fitting end to his tenure.

The story of Boris Godunov is similar to many of Shakespeare’s kings. A Russian Tsar who came to power in 1598 through questionable circumstances, popular opinion of him soured during his seven years in office before he died of a heart attack as rebel forces, led by the pretender Grigory Otrepiev (a young monk), began chipping away at his regime in the guise of Prince Dmitry, the dead heir. In 1825, Pushkin mythologized and distorted the story somewhat to make the narrative one of power and revolution, though it was banned by censors and never really given a proper staging until the 1980s.

Michael Boyd’s production (utilising a poetic translation by Adrian Mitchell) moves through eras smoothly, opening with actors dressed in sixteenth century garments and moving steadily through the ages to Stalinistic furs and, finally, simple business wear complete with iPhones and microphones. It’s a simple idea, and is done with a light enough touch that we don’t really notice until key points that the tone has changed. The point it makes, however – that Russia has been ruled by tyrants for as long as anyone can remember – is hardly subtle, and I question somewhat the hope this gives for any stable future in Russia it’s suggested that the country is basically ungovernable.

Boyd’s trademark during his time at the RSC has become the singular, striking image, and there is no shortage of them here. From the loud opening montage of moments which we will see over the next two hours to the disconcerting levels present in the final tableau, this is a production which works through a conversation with aesthetics. The climactic battle scenes are as good as any in the Histories cycle, complete with semi-gymnastic movement and a constant stream of actors. At another point, a fountain is beautifully and simply evoked using bowls and jugs.

Tom Piper’s simple set consists of a brushed wood floor and a gold scaffold with hanging costumes (another charming nod to the design of the Histories), and allows breathing space for some charming performances. Though he takes a while to warm up, Gethin Anthony as Grigory presents himself as a man of the people and a more worthy leader than Boris; his wooing scene with Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Princess Maryna is delightfully balanced, as she offers the perfect foil to his presumptuous advances. Lloyd Hutchison’s Boris is the opposite of Grigory, portraying a strong, sturdy man who achieves his goals through talking rather than action and gets rid of his opponents with knowing hints to Prince Shuiskii (played by the brilliant James Tucker who, quite frankly, steals every scene he’s in).

But for all it’s strengths, Boris Godunov fails to really capture the imagination or probe deeply into the question at hand. By having the mob commit violent acts towards the end of the play, Pushkin clearly attempts to make some point about the dangerous nature of revolution and its relationship with tyranny, but all these interesting ideas feel hidden at the end of Boyd’s production. Then again, this sums up what Boyd’s best at; making the personal political and vice versa, drawing on a range of influences to get the widest possible scope. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting something a little more exciting for Boyd’s final show, but it’s nonetheless a production with the detail, power and humour which has defined his Artistic Directorship.


“Collaborators” by John Hodge

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012

“What if…” pieces are always intriguing, offering an alternative view of history. It’s extraordinarily tempting to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens conversing in a pub, or Newton being educated by Einstein. We love to imagine these conversations, and consider how history would be different if these conversations were possible. In Collaborators, John Hodge asks “What if Josef Stalin helped Mikhail Bulgakov to write plays and in return Bulgakov helped him with affairs of state?”  The result is a witty, intelligent play which, even though it tries a little too hard to appeal to our hearts, asks some big questions.

After the success of The White Guard, the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is asked (read: forced) to write a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday (he is a huge fan of the aforementioned play, having seen it fifteen times). Naturally, the writer wants to create an artistically sound piece of theatre, whilst his paymasters wish him to make something which praises Vozhd in all his glory. After a week struggling to create anything of worth, he is summoned by Uncle Joe himself, with whom he collaborates so both of them are able to get their work done. Along the way, Stalin realises the difficulties in writing and structuring a play, whilst Bulgakov becomes implicit in some of the atrocities of the Soviet regime.

It’s not hard to see what Hodge thinks of the art question here: it is impossible to create good art if one is given preconditions – i.e., no good art can be created under censorship. I think most of us can agree on that: the hilariously awful excerpts from “Young Stalin” prove this. The interesting debate, however, is about Bulgakov’s position. After being relinquished of the shame of writing an awful play, he begins to defend decisions about grain in the provinces which are costing lives. His initial hatred of his leader becomes far less clear-cut, and we are shown that those in power don’t have the luxury of ideology that many of us do: they have to balance arguments before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Hodge is supremely successful, and the two-handed scenes between Stalin and Bulgakov are without doubt the most superior.

Where the play falls flat, slightly, is in Hodge’s portrayal of Bulgakov’s home life. The writer and his wife, Yelena, live with a whole host of other bohemians, who are somewhat stock and serve only the purpose of allowing an emotional outlet for Bulgakov. They seem superfluous, for this exact dilemma could just as easily be communicated to his wife alone. The core argument – that of the difficulties of ideology in art – is present in the one-on-one scenes, and we gain very little from the presence of other characters in the Bulgakov household.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is beautifully crafted, taking images and techniques from Communist propaganda. George Fenton & Paul Ardiiti’s music and sound are used in an almost cartoon-style way, and Jon Clark’s lighting acts as a frame around certain scenes. The tone of Hytner’s direction shifts from grimy socialist realism to stylised choreography, and is set beautifully on Bob Crowley’s red and black scenic design, looking like its been lifted straight off of a Soviet poster, complete with jagged lines and uneven floor.

A solid ensemble is led by three superb actors. Mark Addy’s Vladimir, the chief of police, lies on the borderline of ridiculous, but manages to retain a humanity which allows us to understand how difficult he finds his job. Simon Russell Beale’s portrays Stalin as an idiotic, frail but supremely passionate man who flips at an instant. There is something supremely menacing about his quietness, and the Somerset accent only adds to the confusion we feel towards him. Alex Jennings completes the trio as Bulgakov, rarely leaving the stage and providing the narrative drive and voicing the audience’s own internal debate.

It does feel at times like Collaborators is trying to tackle a few too many questions without ever fully exploring any of them, but what Hodge shows us is a world in which it is impossible to say what you feel openly. Although it is entirely fiction, the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov feel extraordinarily real, and we are forced to ask ourselves whether the old maxim suggesting that artists would be better at politics than politicians is true after all.