Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day One - 24 May 2004

(By the time the Russian part of our Chekhov Carver trip took place, we had already had a week-long work in progress working with the actors on the stories by both writers and some staging solutions to the ideas arising from our regular development meetings. Margaret and I have been meeting on a weekly basis developing the plot outline in some detail, based on a very basic structure that had emerged soon after our American trip. We also decided on the name of the play - Kaput! - and were working towards a launch event which would happen on the day of the 100th anniversary of Chekhov's death - 2 July 2004. We envisaged that on this day we would have the actors read Carver's story Errand, in which he imagined Chekhov's death, around a long table for invited guests, members of the press and promoters. I also suggested that we might serve some nibbles and a cocktail we would call Chekhov-Cava - or maybe even Chava! - and our Marketing Director Richard Bliss came with an excellent recipe for it involving some vodka. 

However, at that stage, we were still a long way away from what would eventually become Kaput! - an idea of which you can get here:

A more detailed account of how we eventually got there can be found on: 

and a review of the piece on:

The photos connected to this trip were taken by Neil Murray, unless otherwise indicated).

Newcastle – Amsterdam – St Petersburg: Introductions


Margaret and I arrive at the airport at the crack of dawn and Neil approaches us preceded by a bouquet of lily of the valley, freshly picked from his garden, which he divides into two bunches and hands one to each. We’re both touched. As we check our bags in, we quickly recap on our individual duties. Margaret and I have been shopping for medicines and chocolates over the last few days – the former ‘just in case’ and the latter as potential presents for random people we are likely to meet. Neil’s been looking after our communal financial ‘float’ and so he becomes the ‘banker’. Margaret takes on the role of the ‘pharmacist’ and I end up as the ‘chocolatier’. Then full of anticipation and early morning coffee we set off for our gate and bump into none other but Gabor Tompa (a Romanian Hungarian director who has just made Ionesco's The New Tenant for our theatre). Ah, the cosmopolitanism of Northern Stage!


It is in Amsterdam – at more or less the same table that we sat at on our way to Seattle – that Neil contemplates a potential cigarette while I’m enjoying mine. He tells us a story of how he has been smoking occasionally during his recent stay in Barcelona and how one night, prompted by a pang of guilt, he jumped out of his bed and flung his packet of remaining cigarettes out of the window. We try to imagine a lucky finder walking past, and then proceed to do complex calculations concerning the amount of money in Neil’s bank. He has a tiny booklet specifically for this purpose.


As soon as we land at St Petersburg, we’re faced with the ritual of Russian form-filling. My school knowledge of Russian is sneaking upon me and it feels very rejuvenating. We’ve been speculating on what our guide/interpreter Tanya Oskolkova might be like and when the doors open and we finally see her leaning on a banister with a bored expression and a placard saying ‘Northern Stage’, I think we’re going to like her. She is a lively, tall woman in her 50s who gives off an air of informal efficiency. She immediately leads us to our car and hastily introduces us to our St Petersburg driver – Pavel. Pavel, in his 30s, is hiding behind a pair of wrap-around reflective shades and several layers of clothes including a polo-neck. It’s a nice day and Margaret and Neil keep saying how it all looks/feels like Newcastle. Pavel is quiet and seemingly very proud of his car. When I identify and enthusiastically point out a Zhiguli to Neil (Zhiguli is a Russian car which raised a lot of questions during the rehearsals of  Cinzano/Smirnova's Birthday which Neil directed and I dramaturged last year), Pavel issues a moan regarding the Russian car industry and Tanya explains how it used to be a very chic car when she was young.


Our hotel turns out to be a flat in a dilapidated building on Petrovgradskaya side of the city. There is a tiny lift going up to the second floor – where our ‘hotel’ is. Margaret notes how this is very much like Crime and Punishment. Our hostess opens the door and she also somehow fits the world of Dostoyevski – she looks a bit drained and humourless as she leads us to a makeshift reception where an overweight lady asks for our passports. Then they send us to our rooms while they detain our documents and proceed to fill in numerous forms. I end up having the biggest room – which also has a sitting room area and which I christen ‘my salon’. The ‘hotel’ is quite clean and homely and has lots of towels and toiletries even though we’ve been warned of shortages in this department. There is a breakfast area painted in yellow and featuring a number of small round tables in the centre of the flat (which consists of the total of six guest-rooms). A friend of mine who is here for a conference is staying in the same hotel which means that we’ve occupied more or less the whole place.


We have just enough time to squeeze in a quick meal before going to see Dodin’s Uncle Vanya at the Maly tonight. Pasha takes us to a cash dispenser (bankomat) and then to a Ukrainian restaurant where we are fed some really nice food. I’m wondering whether they’ll play the Eurovision winner, but they don’t. Instead they bring us small glasses of delicious, fruity liqueur which they call ‘spotikach’ (lit. a thing that makes you trip over). Pasha has been waiting for us outside and eventually he takes us to the theatre. There is a very lively atmosphere, loads of enthusiastic audience and chattering. I struggle to keep awake through the show due to tiredness and plane-induced deafness, but the enthusiasm is infectious, and the English surtitles help. Vanya is played by a youngish looking and very handsome actor. They play under stacks of hay for most of it and eventually the hay comes down as Sonya says ‘We must work, we must work’, at the end of the play. Immediately the audience jumps to their feet and proceed to clap in unison for fifteen minutes. Members of cast assume various curtain call poses and look either very bored or very surprised as they receive their numerous bouquets of flowers. We’re quite taken by the experience. When we finally emerge from the theatre at about 10.30, it’s still daylight – these are the famous White Nights of St Petersburg.


On our return to the hotel, we find fresh bouquets of lily of the valley in our rooms. Tomorrow Neil will be saying – 'How extraordinary'!

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