MHAT – Red Square – Taganka
Tanya, who is now finally on her home turf, has booked us in with her friend Irina, the director of the Moscow Arts Theatre (MHAT)’s museum and archive. We spend the first bit of the morning browsing through albums of photographs from Chekhov’s original productions. Margaret reveals that if she lived in Moscow she would probably be working here.
When Irina receives us, she asks not to be filmed because she’s been in a traffic accident and doesn’t look too good at the moment. But I record her story of Chekhov’s death and post-humus honours while focusing my camera on other things. Some of this – like the story that his doctor ordered champagne just before his death, we already know from Carver and other sources, but that his corpse travelled back with a consignment of oysters is a novelty - and a kind of story that Chekhov himself might have relished.
After about an hour Irina entrusts us to one of the museum curators – a relatively young ‘babushka’ in a massive sheepskin waistcoat who first of all takes us to the landing to have a cigarette. We like her immediately. She talks in Russian as she takes us through the story of MHAT and its beginning in Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danshchenko’s experiments. Tanya translates. We are actually dragging a small group of British and American tourists with us who were kind of attached to us by another curator (later I discover that they had actually participated at the IFTR conference in St Pete's last week). They ask some questions which we are not terribly interested in, and the entire thing once again turns into a detailed study of various items of props, sets and costumes in glass cabinets.
Eventually the lovely babushka in a sheepskin coat takes us to Nemirovich-Danshchenko’s office (which hasn’t been touched ever since) and then onto Stanislavski’s office/dressing room. Eventually she insists that we should see the office/dressing room of MHAT’s penultimate artistic director Efimov who died a couple of years ago. We try to decline, unsuccessfully.
After the babushka’s got rid of the Americans, she deposits us at the backstage canteen where Tanya is waiting for us. Over lunch she tells us how we were taken to that final artistic director's office because her friend Irina had been ‘secretly’ in love with Efimov all her life and the babushka said Irina would’ve killed her if we'd given it a miss.
After a light snack, and a coffee across the road – where Tanya lists all our potential expenses this week while Neil watches a fashion show on TV – we decide to take a walk to the Kremlin. The walk is of course spectacular, but there are no queues in front of Lenin’s tomb, which means that it is closed and that we’re not missing the opportunity to go. Going past St Basil’s, somebody mentions the story of how, on its completion, Ivan the Terrible blinded the architects who had built it so that they couldn’t repeat a similar edifice anywhere else. Past the rows of stalls selling Russian dolls with the faces of various American and Russian presidents and Hollywood film stars, we are heading for the Hotel Russia where we can sip our drinks and savour the view of the Red Square in peace. It suddenly occurs to us that we'd initially had the option of staying here, but we are SO much happier that we’re staying where we are.
There isn’t much time before the theatre for anything else, so as soon as we’ve finished our drinks we head for the Taganka theatre (famous for its golden - politically controversial - age under the late artistic director Lyubimov). Maly is doing The Moscow Choir here tonight. It is a new play written by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, but I hope Neil won’t ask who the author is before we go in (as I fear he would be prejudiced against it as a result of his relatively recent artistic struggle with her earlier plays Cinzano and Smirnova's Birthday). He does.
Tanya has arranged for us to meet Dina Dodina (Dodin’s niece and Maly’s International Director) before the show, but has decided not to stay and see it herself for the third time. Instead she has a coffee with all of us, books us a taxi and disappears. Dina says Dodin would be very happy to meet us after the show and we arrange to meet by the ‘ugly statue of Pushkin’ after the curtain call.
As usual by now, the Maly show is extremely well attended and spectacular from the word ‘go’. There is a multi-layered set on the stage simulating communal living in the 1950s – which is the period the play is set in. It’s a simple but effective family story with lots of choral singing (built into the show as a backdrop to the communal life: everyone sings together in order to survive by winning a choral competition.) The surtitles are in Italian this time round, but we somehow manage to put bits and pieces together and make sense of it. The curtain call is another test of clapping endurance and this time round the show’s director as well as Dodin and Petrushevskaya herself take to the stage.
When he sees us backstage, Dodin looks genuinely happy to do so, despite the fact he and his company are completely enveloped by adoring fans. He beams at us especially when we flatter him that we are here on Chekhov AND Dodin pilgrimage. He exudes a very positive energy and we are all elated by the encounter. He sends his fondest regards to Alan and when we turn around to go, Neil bumps into a tiny woman who hugs and kisses him. At first we think it’s a fan who got her facts and faces mixed up, but then Neil explains that that was Tanya, Dodin’s wife and a former primadonna of the Maly - and he suddenly looks very sad realising the state of her. There is a famous anecdote about how Tanya had tried to kill herself once when they were on tour in Paris - by jumping from the window of her hotel room (even though it was on the first floor). But they are evidently still together, and Dodin, who has recently had a successful heart operation looks in top form - whereas Tanya seems to have considerably withered away, at least according to Neil's memory of her.*
That night I finally read the story called Dushechka. From what I make out of it, it’s all about a woman who tried to please her husbands and ended up on her own, finally learning life from scratch.
* Lev Dodin's link to Northern Stage goes back to 1998 when on Alan Lyddiard's invitation he came to Newcastle with his dramaturg Michael Stronin and some members of his company to conduct a residency with members of the Northern Stage ensemble somewhere in the depths of Northumberland. They worked on Uncle Vanya and, according to the recollections of some ensemble members, they spent the first day listening to Dodin read the whole of Uncle Vanya in the original Russian, while Stronin translated! Nevertheless, despite the fact that Alan usually has the attention span of a three year old when it comes to text-based theatre, he still adores Dodin unquestioningly. Interestingly for me, I share my birthday with Dodin, and this year, I had my thirtieth on the same day as he had his sixtieth - and both of us got our special birthday wishes from Alan. It is said of Taureans that they have the tendency to retell War and Peace page by page. Judging by the length of Dodin's productions and the length of this particular travelogue itself - this is probably true of both of us!