Monday, 1 March 2010

Moscow 14-20 February 2010

Second year into Professor Paul Allain’s Leverhulme-funded project with the Moscow Arts Theatre entitled ‘Tradition and Innovation’, my colleague Frank Camilleri and I are sent to participate in this exchange of pedagogical practices. We are to observe a number of classes as well as delivering some ourselves. A number of meetings and some theatre trips have also been scheduled. It is a bit of a daunting prospect – not least because the temperatures have been reported as hitting  ‘-30’ in Russia this winter.

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The School

First things first: when you travel to Russia on an academic mission, you should ditch all your Foucaults, Butlers, even Žižeks and Badious. This is a place where ideas of post-modernism might be part of the epistemic frame of reference, but still a place entirely untouched by them in practice. This is best witnessed in a classroom – and particularly in the classroom of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s – the Moscow Art Theatre School. Although founded some 45 years after the opening of the theatre itself in 1897, the school is still seen as an inseparable part of the theatre – not least because the two share the same site and some of the buildings as well. This is an extremely prestigious institution and a fundamental part of not just the Russian theatre scene but the Russian culture as a whole. We were told by one of the teachers that some 500 students audition at the school every day of the year and only about 20 make it through the final round. The director of the school Anatoly Smeliansky also told us that they expect about a quarter of each acting class to drop out by the final year. “This is not for everyone”, he explains. Arts managers and set designers are also trained at the school, but while they tend to be mostly from Moscow, and some of them are paying students, the actors are mostly from the provinces and fully subsidised. Smeliansky has rather pragmatically arranged the curriculum in such a way where the Russian acting students use the state subsidy and sometimes even the school subsidy to see them through their studies, but he uses the school’s American training programmes as a source of revenue.

Within a set up like this, it is quite normal therefore for the students to be at work (at the school or the theatre itself) for up to 12 hours a day. Almost every day of the week. We arrived on a Sunday which was also Valentine’s Day. At about midnight that night, it was quite common to bump into students on the corridors of their dorm - rehearsing. What impressed me the most is that the staff and the students at the school and the theatre have a tradition of saying hello to everyone on the corridors of their buildings. Even if they don’t know each other. The fact that you happen to be within such an exclusive place means that you form part of the same community in some way.

We observed a selection of classes for a variety of year groups including movement (‘plastika’), dance, stage combat and fencing. I watched these students, often wondering what key characteristics could be discerned about them – what is it that makes them a MHAT student, one in the thousands who managed to get here. These are some of the  traits I have identified with just their body language at my disposal: inner beauty, grace, alertness, openness, determination and asexuality. This is particularly true of the first years. As they get older, they become progressively more self-aware – especially in their dance class – their eyes surreptitiously darting towards the mirror, their bodies exuding quiet charisma. One of the most important parts of their curriculum is the fencing class – or so the fencing teacher Andrey Uraev told us. This is the oldest class in Russian actor training. As a metaphor for stage dialogue, fencing helps you choose only those actions which are necessary and there is a correlation between an individual’s personality and the precise choice of their actions. Uraev tells us this while his students devise a fencing sequence around a rhythm he has given them. “Everything that grandpa Stanislavski taught is contained within a fencing class.” But thinking about the tradition and decorum, the thing that strikes me the most is how each class and each routine begins with a ritualistic greeting. This is the case also when someone enters the classroom unexpectedly.

These students’ commitment to their work is absolute, unwavering, unquestioning. And it is often reflective of what their movement teacher Slava Rybakov has called the ‘Chinese system’: ‘when you can do it, push yourself further’. And they do push themselves further, much further beyond what the health and safety rules would permit in the UK – jumping onto and straddling each other, pulling on each others’ limbs, holding each other suspended in mid-air. And Slava gets seriously cross with them if they do something that he has warned them against, but otherwise he addresses them as ‘ladies and gentlemen’, and he tells them jokes.

One theorist that does come to mind in this context however is Jacques Ranciere and his 1987 text on pedagogy and emancipation Le Maitre ignorant. Here Ranciere famously recounted the case of Joseph Jacotot who in the late 19th century gained a significant insight into pedagogy when he simply set his Flemish students a task of reading Homer and writing an essay in French even though none of them understood each other’s languages. When they completed the task, Jacotot realised that they have gained knowledge independently without him having to provide it for them, and that indeed the ability to learn was inherent to all of us whether or not we had a (knowing) teacher. Needless to say Jacotot’s promotion of his own discovery caused great scandal in enlightened capitalist Europe. A question going through my mind was - could Slava or Andrey be able to function as Ranciere’s virtuous ‘ignorant masters’? Could they have that luxury? Probably not – partly because of the students’ expectation too. This is the place directly linked to the uber-master himself Konstantin Stanislavsky – and there is no Rancerian ‘emancipation’ here, not even when the students have graduated. But then there is little learning by independent enquiry among the Olympic athletes too.

Moscow and Muscovites 

Even if you have been to Moscow before, it repeatedly presents itself as a surprising and unfathomable place. Quite magical at times. On our first walk down the Tverskaya street, our lovely hostess Nastia– a former opera singer currently training at the MHAT as a producer and simultaneously running the school’s American section – shows us all the pre-revolution buildings and merchants’ houses that have been physically moved to make the street wider. This up until now may have seemed like the stuff of fairytales. Then we’re introduced to ‘the palaces for the people’ – Moscow’s metro stations. And eventually – a moment that gave me great delight – we find out in passing where Soviet cosmonauts used to live (the Presnya Tower – one of seven architectural wonders of the Stalinist period).

My idea of Russia was always informed by the impression that the Soviet communism was much tougher and poorer than the liberal Yugoslav brand which I grew up on. We’d often heard stories of hunger and queuing and grayness and suffering. But walking through Moscow today – as probably ever before – one is confronted at every step with endless imperial ostentatiousness. Marble and crystal and semi-precious stone gracing many public buildings’ interiors. This includes the ‘palaces for the people’ too. Still, however impressive and nourishing for your aesthetic sensibilities, these surroundings would hardly have kept Soviet stomachs from rambling for a very long time. On my first night, my trepidation concerning Russian winter was unexpectedly reversed when, surprisingly for me, I couldn’t fall asleep in a permanently heated apartment. Supermarkets and restaurants – which are often open 24 hours a day – inspired a desire to live here for at least a year in order to be able to try all the supremely imaginative salads and cakes and fresh fruit delicacies. Though the latter might just be the sign of the times, it is evident that Russia had once been a major empire and that that amount of excessive private wealth – and its inevitable flip side of excessive poverty – must have been necessary in the first place for the idea of communist revolution to take place here in practice. (I wonder how on earth it had occurred to anyone in the Balkans, where any amassed capital was so totally negligible by comparison, that communism would ever be a viable prospect?)

But then there is something else that all of these Slavic tribes share – both Orthodox and Catholic ones: the power of the dogma, the ecclesiastical notion of ‘the keepers of the faith’. Unlike their Protestant brothers who would attend their minimalist unadorned churches at perfectly regular intervals dutifully ticking off various religious and civil duties off their annual ‘to do’ list, the Slavs appear to be absolute in their fanaticisms. It is only when I came to the UK that I discovered that ‘being a martyr’ did not necessarily imply a virtue.

This sort of religious/ ideological fanaticism could easily extend to most other areas of life – education, sport, politics, even gulags. It is often held against the Yugoslav communist president Josip Broz Tito that following Yugoslavia’s split from the Soviet Union in 1948 he set up a gulag-like institution on a bare island in the Adriatic called Goli Otok in order to re-educate staunch Stalinists there and get Stalin out of their hearts and minds. Even if it sounds like a tautological tragedy, one wonders what alternative there would have been…

And so onto the houses of Muscovites we visited on our trip. First there was Stanislavsky’s last apartment – the place he was moved into when his considerable family heritage had been requisitioned by the communist authorities. Having enough space in this 17th century apartment with hand-painted ceilings for rehearsals, salonic gatherings and private quarters for all the family members – the Stanislavskys appeared to have fared well after all at this difficult time. Even his fear of the draught was accommodated and all doors refitted as double-sided.

Meyerhold’s apartment is a very different sort of story. Even though according to a documentary they would play for you here, Meyerhold as a one time director of public parades revealed to Stalin the power of that tear-jerking trick where the president receives flowers from a random child, Stalin continued to hug children well after he had sent Meyerhold to prison. Stanislavsky managed to save Meyerhold temporarily and delay his ugly fate, however when the master died from ill health in 1938, soon his former protégé followed. A former Protestant-turned-Orthodox, Meyerhold however found a great deal of zeal for the Bolshevik revolution, but his artistic innovation, a taste for satire and a rejection of social realism eventually got him into trouble. The most tragic story hovering in between the walls of this apartment is that concerning his second wife and muse, actress Zinaida Raikh. A year after Meyerhold was taken into prison, Raikh wrote a letter to Stalin pleading for her husband to be released. However, instead, a couple of anonymous assassins broke into their apartment and stabbed Raikh seventeen times, deliberately avoiding her vital organs so that she would bleed to death. She left behind two children from her earlier relationship with the poet Sergey Yesenin.

Finally, Bulgakov’s house was pure magic in many respects. I should perhaps just leave it at that and advise you strongly not to miss it if you're ever in the neighbourhood…


Directed by Yuri Butusov and starring one of the MHAT master-teachers – Kostantin Raikin, Richard III has now been running for six years at the Satirikon Theatre. Although not easily reachable by public transport, this is a must-see production for any true theatre enthusiast on a visit to Moscow. And we certainly didn’t regret our trek – which involved a tube and a ride on a ‘marshrutka’ (a cross between a taxi and a mini-bus).

Black and white, angular, mostly uplit and extraordinarily dynamic, this production is immediately enticing. Maybe because Moscow is currently plastered with giant posters of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I keep thinking of this reference too, not least because the scene changes have a mad-hatter quality to them and Queen Margaret (played by Natalia Vdovina who is also cast as Lady Anne) sports a massive orange wig. I had seen one similarly exhilarating Richard III set in a kindergarten before – the 1998 Malachi Bogdanov production with Paul Hunter in the title role, and cut down to fit into a small-scale touring circuit slot. Butusov’s production is a full-length rendition of Shakespeare’s play, in the 19th century translation by Gregory Ben and Aleksander Druzhinin and adapted here as a ‘tragi-farce’ in the key of an illustrated-bedtime-story. A bed – or a slight distortion of it – is a prominent part of Alexander Shishkin’s set, and Richard’s famous wooing attempts tend to literally unfold from a grave into this horizontal throne. In addition the whole stage is covered in white sheets of changing textures. Often featuring two-dimensional cut-outs of animals, furniture which towers over the protagonists and a musical accompaniment which mixes cabaret, bossanova and a playing-den brass-orchestra, the production also at times evokes German Expressionism and Ionesco. It is not a surprise when subsequently we discover that forty-odd year old Butusov’s greatest hits which, propelled him to international fame in the early stages of his career, included a production of Woyzeck and of Ionesco’s Macbett.

There are memorably poignant moments here too however. Clarence is killed as glasses of red wine are flung onto his white night-shirt. Margaret’s curse is delivered in a snow storm as she stands on top of a giant kitchen table. The snow storm motif is repeated during Richard’s dream in the second half, and his speech is delivered like a nursery rhyme.  On the battlefield he is haunted by the dead princes who are having a pillow-fight just like they did moments before their death. The frolicking brothers are also given the very last ‘word’ in the show – chasing each other around Richard’s dead body as it gets bound up in the silky sheets which had first seen the deaths of his victims – thus somehow appearing to restore the divine justice.

Having managed to obtain a meeting with the otherwise very busy director, we got an opportunity to hear some additional first hand insights into the creative process that led to this production. I will write about this in more detail elsewhere, but can reveal here a few words concerning the snow – seeing as it was such an important part of our whole trip and not just this production alone. The snow, Butusov informed us, was representative of ‘changes in reality’. There are emotional reasons underlying these choices – the sense of being covered... It is also reminiscent of Christmas-time and a particular ritual which all Russians know and remember from their childhood – the festive custom of being put on a chair and asked to recite a poem. For a child it is often a terrible moment, a moment of sickness which often leads to the horror of forgetting your words. ‘And then of course what this leads to is a desire to become an actor or a director in order to resolve this complex caused by a bad memory’. For Butusov on this occasion, the main motor in creating this piece was his main actor Konstantin Raikin’s childhood and the problems that accompany growing up in the shadow of a famous father, with the son having to prove that he is deserving of being an actor in his own right.

Another, very lucky for us, outcome of this unexpected encounter with Butusov was an opportunity to see the entirely sold out and much talked about production of Uncle Vanya running at the Vakhtangov Theatre since September 2009. He offered to arrange the tickets for us and Nastia and Pavlina declared that we simply could not pass on an opportunity like that.

But the first few moments of the much anticipated performance of Uncle Vanya, preceded by a brief reception at the Artistic Director Rimas Tuminas’ cabinet, left us a bit baffled. Here was standard Chekhov as far as verbal delivery was concerned. The whole piece was underscored by an utterly exquisite requiem-like score by the Lithuanian composer Faustas Latenas, and the very deep set designed by Adomasa Yatsovskisa consisted of a hanging full moon, a statue of a reclining white lion in the background and a carpentry-workshop table in the front. Once again black and white colours predominated in this world, but what was giving the whole experience a decidedly odd and mystifying impression was the movement of actors which at times seemed entirely disembodied and at others excessively stylised, but for no discernable reason. On his first entry, Uncle Vanya, played by the beloved Russian actor Segey Makovetsky, ambles on with his arms hanging in front of him as if they don’t belong to him. Then all the rest of the cast, as a chorus, in butoh-like slow motion advance down the stage. Yelena strikes up a series of tableaus, which Vanya admires. I have numerous notes about exposed legs (including those of old Maria Vasilyevna who is here sporting a Louise Brooks-type bob and dark glasses), or shoes and impatient feet… But through most of the first half I was thinking precisely about the whole mission which my visit was a part of – the problem of tradition vs. innovation…

On the previous day we had met a GITIS professor of the history of art and theatre, Bartoshevich. He has written books about Shakespeare and he goes to Stratford upon Avon for a Shakespeare conference every summer, but he rarely sees anything that he particularly likes in British theatre. He finds it mostly ‘perfunctory’ he says – even Greg Doran’s Hamlet with David Tennant in the title role was just a beautifully packaged theatrical souvenir ‘for tourists’. It seems that he clearly thought that Russian theatre was more exciting – and he may well be right when it came to the staging of classics. But the most exciting exponents of Russian theatre in my view – Derevo and their spiritual step-father Slava Polunin – were self-taught and working outside of the country. I was watching the first half of Uncle Vanya admiring it aesthetically but wondering how long it would take before any kind of artistic and ideological pluralism was truly possible in any of the former communist countries (including my own). How far can it all go down this same route, within its own bubble, and for how much longer can it possibly be perpetrated? Even though Tuminas himself is Lithuanian and therefore probably perceived as quite exotic in his style around here, this is still the same paradigm, the same way of working, the same theatre vocabulary. Lehman’s Postdramatic theatre may well be part of the verbal vocabulary here – but will it ever be identifiable in the Russain creative practice? How would someone like Tim Crouch go down here? And isn’t it ironic that in fact it was not the British theatre that was the last bastion of literary theatre after all… Yes, the British are comparatively theatrically unadventurous when it comes to drama, but the British notion of ‘devising’ still doesn’t have a true equivalent or examples of notable quality in the creative practices of a lot of other cultures…

My thinking was also partly influenced by another event witnessed earlier in the day. We had accompanied the Producing students to the Bolshoi theatre for their class with Mr Getsman – the Deputy General Manager (effectively Man number 2 in the entire organisation). After a bit of a wait he arrived with a coffee, an ashtray and a packet of cigarettes. Despite it being a Friday afternoon he didn’t seem in a particularly good mood. He had a brief exchange with the students before he announced that the topic of today’s class was ‘integration’. He gave a detailed run down of the Russian cultural economy and funding system (one of the students was helpfully writing it all down in English for us), before he lit a cigarette and embarked on a passionate diatribe in response to one of the questions asked. He went red and his eyes bulged ominously as he pressed down the point that when he wants to make business with his French colleagues (it being the year of French culture in Russia at the moment) they look at him in shock when he tries to explain the complexities of the system and how much he depends on the state. The state still holds all the funding and it takes all the revenue back including the profits, leaving Mr Getsman’s hands tied. Even though – as he made sure he told us after the class – the Bolshoi employs around 3000 people on long term contracts (including both the administration and the artists) – which is more than any other Opera House in Europe. Its scale is easily discernable just by looking at the size and splendour of the interiors; and worth noting also is the fact that its various buildings are connected by underground corridors which run underneath the street level – in a truly inimitable Moscow way.

It was only in the second act of Tuminas’ Uncle Vanya, therefore that the director’s concept revealed itself more explicitly – especially by the time Sonya ties up her hair readying her self to ‘work’, and proceeds to try and open Uncle Vanya’s eyes before his ‘wind up’ mechanism takes him off stage. This Russia indeed is still a puppet-making, doll-producing workshop. Much beauty and charm – and soul too, of course! – but no autonomy of any kind. No single puppet-master either, just a sense of no one really being an owner of their own individuality and their own fate.

And this is how on reflection, perhaps, Mr Getsman's pedagogical style may have suggested a third model of a master - neither the knowing nor the ignorant - but the one who wishes to incite a change.