Shakespeare by Elchin (Elchin Efendiyev), directed by Petru Vutkereu, stage design by Nazim Beykishiyev and Ramin Beykishiyev. Premiered at Azerbaijan National Drama Theatre on the 6th of March, 2012.

Maryam Alizade[1]

Meryem-Elizade-8x6

Once upon a time…

There was, in an unknown country, in an unknown place, a madhouse, where the notion of time had never existed. The inhabitants of this place felt that they were in the paradise of their imagination and lived free, crazy, happy days…

***

As we entered the auditorium, the director (Petru Vutkereu of Moldova) and stage designers (head of design, People’s Artist Nazim Beykishiyev and artist Ramin Beykishiyev) enticed us into the complex and extraordinary setting of Shakespeare by the eminent writer and playwright Elchin, the pen-name of Elchin Efendiyev (b. 1943)…

Parviz Bagirov as Stalin (left), Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian, Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife, and Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt in "Shakespeare."
Parviz Bagirov as Stalin (left), Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian, Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife, and Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt in “Shakespeare.”

The stage evokes a mysterious realm ruled by the colour white. This time, this theatre’s traditional curtains, velvet and shiny, were replaced by secret, magical, sheer white gauze curtains with pieces of gossamer attached as symbols of purity, honesty and illness, preparing the audience for what was about to happen on the stage. Despite the all-consuming whiteness, the sounds of happy lives‒merry laughter, innocent children’s games with a ball, a bike, hide and seek‒were heard behind it. In a word, the play starts with the characters in action… and their laughter in fully creative mode…

And the first one we see in a pool full of water downstage–the Head Doctor of the asylum–immediately declares his desire to end it all and even makes a jokingly timid attempt…

A stormy scene from "Shakespeare": Ayshad Mammadov as Head Doctor.
A stormy scene from “Shakespeare”: Ayshad Mammadov as Head Doctor.

The white gauze curtains open and the scene is a hospital asylum apparently built on the ruins of an ancient castle. And what is left of the ancient castle is a lamp on a pole and a door, and also Sarah Bernhardt’s rocking chair. The Head Doctor has a traditional office with blinds on one side, and there is a window looking out on the endless universe on the other side (for 17 years the Man From Venus has been staring out of this window, patiently waiting every day his fellow Venusians to come and get him), and trees, wrapped in gauze as if they were ill, are all over the stage: rootless, dried, white branches hang down, inseparably connected to the extraordinary inhabitants of this place.

But who are these people wandering around here?

The Head Doctor (actor Ayshad Mammadov), who is tired of his monotonous life and who often thinks about suicide… Dissatisfied with his days, he is one step away from mental disorder. It is as if the Head Doctor, who represents the pole of health, loses his freedom when he puts on his white coat and enters the world of “I must do this!” From his conversations with his patients he understands that his desire for freedom is being throttled, but he makes no effort to struggle for his own freedom… This Head Doctor has long reconciled himself to the negativity that surrounds him both at home and at work: the lack of love and attention in his family, the lies and stealing at work—in a word, with unpleasantness… These qualities in his nature have turned the Head Doctor‒actually an honest, intelligent man–into one reconciled to imperfections, one who kneels before them, a small cowardly and subservient figure… As a result, this gentle, civilized man settles into passive acceptance of the social drawbacks… And he gradually comes to the horrible realisation that there is not much difference, in essence, between his office with a screen and the patients’ ward… and it is going to be this way to the end of his life…

According to the Head Doctor the patients are the happiest ones in the world: “They are happy, they have forgotten their relatives and work”… He applies traditional therapeutic methods to all without considering either the particularities of their problems or their individual natures. It is clear that his form of therapy will certainly not cure the patients, but will disrupt the environment they have established to their own rules.

Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife (left) in the company of the Doctor (Nigar Gulahmedova) and Slash-13 (Anar Heybatov).
Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife (left) in the company of the Doctor (Nigar Gulahmedova) and Slash-13 (Anar Heybatov).

People who cannot escape the grip of their narrow confines because they have no internal freedom, no strong will–the Head Doctor, Doctor and Caretaker—are shown in miniature frames. They are desperate people who desire to be free, but cannot be free inside and they kill the desire in their hearts. The patients, however, are free in the worlds that they imagine… they are happy…

The Caretaker (actor Aslan Shirin) is unfamiliar with such feelings as humanity, dignity and compassion. He is light-fingered (…“I’m not stealing, I’m just taking”…), cruel and arrogant (only thinking about his stomach!)… The Caretaker is not only unpredictable and accurate in attack as presented on stage, but he also creates a sharp portrait of the Caretaker’s detestable deeds–the horrible, miserable creature’s (sub-human!) nastiness that he creates…

Sarah Bernhardt (actress Matanat Atakishiyeva), whose identity, past and fate were unknown until she arrived here, Stalin (actor Parviz Bagirov), the Venusian (actor Elshan Jabrayilov), Husband-Wife (actress Shalala Shahveledgizi) and Slash-13 (actor Anar Heybatov)…

Patients and medical personnel in "Shakespeare" from left to right: Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian, Aslan Shirin as Caretaker, Ayshad Mammadov as Head Doctor, Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt, Nigar Gulahmedova as Doctor and Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife.
Patients and medical personnel in “Shakespeare” from left to right: Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian, Aslan Shirin as Caretaker, Ayshad Mammadov as Head Doctor, Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt, Nigar Gulahmedova as Doctor and Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife.

I suppose I have left out the main characters, perhaps even the most important one–Shakespeare… But no, how can I forget Shakespeare, a man holding the same views as playwright Elchin, wishing to restore harmony in the world?!

The play reveals, layer by layer, the essence of those complex ideas in theatrical drama that are difficult to explain in words, but that have moral and psychological importance. This is thanks to the virtual image of Shakespeare, who feeds all the “tissues” and “cells” of the play that needs (as the desert needs water!) love… harmony… faith… This is how it creates the fascinating acting of this piece.

Yes, at first sight the patients and staff of an unremarkable mental hospital walk around a white stage before our eyes… But as the episodes follow one another, and scenes mark deeper layers of meaning and intention, we realise that our first impressions were rather naïve—that developing the play’s argument in a manner far from hasty is Elchin’s form of courage, and we are able to reach into the roots, meaning and philosophy of the play, which has a very complicated structure. This play is a product of the playwright’s contemporary thinking about a life without time or place—the life that fragile, helpless people without past or future have come to…

Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian (left) with Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt.
Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian (left) with Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt.

We note the catalyst effect of the painful thinking of a playwright who hides an original, fanciful mentality behind a sad smile…

We see how the stage embodiment of Elchin’s drama adds urgent themes and issues of world theatre to the process of Azerbaijan national theatre…

We see that Elchin is faithful to his original poetic drama. He is an inhabitant of both national and global dramatic space…

We see that in Shakespeare he has faced up to the moral chaos that has long since enveloped the world…

We see that Shakespeare, which has already drawn the attention of the international theatre, is the fourth of his comedies, which are related in their testing of the allegorical theme, “Who are the crazy ones?” from different points of view. Elchin is interested in “reality and moral-ethical health” … “pathological reality and its reflection in those who are healthy” … “pathological madness and its reflection in reality” … and finally, in “a world that has left its axis” (Hamlet) and in the light of Shakespeare’s genius, he is concerned with hope and belief in the triumph of harmony…

Each character has a completely different context and the scope of events becomes genuine theatre material, amazing us by becoming part of life… a moment… and a little history of that moment…

From Venus: Elshan Jabrayilov in "Shakespeare."
From Venus: Elshan Jabrayilov in “Shakespeare.”

Moral purity and romance are characteristic of all the patients. Although their psychological problems are different, it is their purity… sensitivity… childlike faith which create unity between them and elicits compassion…

The interesting question is, why Shakespeare? The play’s title, Shakespeare is, of course, no accident. Why do even the Head Doctor and the Caretaker, in whom we invest no hope of their becoming human, turn into fans of Shakespeare? Why is it particularly Shakespeare, who makes the Venusian, Husband-Wife, Stalin and Sarah Bernhardt forget their abnormal ambitions? Even Slash-13 himself bitterly regrets his ignorance of Shakespeare and his planet Vanderprandur’s ignorance of theatre…

Thus, the flying saucer that comes for Slash-13 in the finale takes Shakespeare (the book!) to the unknown planet too. And this is natural, because wherever there is humanity, there is also the desire for human development, and then there is also need for harmony. This episode is a celebration of faith and hope. When Slash-13 ascends to his planet, into the sky, to harmony, he tells Sarah and the patients: “I will open a theatre there, I’ll come and take you there too!” Sarah says that she will wait for him. The other patients also look after the flying saucer that has come for him with hope and regret and everyone is infected by the ecstasy… Even the Head Doctor, Doctor and Caretaker want to go to the other planet…

Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt (left) enjoys the company of Slash-13 (Anar Heybatov).
Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt (left) enjoys the company of Slash-13 (Anar Heybatov).

As a source of harmony, Shakespeare brings joy and hope to the people who have turned to him, who believe in him…

We find the answer to the question “Why Shakespeare?” that we asked above. And our tour of this question, the psychological problems great and small, the philosophical crosswords buzzing round our brains, finds answers from the playwright and theatre: everybody here, even an alien, needs Shakespeare–harmony…

The play allows us to approach the world’s infinite and inexhaustible moral spirituality.

Shakespeare took its first successful steps on the UNS Creative Stage, which opens its gates only to works of high professionalism, and later conquered the stages of Moscow’s ‘Dervish’ Theatre (Russia), the Crimea-Tatar Academic Musical Drama Theatre (Ukraine) and finally the Aloff Theatre (in the ‘Avant-garde’ theatre building) in London (UK)…

Yes, there is no doubt that our prominent playwright Elchin, with his Shakespeare, that has already crossed geographical borders, will represent well the theatre of Azerbaijan on many of the world’s prestigious stages …

Parviz Bagirov as Stalin (left), Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian, Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife, Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt, Aslan Shirin as Caretaker with Ayshad Mammadov (standing) the Head Doctor.
Parviz Bagirov as Stalin (left), Elshan Jabrayilov as Venusian, Shalala Shahveledgizi as Husband-Wife, Matanat Atakishiyeva as Sarah Bernhardt, Aslan Shirin as Caretaker with Ayshad Mammadov (standing) the Head Doctor.

Maryam Alizadeh (b. 1950, Baku, Azerbaijan) is a well-known theatre critic, Doctor of Arts. She has been Professor in the Theatre Criticism Department at the Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts since 1976. In the 1970s, she established a highly original new stream in the national theatrelogist science. She has authored five books, more than 300 theoretical and critical works, as well as some programs and methodological textbooks, including “Theatre criticism,” “The history and theory of theatre criticism,” “The history of Azerbaijan theatre,” and “The history of foreign theatre.” Her 18 postgraduate students all earned their PhDs.


Meryem-Elizade-8x6
[1] Maryam Alizade (b. 1950, Baku, Azerbaijan) is a well-known theatre critic, Doctor of Arts. She has been Professor in the Theatre Criticism Department at the Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts since 1976. In the 1970s, she established a highly original new stream in the national theatrelogist science. She has authored five books, more than 300 theoretical and critical works, as well as some programs and methodological textbooks, including “Theatre criticism,” “The history and theory of theatre criticism,” “The history of Azerbaijan theatre,” and “The history of foreign theatre.” Her 18 postgraduate students all earned their PhDs.

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A Sad Comedy, Dressed in White