A review of the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, 2015

Mark Brown*

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To talk of Georgian theatre in an international context is, first-and-foremost, to talk of the country’s national theatre, the Rustaveli, and of its acclaimed, longstanding artistic director Robert Sturua. However, a visit to the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre (which is, by most accounts, the premier theatre festival in Georgia) suggests that Georgian theatre has considerably more than this one famous string to its bow.

Past experience had taught me that both the Royal District Theatre of Tbilisi and the city’s Music and Drama Theatre were homes to estimable companies. The former presented a memorable adaptation of Euripides’s Trojan Women[1] at the Swedish Performing Arts Biennial in Jönköping in 2013, whilst the latter had impressed during the 2014 TIFT programme with a fine staging of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths.

The 2015 TIFT programme reconfirmed the status of these two companies, with the Royal District offering an excellent production of Genet’s The Maids and the Music and Drama Theatre exciting with an innovative, modern dress version of Medea by Euripides. It is my good fortune to have seen both companies staging significant plays from the European modernist canon and the Ancient Greek pantheon (both by Euripides, as it happens); selections which give some insight into the seriousness of the repertoire of contemporary Georgian theatre.

The Maids (Jean Genet)
The Maids (Jean Genet)

Director Nika Tavadze’s The Maids gave a compellingly political treatment to Genet’s drama of sexually charged class warfare in which two maids plan to murder their wealthy mistress. In western Europe, it has become almost a convention to prioritise the psycho-sexual in productions of this play; in the 2013 staging at the Citizens Theatre in my home city of Glasgow, Scotland, for example, excellent director Stewart Laing opted for an entirely young, male cast.

Tavadze’s rendering strikes a careful balance between the visceral class hatred the maids feel towards their mistress (and vice versa), and the sexual uncertainties and implicit sadomasochism of the servants’ role play. The strong, modern costume and set designs by Keti Nadibaidze add to the production’s confident sense of identity.

However, the show’s strongest suit lies in its remarkable cast. I understand that Nata Murvanidze, Nino Kasradze and Baia Dvalishvili are among the most acclaimed actresses in Georgia. Given their robust-yet-subtle performances here, which shift, seemingly effortlessly, between mordant comedy and palpable rage, this comes as no surprise.

There is dark humour, too, in Mikheil Charkviani’s inventive staging of Medea for the Music and Drama Theatre. The play is set in the kind of ultra-modern kitchen you might expect to find in the home of a fashionable, albeit out-of-favour, former member of a 21st-century royal family.

Medea
Medea

This bold and brilliant design is, one assumes from the lack of a stage design credit in the programme, the work of Charkviani himself. At the centre of the set is, entirely plausibly, a huge flat screen TV on which we see Jason and his new bride, pop star Glauce, engaged in energetic celebration of their nuptials, to Medea’s visible anguish and fury. No less enraging for Medea are the MTV-style videos of Glauce in full sex sells mode, as a kind of Georgian Miley Cyrus.

In the hands of a lesser director and a lesser cast, this concept could have seen the production descend into an insubstantial work of postmodern gimmickry. However, the beauty of the piece is that it relates the gravitas and poetics of Euripides’s tragedy to modern realities, rather than diminishing the Attic play with the feeble disposabilities of contemporary pop culture.

For instance, David Beshitaishvili’s cynical Creon, King of Corinth is every inch the corporate politician of late capitalism. When, in a shudderingly terrible moment, he rapes Medea, we are confronted with a timeless act of misogynistic violence which speaks to rape as a war crime in our world today.

In a generally fine cast, Kakha Kintsurashvili also shines as Jason. He plays Euripides’s prince as a modern playboy, somewhere between Cristiano Ronaldo and a member of the decadent, jet setting Saudi Arabian elite.

However, the greatest performance of the evening comes, as it must, from Buba Gogorishvili in the title role. With her ill-fated children playing at her feet, she is compellingly agitated as she tries to suppress the boiling anger aroused by her humiliation.

Glamorous, tattooed, her hair cut short, the outsider from Colchis (in modern day Georgia) is the victim of suspicion and xenophobia. Gogorishvili plays brilliantly to the Corinthians’ sense of her as a wild and dangerous barbarian.

This image is inevitably laced with notions of an exciting, primal sexuality. The actor expresses this powerfully as her Medea seduces Jason, using a parting sexual tryst to buy time for her revenge.

One is impressed by the capacity of Charkviani’s production to relocate this classic tragedy to the modern day without losing any of its extraordinary moral weight. It is a production that deserves to be seen internationally.

Elsewhere in the Festival, Robert Sturua disappointed with a somewhat flat staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the splendid Rustaveli Theatre, while Romanian master Silviu Purcarete offered A Tempest, a visually impressive, if somewhat uneven, version of the Bard of Avon’s final play. The Vaso Abashidze theatre company of Tbilisi presented Three Sisters, a variable, but sometimes affecting “choreodrama” based on Chekhov’s play and set to gorgeous music by Alfred Schnittke.

The less said about 1945, an appalling piece about Adolf Hitler by the Nodar Dumbadze Professional State Youth Theatre of Tbilisi, the better. Aimed at young audiences, yet explaining the Nazi Holocaust, not by way of political history, but through a cod psychological caricature of Hitler’s childhood and youth, it is simply the most irresponsible work of art on this theme that I have ever seen.[2]

The shock of 1945 notwithstanding, this, my third visit to the Tbilisi Festival, reconfirmed my admiration of Georgian theatre, in general, and of this ambitious and prestigious programme, in particular.


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*Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald and Scottish critic of the UK national title the Daily Telegraph. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, for which he is also adjunct director of young critics’ seminars. He is a member of the editorial board of Critical Stages.

[1] Euripides’s text was connected with the testimonies of women caught up in the conflicts in Georgia in the 21st-century.

[2] My reviews, originally published in the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald, of 1945, A Tempest and Three Sisters can be read at the following page of my website: https://scottishstage.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/review-tbilisi-international-festival-of-theatre-2015/

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Genet and Euripides Done Excellent Justice in Tbilisi