Barry Gaines*

European Theatre Prize, 17th edition, St Petersburg, Russia,
13-17 November 2018

The 17th Europe Theatre Prize (ETP) with accompanying ceremonies and festivities has returned to Saint Petersburg, Russia, at a time of reflection and concern about political and cultural forces. The President of the Europe Theatre Prize, Jack Lang, wrote in the official program, “Today, more than ever, we need that art that reveals us to ourselves. … More and more, we need meetings and confrontations, shared moments in a theatre that knows how to awaken our consciences, to bring us back to life and drag us out of the torpor and insecurity of our lost European days.” Many of the ETP performances attempted to focus on contemporary events despite (or because of) the historic setting of the scripts chosen.

Left to right: Małgorzata Zawadzka (Miss Stockmann), Michał Majnicz (Editor Hovstad) and Juliusz Chrząstowski (Doctor Tomas Stockmann), in An Enemy of the People. Photo: Stary Theatr

A clear example is The Helena Modrzejewska National Stary Theatre of Cracow, Poland, production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, directed by Jan Klata. The plot of this work is familiar. Doctor Tomas Stockmann (Juliusz Chrząstowski) finds proof that the water in the newly opened town spa is contaminated and plans to publish an article in Hovstad’s (Michał Majnicz) newspaper. Tomas’s brother Peter (Radoslaw Krzyżowski)—the local mayor—warns him that such exposure means ruin to the town. Various characters debate the issue, and the doctor’s righteous arguments for truth and progress are rejected by the townspeople who turn on him.

Ibsen must have wished to criticize the hypocrisy of Victorian morality through his play, but director Klata is not satisfied with Ibsen’s themes. While the Ibsen plot is acted on stage, there are interruptions of cacophony and choreography. Instead of a neat Norwegian village, the stage is cluttered with junk that is casually thrown around. And the actor portraying Dr. Stockmann drops his character identity and harangues the audience with a tirade about current Polish problems.

Dimitry Vorobiev (The Governor). Photo: Franko Bonfiglio

A subtler approach to political commentary was Andrey Moguchy’s staging of The Governor. Moguchy is artistic director of the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theatre in St. Petersburg since 2013 and was awarded the 12th Europe Prize New Theatrical Realities. The Governor is based on short stories by Leonid Andreev written at the turn of the twentieth century; the play begins with the bloody assassination of the Governor (powerful Dimitry Vorobiev), who then looks back at the situations and actions that led to his violent end.

The Governor remains downstage talking directly to the audience while the events he precipitated are performed upstage behind him. The scenic design by Alexander Shishkin and costumes by Sergei Illarionov are spectacular on a grand scale. For example, stacks of dead striking workers shot at the Governor’s command provide a harrowing demonstration of casual violence. Natalya Krymskaya’s makeup transforms faces into grey, ghostly masks. Videos of the desolate countryside and its doomed inhabitants are projected upstage.

Against this alarming backdrop, the Governor reconsiders his life and recognizes that his violent end is deserved.

Tony Servillo (Jouvet) and Petra Valentini (Claudia) in Elvira (Elvira Jouvet 40). Photo: Fabio Esposito

In St. Petersburg’s magnificent Maly Drama Theatre, Italian maestro Tony Servillo provided a masterclass in directing and acting with Elvira (Elvire Jouvet 40). The play (translated into Italian by Giuseppe Montesano) is based on Brigitte Jacques’s transcription of lessons given by French actor Louis Jouvet in Nazi-occupied Paris, in 1940. Jouvet was rehearsing a scene from Moliere’s play about Don Juan, where Elvira, Don Juan’s wife whom he seduced from a convent, tries to convince the philanderer to repent.

Servillo directs and portrays Jouvet, while Petra Valentini is Claudia, the apprentice actress facing the challenge of playing Elvira. Servillo is marvellous as Jouvet, his hands in constant motion and his face conveying as much as his words. Jouvet interrupts Claudia’s attempts at the scene with both simple and complex observations on the nature of acting and the relationship between actor and character. As meaningful as these directions are, however, it is difficult to see their effects in Claudia’s acting.

Director Servillo thinks the setting of Nazi occupation to be important, perhaps because the original Claudia could not actually perform the role because she was Jewish. Yet, the only suggestion of the Third Reich in this staging is a radio upstage that spouts German. And the ironic information about the Jewish actress is projected on the back wall after the action is over—a seeming afterthought. The intersession of German soldiers would have enlivened the play’s end. Still, the opportunity to hear Jouvet’s theatrical insights delivered by Toni Servillo was exciting.

Danila Kozlovsky (Hamlet) and the “three weird brothers” Igor Ivanov, Sergey Kurishev and Sergey Kozirev). Set design by Alexander Borovsky. Photo: Maly Drama Theatre

Lev Dodin is Artistic Director and General Manager of the Maly Drama Theatre and was awarded the Europe Theatre Prize in 2001. I was shocked at Dodin’s interpretation of Hamlet at the Mali and amazed at how much I enjoyed it! Shakespeare’s tragedy is the best known of his plays and, perhaps, the ultimate challenge to directors and actors. Dodin and his fine designers, cast and crew have done the almost impossible—providing a reboot of Hamlet that is powerfully exciting and thought-provoking.

The audience enters to Alexander Borovsky’s scenic design of wooden rectangles above a void instead of a stage floor. A solid stage surface will be assembled as the production builds. Three ladders rise above the wooden form. The stage proscenium is another set of rectangles: iron pipe framing covered with white sheeting. The arrangement looks like new construction or, more accurately, a renovation.

Instead of nervous soldiers changing the watch in Denmark’s darkness and cold, this production starts with Hamlet (an excellent Danila Kozlovsky) and his mother Gertrude (brilliant Ksenia Rappoport) dancing a passionate tango in front of the stage. They exchange dialogue from Hamlet, but not its first scene. This pattern is repeated throughout the drama. Lines from the play (and other Shakespearean sources and works) appear as their content dictates. Purists may find this off-putting, but most audience members will follow this new distilled version of the play with secondary characters and scenes vaporized without damage to the through-story.

Ophelia (Ekaterina Tarasova) is Polonius’s (Stanislav Nicolsky) sister (subsuming the character Laertes), and Marcellus (Igor Ivanov), Horatio (Sergey Kurishev) and Bernardo (Sergey Kozirev) become “the weird brothers” (my wife’s term) performing from the ladders—a King Lear speech, for example, instead of a Hecuba-centric one. Director Dodin’s laser-like focus on Hamlet’s family, love and ambition provides insights to those willing to view the play with new perspective.

If one can appreciate what this production of Hamlet provides, instead of what it omits, the power of the play is intensified: the burden of revenge, the “pangs of dispraised love,” the authority of destiny and the humanity of the Renaissance prince thrill us again. Lev Dodin’s Hamlet assembles a new stage for the Prince of Denmark.

Are you listening, Europe? 


*Barry Gaines is Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of New Mexico, where he taught Shakespeare from 1979 to 2010. He reviewed theatre in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, for fifteen years, and is the former Administrator of ATCA, the American Theatre Critics Association. His volume for The Complete Works of Thomas Heywood is awaiting publication at Oxford University Press.

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