Russian Theatre Before the Crash

Christine Matvienko*

The 2020 Golden Mask Festival in Moscow was postponed because of the coronavirus threat, and likewise the accompanying Russian Case, a showcase for foreign visitors. As a jury member, Christine Matvienko saw the productions before the pandemic.

Russian theatre before the pandemic was diverse and interesting both in its choice of actual subjects and in its shape. Its most interesting trend is not only aesthetic, but the possibility for being a place for communication. The closed world of art is under critical scrutiny. Young theatre artists are concerned with an open community, not vertical art anymore. What will be left tomorrow, after the end of the pandemic catastrophe?

The poets are discussing while drinking tea in the kitchen. Photo: Vladimir Averin

The Analysis of Horror by Boris Pavlovich (Kvartira Project, Alma Mater Fund, St. Petersburg) is a site-specific project performed in the publishing house of the famous magazine New World (Novy Mir), which played a huge role as an independent medium in the 1960s. The actors read texts from the Russian avant-garde (OBERIUs) of the 1930s and involve the audience in the far from ordinary lives of the room’s inhabitants. They talk about literature and philosophy, drink tea and vodka, eat food and play chess. The performance runs for 4 hours. At first, the spectators are witnesses to a party of intellectuals, but later they take on the roles of main characters.

These characters—Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolay Zabolotsky, other poets and philosophers—used to gather in the flat of the philosopher Leonid Lipavsky in Petrograd, from 1933 till 1934. Most of them were later imprisoned and killed by the Soviet NKVD. The poets were men, but they are portrayed here by both male and female actors, all dressed alike in masculine costumes. The characters’ life was very difficult: they were unemployed, with no money and nowhere to live, but during their meetings they kept talking about a new theory of language, poetry and gravitation. The Analysis of Horror is set in the past, but, in fact, it is analyzing our contemporary life. The apocalyptic mood is more urgent now than it was yesterday—that is why the spectator-participants of this performance felt such a strong connection with the characters, who spent their time in a cold flat talking about art, just before their death.

A spectator reads one of the manuscripts from the screen. Photo: Natalya Korenovskaya

The Well-Tempered Manuscripts, presented by Teatr Post (an independent group from St. Petersburg), is also interested in the past. Dmitry Volkostrelov, their intellectual and concept-based theatre director, took a collection of medieval manuscripts from Novgorod, the ancient capital of old Russia. The manuscripts, written in Old Slavonic, describe complaints, judgements and personal matters from people’s ordinary life in the countryside. The spectators were divided in two groups—one meant to be witnesses, the other actors. The members of the first group took it in turns to read manuscripts on screen to the second group. Though both groups consisted of native Russian speakers, the most difficult thing for them was to understand the meaning of these texts.

When asked to interpret the meaning of the texts, we discovered the difference between the image of the word and its meaning. Only a few of us so-called actors could reconstruct the inner meaning of these messages. Finally, all our recorded voices were collected into an audio file. We then sat in darkness, listening to human voices trying to read the letters of our ancestors. Unexpectedly, we realized that the distance between past and presence is not so huge. The same complaints about neighbors, the same offended citizens, the same punishments. One unusual thing in Russian history was specific to the medieval Novgorod Republic: even though they were slaves, people addressed their masters as equals.

Volkostrelov has said that at the end of 2010, the time of stagnation, he preferred to investigate a distant past rather than contemporary life, because he was not sure how to tackle that moment of general amnesia. That is why he investigated the past—the Russian Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance and Russian classic literature. Even now when everything has changed and Russia is facing the dramatic circumstances of the pandemic, Volkostrelov’s artistic strategy seems to be one of the most fertile and productive.

The family of the scientist celebrates New Year’s Eve 1999, before the Millennium, when Boris Yeltsin left the presidency. Photo: Frol Podlesny

One more example of the changing times is Children of the Sun by Timofey Kulyabin (A Red Torch, Novosibirsk). Kulyabin and the playwright Olga Fedyanina (basically a theatre critic) changed the time and place of Gorky’s play, written in 1905 during his imprisonment in the Petropavlavskaya fortress in St. Petersburg. (Maxim Gorky, the famous Russian-Soviet writer, took part in both Russian Revolutions, of 1905 and 1917.) In Kulyabin’s version, set on the eve of the new year 2000, the main characters, who are scientists, try to change life.

The main tension of Gorky’s play is the conflict between the intelligentsia and the people who hate them because of their economic and social plight. The people are rough, but they have the right to destroy the old system. In Kulyabin’s production, the scientists are talented Russian immigrants who have left the country because of aggressive people and bad living conditions. It makes a very controversial statement, albeit more relevant to the Russian intelligentsia of the twentieth century than those of the present.

There is a row of four rooms on the stage, each belonging to one of the main characters. The action takes place simultaneously in all the rooms, and the audience looks at them as a part of a house. This creates a feeling of a closed Russian community. Children of the Sun, like many of Kulyabin’s performances, was created under a strong influence of European mainstream theatre, German in particular, but with a typically Russian, psychological way of acting. Before the pandemic, Kulyabin was one of the most successful Russian directors who made his career in Europe.

The inhabitants of the small Russian town are praying to their owner. Photo: Sergey Krasnoukhov

The Storm, directed by Alexander Sozonov, is based on the famous play by Alexander Ostrovsky, the most important playwright of the nineteenth century, who wrote about women’s rights, the dark influence of the orthodox church, corruption and many other burning issues of Russian life. Sozonov studied in Moscow, but he staged this play in Yushno-Sakhalinsk, 9 hours’ flight from Moscow. Sakhalin island was described by Anton Chekhov as a very interesting place with a horrific history. Large camps for Russian prisoners have been there since the nineteenth century. During Soviet times, Sakhalin was a place for earning big money—so there are a lot of migrants from all over the country.

The mother-in-law (Natalya Krasilova) threatens Katerina (Alla Kokhan), the main character of the play.

The Storm is directed as a fantasy dystopia, with a preface from the noted Russian postmodernist Vladimir Sorokin. The action takes place in a distant future where Russia has run out of oil and gas but is full of orthodoxy and patriotism. The text was rewritten by the director himself with his friends from a TV stand-up comedy crew, so the jokes sound great. The main line in The Storm is a dramatic love story, but the core of this performance is the image of Russia—how it is constructed in Putin’s era by the media and official cultural policy.

At the end of this Far-Eastern version of a classic Russian play, the country is occupied by the Chinese. This serves as ironic local colour: Sakhalin belongs to the Russian Federation but at the same time it is a separate island.

The Iranian girl makes her final speech about her love of Mohammed. Photo by Ira Polyanskaya

“The power of the East” is discussed at the Iran Conference (Theatre of Nations, Moscow)—a performance based on Ivan Vyrypaev’s play and directed by Victor Ryzhakov with eminent actors. The play is written as a series of reports at a major political conference at a Scandinavian university. The conference is devoted to the issues of the Middle East and the Iranian political situation. The play is pretending to be a conference but is, in fact, a philosophical parable about humanity, faith, fakery and love. Every time a new speaker appears, he/she strongly doubts the value of the previous speech. Vyrypaev demonstrates that any point of view can be weak and controversial. There is no prophet among us. And no real sincerity. The last speaker is an Iranian woman who, in order to find real love, went through a devastating love affair only to be rejected. Finally, she admitted that her real lover is Mohammed. This final point comes absolutely unexpectedly.

The Golden Mask also selected some new kinds of theatre. As usual, these performances were directed by groups of young artists. Here are two important innovative productions devoted to the hot issues of contemporary Russian society.

The girls resist men’s pressure. Photo Arthur Shustrov

28 days is a feminist play written 3 years ago by young playwright Olga Shilyaeva. This first menstrual cycle tragedy features a chorus of 28 episodes about hormones, pain and the shame which women feel when they buy sanitary towels in the pharmacy. Yury Muravitsky directed this poetic text like an oratorio with the young actors from his drama course at the Moscow School of New Cinema in Teatr.doc. They transform the text into the battle between gender stereotypes and science, hormones and the rational mind. The play hurts neither the feelings of feminists, nor of those for whom the topic has been stigmatized up till now.

The spectators are listening to the children’s monologues. Photo: The Golden Mask

An immersive performance by Victoria Privalova and Eugene Kazachkov, Hello, Mom! is an audio-guided tour through the spaces of memory. It is constructed like an exhibition with a table overflowing with candy, a wardrobe one can hide in, a fridge one can leave a message on, a table with a woman’s wig. All these items connect in one way or another to the stories every audience member hears in their headphones. The voices tell of childhood memories and talk about key moments in mother-child relationships. As a rule, these relationships were traumatic for the children. But one story is about a son who regrets his lost relationship with his mother, who died from cancer. The stories are combined into a psychotherapeutic dialogue of each spectator with his mother.


*Christine Matvienko (born 1974) lives in Moscow, Russia. She is a theatre critic and researcher. She has also worked as artistic director for the New Play Festival (Moscow). Her Theatre Research PhD is from St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy. In addition to her critical work for Russian newspapers and magazines, she has worked for the New Drama Festival and managed playwriting and documentary theatre workshops in Russian theatres. Since 2015, she has been curator for the educational program at the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre.

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