Political performances in contemporary Russia: Lear.Comedy directed by Konstantin Bogomolov at Priyut Komedianta Theatre, Dario Fo’s Berlusputin translated by Svetlana Belova and directed by Varvara Fire at Teatr.doc.
Recent political events have become more and more interesting in Russia, and not only to the close community of politically engaged intellectuals, but also to the common people. This means the theatre should be involved in hot political debates. And after a lengthy political silence, the theatre has begun to do so. It must have been ten years ago that there circulated among critics and artists the strong but unarticulated idea that theatre shouldn’t be in touch with what was actually happening in society. As a result, we have a weak and self-satisfied sphere of entertainment pretending to be Russian psychological theatre. In fact, that still exists only in a few companies, such as Fomenko’s Studio, Zhenovach’s Theatre Studio in Moscow and Dodin’s Maly Drama in St. Petersburg.
By the way, Lev Dodin is considered to be a politically engaged director—most probably by those who remember his Claustrophobia based on Vladimir Sorokin, Mark Kharitonov and others, or Gaudeamus by Yury Polyakov, or, finally, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman. When new playwrights wrote about specific political or social issues, they were usually rejected by both the critics and the theatres. But now something is changing. The failure of the opposition in the presidential elections of March 2012 has made us do real politics in the squares, boulevards and the theatres.
Several years ago, theatre critic Alyona Karas speculated in her column for the “Russian Newspaper” about the carnival feeling of life in Moscow. It was such a sharp and up-to-date note, because the atmosphere of carnival was at times a stronger force than the theatre. And now we may talk about the great cooperation of real life and the theatre again. Although there is no new Meyerhold to put this matter to perfect use, there are, however, a few young theatre artists whose productions combine politics, real life and theatre.
Probably Lear. Comedy directed by Konstantin Bogomolov in St.Petersburg Priyut Komedianta Theatre has led to the most aggressive discussion. Lear was shown in Moscow several times during its tour. It is a political farce based on Shakespeare’s story but transferred to the Soviet period. King Lear, played by actress Roza Khairullina, looks like the usual, high-position executive of the Communist Party. Lear is cruel and weak at the same time. He is surrounded by envy and fear. The show begins with a scene in which Lear rapes a silicon doll shaped like the map of Russia. Then we observe, in a very controversial and provocative way, the process of losing all illusions. In spite of paying tribute to the overwhelming influence of the German and Polish theatres of the 2000s, this show was taken as a brave attempt to reflect our own past and present, our authorities and, finally, us. Lear divided all the audience (in Facebook, sure) into two camps—who is against and who is not. And the division of opinion looked like a political discussion not only about a theatrical style but about the message.
Usually, political theatre events happen not in big theatres but in Teatr.doc, an underground space in the centre of Moscow which seats 40 spectators at a time. But the impact made by this small theatre on the public opinions of young audiences is incomparable. Last spring, Teatr.doc premiered a play by Dario Fo, the well-known Italian playwright, entitled Berlusputin. Originally, the play’s title was Two-headed Anomaly, and a television version of it was forbidden in Italy in 2003. In fact, the play was about the former Italian prime-minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and his wife. But the translator, Svetlana Belova, and director, Varvara Fire, made a new version for Russia. The play is a fantasy version of the possible fusion of two politicians—Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin. The fusion takes place quite unexpectedly after a car accident on the way to Sochi (where the Olympic Games will be held in 2014). When Putin wakes up in the hospital he has forgotten himself because during the surgery Berlusconi’s brain was transplanted into Putin’s broken skull.
Two actors, a small fragile woman and an extremely tall man, play the roles of the actress and the movie director. He would like to shoot a film about Putin’s wife Lyudmila, and she pretends to be Lyudmila in spite of her own fear of getting punished by censorship. This free and funny stand-up comedy became the most popular show in Teatr.doc immediately following its first night. It was shown in the open air on Chistoprudny Boulevard during the Spring protest walks. And it can be modified because actors improvise on the daily news. So the political theatre is going on in Russia after a long interruption.
But the dark side of the deal is that Teatr.doc has to continue performing the story about the lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, who was killed in prison two years ago. The first version of 1.18 (that being the length of time Magnitsky was kept tied to his bed without medical help in spite of the sharp pain due to an attack of pancreatitis) went on tour to many European festivals. The success of this documentary production succeeded in bringing attention to Magnitsky’s death in particular, and to the Russian penitentiary system in general. But nobody was punished for this crime. No one among the prison authorities or from the court took responsibility for it. And the government still keeps silent. Even those attempts at judicial reform which were undertaken during the Medvedev presidency are now being stopped. Teatr.doc ought to do a second part of the show which would address the non-existent trial of the persons who are guilty of the death in prison of Magnitsky and several others.
A similar effect was caused by a one-time action with the participation of the witnesses from the trial of Pussy Riot. The TV-journalists from NTV (Independent Television, which is in fact a loyal-to-government network) tried to disrupt the action but it was in vain. In spite of everything, three girls from Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison. But the theatre was able to respond to it in time.
It has become evident that modern Russian theatre should interfere with modern Russian society. It probably can’t change or even clarify the hidden mechanism of absurd decisions taken by the authorities. But it certainly can change the minds of citizens and give them an illusion of freedom. Even for one theatre evening.
 Christine Matvienko (born 1974) lives in Moscow, Russia. She is a theatre critic and researcher. She also works as artistic director for the New Play Festival (Moscow). Her PhD in Theatre Research 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, managed playwriting and documentary theatre workshops in Russian theatres and was for two years an assistant to the artistic director of the Stanislavsky Drama Theatre.