Natalia Tvaltchrelidze*

Abstract: The paper is about the history of productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Georgia. It discusses how Shakespearean plays were staged to fight against the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet rule. In particular, it elaborates on how the first translations of Shakespeare into Georgian were done in a context in which the Georgian language was not welcomed by the ruling elite. The paper also touches on the famous Shakespeare productions staged by Robert Sturua at the Rustaveli National Theatre in the late twentieth century.

Keywords: Georgia, Shakespeare, War, Tyranny, Rustaveli Theatre, Translations, Richard III, King Lear, Hamlet, Machabeli, Chavchavadze, Sturua

Shakespeare and War can be understood in thousands of ways: Shakespeare’s plays about war, such as Henry V for instance, wars around Shakespeare’s identity, conflicts between characters of different plays, conflicts on the interpretation of Shakespeare’s texts and many, many more.

However, for a person who has actually seen war from up very close, the topic takes on a very particular, real, metaphor-free dimension. My home country, Georgia, counts more than 3000 years of history as a state and, during this time, there has not been a single generation, myself and those younger included, who has not lived through the horrors of war. In a country with such an intense history, where theatre has often been integrated into the struggle for survival,[1] the main title of this paper immediately acquires a real shape of how one uses Shakespeare to represent on stage, sometimes indirectly and sometimes bluntly, the very battles that have been unfolding in front of our eyes. Hence, if you look closely into the Shakespeare production history in the professional Georgian theatre, you can actually bring to life the very turmoil the country lived through, and tell the story of Georgia’s wars just by how they were shown on stage through the words and characters of William Shakespeare.

This being the case, let us start with a little bit of history. In Georgia, Shakespeare became known at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  It is the time when Georgia is a province of the Russian Empire and the Georgian language is banned from public life—there are no Georgian schools, no higher education institutions teaching in Georgian, no official documents produced in Georgian.

The very first show of a Shakespeare play was not produced in the capital, but in a tiny village of Western Georgia, called Bandza, where Prince Paghava funded the production of The Merchant of Venice.[2] It was probably safer to have a performance in the Georgian language far from the capital and hence, far from the watchful eyes of the Russian viceroy.

One of the very first attempts at translating Shakespeare was made by prominent Georgian statesperson, writer and publicist, Prince Dimitri Kipiani. “Real progress can only be achieved by a nation that thinks and speaks in its own, native language,” he wrote.[3] He attempted several translations of the plays first from Russian and French and, later, from English. One of the Kipiani’s drafts of Romeo and Juliet, long considered to be lost, turned up in the collection of rare books and manuscripts of Chicago University at the end of the twentieth century.[4]

Attempting translation of anything to Georgian at that time was an act of bravery, as it defied the Russian status quo. The restoration of a professional Georgian theatre in the same nineteenth century was also undertaken with the aim of speaking Georgian from the stage, to maintain national identity when the political rule was about to crush it. The nineteenth century is the time when the best Shakespearean translations, still in use today, are made by Prince Machabeli.

Starting off with the Georgian poet and public figure Ilia Chavchavadze, he first translated King Lear for a performance for the newly established Georgian Artistic Society, a union of actors, directors, writers and public figures that had paved the way for the restoration of the professional Georgian theatre, which later developed into the Rustaveli National Theatre. Prince Machabeli was fascinated by the idea of translating Shakespeare for the Georgian stage, while Ilia Chavchavadze saw the possibility of metaphorically expressing the Georgian national aspirations for the independent state through Shakespeare.

The translation of King Lear was printed in 1873, but the play made history even before its publication—not only because it established the fourteen-syllable versification style, still in use today when translating Shakespeare, but also due to a very particular story attached to its first performance.

In the 1960s, after graduating from a university in Russia, Ilia Chavchavadze returned to Tbilisi and, with the youth of Georgian noble families, planned a production of King Lear. As, during that period, Georgian speech in the public space was enough to earn a sentence in Siberia, Chavchavadze faced a challenge of either abandoning the idea of the performance or taking on the challenge.

King Lear was performed anyway and is referred to today as Live Pictures from King Lear due to a very particular kind of show it offered. One of the actresses sat behind a curtain, in a separate room near the stage—that is, not physical present in the public space—and read aloud the Georgian translation of the play. The actors, together with Ilia Chavchavadze in the title role, on their part enacted “living pictures”—a sort of a pantomime on stage without uttering a single word. Hence, the Russian police found no reason to arrest anyone.

Both Prince Machabeli’s and Ilia Chavchavadze’s lives ended tragically. Ilia Chavchavadze, who is considered a father figure of modern Georgia, was shot in 1907 on his way to his summer house. No one ever fully knew by whom or why. Prince Machabeli, who was planning to translate everything Shakespeare wrote after the restriction on the Georgian language was lifted and the newly formed Georgian professional theatre was in great need of plays, managed only some. One summer morning in 1898 he left his home in Tbilisi never to come back again. His mysterious disappearance was not fully investigated. People were saying that the freshly finished translation of Macbeth remained on his desk. The ill-fated play claimed one more of its victims.

The history of Shakespeare on the Georgian stage is long. It echoes and, sometimes, leads the struggles that Georgia faced in the twentieth century. I will, however, skip the many-folded battles for the sake of performances that are closer to us today.

If the nineteenth century Shakespeare productions in Georgia were marked by a struggle to revive the language and national identity, the directors of the twentieth century used his texts to fight against Soviet rule. And the most prominent among them was Robert Sturua, Artistic Director of the Rustaveli National Theatre, who has up to today staged 18 of Shakespeare’s plays around the world, 6 of them in his native Tbilisi.[5]

Georgian theatre may have had its share of outstanding directors before and, hopefully, will have again; however, Robert Sturua was the first who turned Shakespeare into a show of political resistance. No one dared it before him; it was far too dangerous.[6]

Richard III, directed by Robert Sturua, Rustaveli National Theatre, Bosworth Battle scene, Ramaz Chkhikvadze as Richard III. Photo: Rustaveli National Theatre

Richard III was the first Shakespeare play that Sturua staged at the Rustaveli National Theatre, in 1979, and, for me personally, it is his best. Also, it was the play where he actually found a fascinating way of showing a war on stage—an amazing rendering of fighting for the English crown on Bosworth field:

In an acclaimed production in London in 1980 theatrical troupe [sic] from Russian Georgia enacted an expressionist Richard III under the direction of Robert Sturua. . . . Acted in the Georgian language as a symbolic political allegory, this production has been influential not for its script, which most in the English-speaking audience could not understand, but for its broad, cartoonish style, portraying Richard’s reign as a sort of circus from hell.[7]

For Georgia, this performance remains forever modern. With the text mercilessly shortened to serve one objective, to show the ugliness of the struggle for power, the ugliness of tyranny, Sturua tells the story of the War of the Roses as if he were telling the history of his own country caught in the circus of the communist regime. Its fabulous crowning scene, in which every living character crowns himself, is jokingly foreseeing Georgia’s future opinion polls, where every second Georgian thinks that their country will be better off if he or she is voted president. The performance also serves to show that the war for power will not end on the Bosworth field with Richmond crowned; it will not end, ever.

Richard III, directed by Robert Sturua, Rustaveli National Theatre, Ramaz  Chkhikvadze as Richard III. Photo: Rustaveli National Theatre 

I was too young when Richard III premiered, but those who were old enough remember that the performance caused a turmoil in Tbilisi even before the rehearsals began. And these were not the harmless rumors and whisperings the theatre in any country is famous for, but a true battle questioning everything: starting from the choice of the play and actors to the designs of costumes that were especially made to underline the timelessness of both Shakespeare and the problems raised by the performance. A famous Georgian Shakespeare scholar, Nico Kiasashvili, mentions in his essay that one theatre critic left the rehearsal room appalled by the fact that Ramaz Chkhikvadze was to play Richard III without a hump.[8] Sturua’s Richard III is hunchbacked and lame only when the director needs him to be as if to underline metaphorically the traits of Tyranny and ugliness of political wars and intrigues—Sturua even asked composer Gia Kancheli to write special “lame music” for his show.

Richard III is the first and only time Sturua did not use the classical versified translation of Shakespeare’s text but asked for a special translation of the play in prose. Miraculously poetical nonetheless, the performance underlines very directly the mundane nature of political struggle. Without losing a tiny drop of Shakespearean atmosphere, Sturua tells us in no hidden terms that there is no poetry in political intrigues and battles, both of which surrounded the Soviet Georgia of the time, or anywhere, anytime.

King Lear, directed by Robert Sturua, Set Designer: Mirian Shvelidze, Rustaveli National Theatre. Photo: Rustaveli National Theatre 

Sturua’s next Shakespeare was King Lear (1986), a performance again predicting the future wars over the control of its territories in Georgia and the downfall of the Soviet Union.

“Robert Sturua’s extraordinary production of ‘King Lear’ is so unyielding in its intensity that one can see why the Rustaveli Theater Company from Soviet Georgia might regard Shakespeare as its national playwright,” The New York Times wrote during the performance tour in the States.[9]

The tone of the show at the beginning was surprisingly serene, with probably the longest pause in the history of the Georgian theatre up to date, a pause where everything on the stage froze waiting for the King, the supreme ruler, to arrive. The Duke of Albany even fainted on stage, tired out by this endless delay. This serenity slowly mounted to complete chaos by the end, when the set literally crashed over the heads of the actors and audience, and from the debris came crawling, like rats, the survivors, or maybe the onlookers of the tragedy, or maybe the creators of this very chaos, leaving the King alone mourning his dead daughter in the ruins of his Kingdom.

King Lear, directed by Robert Sturua, Rustaveli National Theatre, Ramaz Chkhikvadze as King Lear, Marina Kakhiani as Cordelia. Photo: Rustaveli National Theatre

The set for this performance is to be mentioned particularly (set designer: Mirian Shvelidze) as it represented the continuation of the Rustaveli Theatre itself, echoing its pit and balconies on the stage, as if to underline that all the world’s a stage and whatever is enacted on the scaffolds in front of us will literally happen in our lives in the future.

Hamlet, directed by Robert Sturua, Rustaveli National Theatre, Zaza Papuashvili as Hamlet. Photo: Rustaveli National Theatre

Sturua is quite an intricate director. He does with texts and plays what he wants and how he wants, mesmerizing is his ability not to lose Shakespeare in the process. In King Lear, he threw away a couple of scenes that Shakespeare scholars normally baptize as the most effective and important. In Hamlet, staged in 2002 in Tbilisi, he did the same, as if taking a real pleasure in cutting out most of the text that his audience would expect to find in the performance. When 800 spectators prepared to listen to “To be or not to be” at the premiere in the Rustaveli Theatre, there was none of it. Hamlet, enacted by Zaza Papuashvili, ironically a member of the Parliament of Georgia today, started the soliloquy and then took out matches and burned it. “Words, words, words,” he uttered when watching the flames of the paper.

With the independence of Georgia, time for words, metaphors, resistance and hesitation ended for Sturua, and the time for action began.

Hamlet, directed by Robert Sturua, Set Designer: Mirian Shvelidze, Rustaveli National Theatre. Photo: Rustaveli National Theatre

Sturua mentioned on several occasions that he wanted to stage Hamlet in Tbilisi as a poem, not as a political performance, for Hamlet as a character is a poet. And so, he did. However, when watching the performance, and I did it so many times, in Tbilisi and when accompanying the Rustaveli Theatre on tours abroad, one would most certainly have a nagging feeling that all this poetry is watched over by a character holding a newspaper in the depths of the stage. One noticed this statue in the beginning of the show and then forgot all about it as it very smoothly formed the part of the set. Yet, by the end of the performance, the statue sprang to life and entered the stage as Prince Fortinbras resembling Hamlet as a twin brother would. Forget about what happened before, he said, let’s bury our dead and continue the history of Denmark from a new page, just what Georgia needed a fresh beginning after all its battles.

Sturua staged Hamlet five times in different countries. One of them was in Moscow’s Satiricon Theatre with famous Russian actor Konstantine Raikin in the title role. There, Sturua produced a cold, political play, which held a mirror to the audience of the enemy, in the hopes that they would see their own faces in the heartless politics of Denmark and Norway, where Fortinbras was not offering new beginnings but rather measuring the land area of the country soon to become his.

Video 1

Hamlet, directed by Robert Sturua, Rustaveli National Theatre, “To be or not to be” scene, Zaza Papuashvili as Hamlet

There are two distinct ways of staging Shakespeare during hardship in Georgia. One is actually living the hardship through on stage; the other, taken on by the teacher of Robert Sturua and of many other successful directors—such as Mikheil Tumanishvili, who produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream when we could still hear the whistling of bullets of the Tbilisi War of 1991—it is to forget that we are surrounded by war. It is not the time to yield to war, he said, it is the time to avoid it. Tumanishvili, thus, brought a dreamlike world to the stage to make us forget how freezing it was to sit through the entire performance in the theatre with no heating, and reminded us that love and magic should never become victims of war; that Shakespeare is there to make us want to continue with our lives.

That is what the young Georgian director Vano Khutsishvili did with his recent production of Macbeth. Indeed, “Foul is fair and fair is foul” in his performance. The lack of light throughout the show is striking to the point of deliberately straining eyes of the audience. Among other things, it talks about the lack of light in our lives and, yet, it is a performance about great undying love encompassed by cruelty and disaster of war and slaughter.

This is also what Sturua did with the same play before him, by the end of the twentieth century. Strikingly youthful with beautiful actors on stage, he said that, for once, he wanted to produce a show not about politics and the striving for power but about Romeo and Juliet who survived. However, the young people of this performance were scary, enemies to each other, demolishing all along their way, and, finally, to be demolished themselves. The colors of the show were red, black and white, the colors of blood, death and sleep, as often paralleled in Shakespeare, and shrouded and underlined yet again the dangers that lay ahead of the newly formed Georgian state, and showed the horrors that it had already lived through.

Actually, what the colors also illustrated is how deeply and thoroughly Sturua follows Shakespeare’s text. As you know, blood, death and sleep are the most repeated words of the Scottish play. This is a good example of how Sturua makes his audiences visualize the texts that he had to shorten. He often uses music, color and set to tell the story of the passages he had to sacrifice when working on the stage version of a play. Sometimes, Sturua quotes his old shows to let the audience get the feeling of the moments where Shakespeare alludes to his plays, as for instance in Hamlet, where Sturua quotes the “lame music” of his own Richard III.

In the twenty-first century, even if there have been more conflicts and wars that we have lived through, the younger generation of Georgian theatre professionals have decided to take a completely different approach, and, even if there have been some quite interesting productions in the last fifteen years, none of them took the same attitude as Robert Sturua. It seems that Georgia no longer uses Shakespeare’s metaphors to resist. Today, Shakespeare is staged with more pacific thoughts as if to express the narrower perspectives of our everyday life and aspirations. Thus, David Doiashvili turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a discussion about the lack of love in the new century and also about the violence in the conflict of the sexes; Data Tavadze staged The Winter’s Tale about the essence of betrayal and forgiveness.

Video 2

From David Doiashvili’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Many nonverbal Shakespeare productions have appeared, including Richard III in the Ilia State University Theatre where I work, along with The Tempest at the Movement Theatre, Romeo and Juliet at the Meskhishvili Theatre in Kutaisi, and more. And, even though all of them are very well done, frankly, I am not very sure it is a good idea to take the words out of Shakespeare, although, it is quite fashionable and as an experiment quite effective. There are some new productions on the way and we in Georgia are all waiting to see if they will be able to metaphorically convey the nuances of contemporary reality and the pains of our new conflicts and suffering.

Video 3

From Data Tavadze’s The Winter’s Tale


[1] The best example of theatre taking part in the hardships the country faced is a festivity called Keenoba which developed in the Middle Ages and has lasted all the way through to the present day in certain Georgian provinces. Keenoba is a mass street performance depicting the struggles of the Georgian people against foreign invaders. Keenoba was extremely popular in Tbilisi in the nineteenth century as a form of protest against the Russian Empire and, therefore, was not welcome by Russian officials.
[2] Newspaper Droeba (დროება), 1983, No 16 (in Georgian).
[3] Dimitri Kipiani, Excerpts. Museum Union of Kashuri Municipality (in Georgian).
[4] Kiasashvili, Niko, Between Scylla and Charybdis, Tbilisi, 1992 (in Georgian).
[5] At the Rustaveli National Theatre, he staged the following plays: Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, What You Will or the Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.
[6] Perhaps, with the exception of Sandro Akhmeteli, Artistic Director of the Rustaveli National Theater in 1924-36, who fearlessly opposed Stalin’s rule. He was arrested in 1936 and executed a year later, while his family and actors were sent to the camps in Siberia. However, Sandro Akhmeteli never used Shakespeare’s plays for political struggle.
[7] King Richard III, Lull, Janis, ed., New Cambridge Shakespeare, First Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
[8] Kiasashvili, Niko, Between Scylla and Charybdis, Tbilisi, 1992 (in Georgian).
[9] Gusov, Mell, “Soviet Georgians’ Essential ‘Lear’”.

*Natalia Tvaltchrelidze is a Managing Director of Ilia State University Theatre. She has graduated from the American University of Paris with a degree in Comparative Literature. She has a Master Degree in English Literature from Tbilisi State University and a Master of Sciences in Media and Communication from London School of Economics and Political Science. She worked in the field of Public Relations for various national and international organizations, and coordinated projects for Rustaveli National Theatre, as well as for the National Theatre Prize Duruji. She was, also, a member of Jury for the best Georgian Play and Best Translated Play Competition on many occasions. She is currently teaching Shakespeare as well as Media Relations and Political Communication at Ilia State University in Tbilisi.

Copyright © 2018 Natalia Tvaltchrelidze
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Shakespeare Against War and Tyranny: A Georgian Example