The New Wave of Belarus Drama

Natalia Skorokhod*

Abstract

Although the new wave of Belarusian dramaturgy has served as an appealing case study to researchers for more than fifteen years, nobody can clearly explain how such a phenomenon emerged. Nor can anyone understand why such a plethora of talented dramatic authors simultaneously appeared in Belarus to create plays that provoke interest not only in the community of former Soviet countries but also in the culture and politics of Eastern Europe more generally. The author of this essay argues that it is the unique socio-political situation in Belarus that has simultaneously provided fertile soil for such creativity while also producing the censorious conditions that prevented these plays from reaching the Belarusian stage. Here, selected dramatic texts by Pavel Pryazhko and Konstantin Steshik, as well as their productions, are explored in order to show how these plays dramatize a socio-political environment filled with Soviet rituals and cultural codes that paralyze the individual. These works are also analyzed as new tools of dramatic writing that were invented by both Belarusian playwrights to express such a deep and exciting tension for the post-Soviet person who must live their present life always in view of the past.

Keywords: contemporary Belarusian plays, censorship, Steshik, Pryazhko, Soviet legacy

The unexpected flourishing of modern Belarusian drama in the twenty-first century emerged as the so-called new wave, though this movement went unnoticed in Belarus for a long time. In 2011, Andrei Moskvin, a Polish researcher of contemporary Slavic dramaturgy, rightly noted that the Belarusian new wave reflects contemporaneity: “The authors are trying to explore, to reopen, to define and to describe the age in which they themselves and their characters live. … But this picture is so painful and disturbing that the theatre is not always ready and brave enough to present it on stage to the Belarusian audience” (14–15).

The collapse of the USSR provoked various socio-political and socio-cultural scenarios that sparked the development of new nation states across the post-Soviet landscape. The scenario of the post-Soviet development of Belarus is unique. On the one hand, post-Soviet Belarus has returned to many socio-political and socio-cultural trends of the USSR. On the other hand, the revival of pre-Soviet national identity and culture was not supported here on the state level like it was in most of the other post-Soviet counties, so “democratization of society and national revival in Belarus were suspended, and a return to Soviet ideals and methods began” (Lappo 48).

Lukashenko came to power in 1994 and his agenda was to bring Belarus back to the Soviet age. Lukashenko’s program of return to the past created unique living conditions for a post-Soviet person in Belarus, forcing people to balance between the familiar but grim past and an unattainable for them present. With the appearance of internet, speed of information exchange and communications in the digital space, these conditions have been made even more unnatural.

Traveling to Belarus, located in the center of Europe, can be compared to traveling by time machine: a journey of fifty to seventy years in the past, depending on where one starts their traveling. At the same time Belarus is an open country, and almost any resident can leave their homeland and start a new life in a democratic and socially and economically developed society. Everyone is free to break up with Belarus, but not many actually do it.

The question is why would they not leave their country? Why would they stay? The issue gets even more complicated and creates even more serious collision for a post-Soviet person: they both curse their Soviet past and at the same time they feel deeply connected to it by many threads.

This contradiction is present in most of the plays of Belarusian authors. That is probably why in Belarus the generation of playwrights who were born in the USSR in the late 70s and early 80s managed to create a convincing picture of post-Soviet subjectivity. Yet almost all the respectable playwrights of the new wave still live in their homeland.

Surely, this specific socio-cultural interest of the Belarusian wave of Russophone drama, that of depicting the post-Soviet subject, is a project that attracts theatre practitioners from all over the post-Soviet space. In this sense, many authors of the Belarusian new wave were, in effect, born as playwrights far from the Belarusian stage.

Many researchers from Belarus and elsewhere have noted that for the playwrights of the new Belarusian wave, it was very important to make sure their plays reached European audiences beyond Belarus. In part, this is a practical necessity as much as it is an artistic desire. Belarusian theatre artists effectively work as expats even within Belarus. The Belarusian scholar Natalia Rusetskaya explains the reasons for this experience of being a theatrical outcast in one’s own country, writing that “Theatrical art in modern Belarus has been preserved in the most conservative, Soviet- style condition. … Today, Belarusian theatres are mostly state-owned, and therefore, due to the existing ideological situation, they remain closed to discussions of the actual issues and problems of nowadays” (223).

This phenomenon can be demonstrated by way of an example. In December 2012, a public reading of the play Trusji [Underpants] by Pavel Pryazhko at the art club Kirpitch [Brick], was banned by the city of Brest’s Art Commission. This happened despite the fact that the author had, at this point, already become a star of the Belarusian new wave. When this play was produced in St. Petersburg, in 2007, the story of a girl from a small town who hangs her panties on a balcony caused a huge scandal and provoked angry cries from critics among the older generation.

However, it was the St. Petersburg performance that catapulted Pryazhko to fame in Russia, with his plays widely staged across the country even today. On the contrary, to date, more than fifteen years after this event, only one of Pryazhko’s plays has been staged in Belarus. Urozhaj [Harvest] was translated into Belarusian and directed by Dmitry Tishko for the Minsk National Academic Theatre. The production went almost unnoticed by the press and the only review I found was very skeptical. Other plays by Pavel Pryazhko have never been staged in the Belarus state theatres.

Thus, Belarusian censors rarely allow new wave plays to be performed on professional stages. The only place where some of them can be seen is the Center for Belarusian Drama in Minsk. This venue is organized by playwrights themselves under the leadership of Dmitry Boguslavsky. Their efforts have turned this place into a platform for promoting the Belarusian new wave in its home country. One of the main challenges for enthusiasts is building relationships with the Minsk municipal Art Commission to obtain permission for public readings of their plays. As explained by the playwright Dmitry Boguslavsky in a private discussion, this can be a difficult process. Censors prevent authors of plays from interacting with the public. As a result, their names are only known to a small circle of readers and viewers in their home country.

Meanwhile, the list of Belarusian playwrights born in the early 1980s who are well-known and have garnered international appeal is impressive: Dmitry Bogoslavsky Lubov’ Ludei, Tihii shoroh uhodyaschih shagov, Vneshnie Pobotchnie [People’s Love, The Quiet Rustle of Departing Steps, External Side Effects], Maxim Dosko London, Andrei Ivanov Suchilischa [From College], Pavel Pryazhko Trusji , Zapertaya Dver’, Sadji i Parki, Urozhai, Sosed, Shashlijki [Underpants, Locked Door, Parks and Gardens, Harvest, Neighbour, Barbeque], Konstantin Steshik Leteli Kacheli , Drug Moi [The Swing was Flying, My Friend], Yulia Chernyavskaya Syndrom Medei [Medea’s Syndrome], and others.

The cases of Konstantin Steshik and the aforementioned Pryazhko are the most representative examples of the domestic conditions of theatre production and reception as experienced by Belarusian playwrights. Both playwrights currently live in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. As expert in Belarusian dramaturgy Sergey Kovalev noted, “In the Russian theatrical context, Pavel Pryazhko and Konstantin Steshik turned out to be the most promising playwrights of the new wave from Belarus. Both of them studied drama at the Belarusian University of Culture and Art and both were expelled … due to professional incompetence” (53). (In fact, they were expelled because of a conflict with one of the professors).

It is also obvious that both authors are the quite opposite of each other: while Pryazhko is a very experienced author who reflects contemporary social reality, Steshik is not too keen on the social agenda and his dramaturgical hallmark is Homo Post-Sovieticus’s subjectivity. The two playwrights also work in different genres. If Pryazhko succeeds in comedy, from lyrical comedy to the social grotesque, Steshik gravitates towards melancholy. 

But this holistic opposition in dramatic and thematic approaches to playwriting does not account for the whole picture of their distinct qualities. In order to better understand the particular condition of the new wave dramatists in Belarus, it is therefore worthwhile to compare the approaches taken by these Belarusian authors, specifically as such a comparison relates to the Post-Soviet human and the environmental loci within which they situate their characters.

In short, Steshik is a lover of urban suburbs, rain-soaked streets separating blockhouses, unrepaired apartments, the stairwells within the blockhouses of the Brezhnev’s era and cheap Soviet cafes. By contrast, even though his plays feature much more diverse loci than Steshik’s, Pryazhko does not like cities. Instead, he enjoys locating his characters in natural landscapes: a garden, a field, a village or a country settlement. And for both playwrights, the locus where their characters exist is not just the habitat of a post-Soviet person; rather, this landscape is usually a structure-forming and meaning-forming element.

Post-soviet Urbanism in Konstantin Steshik’s Texts

In narrow circles, the name of Konstantin Steshik has been widely known for a long time. His first theatrical appearance was at the 2015 Eurasia festival in Ekaterinburg, a competition for young playwrights led by Nikolai Kolyada. Since his debut, the playwright has become a regular participant, nominee, and winner of such drama festivals as Lubimovka, Remarka [Remark] and Pervaya Chitka [The First Reading]. For more than 30 years Lubimovka was the main annual competition for Russian-language plays. Within its framework, new aesthetic, ethical, pedagogical, curatorial, and cultural management ideas emerged. Every year, Lubimovka would discover new talented authors.[1]

Steshik is inventive in creating situational collisions and his work seeks to produce the effect of penetrating into the character’s consciousness. Characters typically inhabit and act within an atmosphere defined by blocks of houses and apartments, specifically those constructed in the 1960s and 70s, weaving between interior locations and the surrounding streets. These dwellings are a legacy of the Soviet era, filled with Soviet furniture gradually falling into disrepair, imbued with a sadness hovering around the houses and apartments.

Steshik’s Leteli Kacheli [The Swing was Flying] (2016) excited not only those who are professionally engaged in theatre, but also those who are acquainted with Soviet dramaturgy. This elegantly crafted play dramatizes one month in the life of a character named Stas, an average, thirty-five-year-old man who lives in a big Siberian city. Stas’s main occupation is to be a fan of his fellow townsman, the dead singer Egor Letov (1964-2008), who was the real-life lead singer of the punk groups Grazhdanskya Oborona [Civil Defense] and GROB [Coffin].

In Russia, this play was immediately dubbed as a Postsovetskaya Utinaya Okhota [Post-Soviet Duck Hunting]. I don’t think that Steshik had in mind Utinaya Okhota by Alexander Vampilov as a reference when writing Leteli Kacheli, but still there are many reasons for such a comparison. The protagonist of Leteli Kacheli, Stas, who gave up on everything except for his youthful celebrity idolatry for a singer whose songs still cause him ecstasy, parallels the system of situational coordinates of Vampilov’s protagonist Victor Zillow.

Written in 1967, Utinaya Okhota was and still is considered the most important Soviet play that reflected the Soviet subjectivity in the so-called zastoy or period of stagnation. Vampilov tosses around his protagonist Victor in dramatic circumstances within which Stas would later find himself situated, but the only activity that attracted him was duck hunting. Moreover, as in Steshik’s Leteli Kacheli, the ending is ambiguous, and the conflict is existential and unresolved. In both plays, there is a gloomy and death-smelling atmosphere. Moreover, the social background of both heroes is similar: they are characters whose youths are shaped by the social circumstances of their era. Vampilov’s Zilov was formed by the period of Ottepel’, or The Thaw, just as Steshik’s Stas was formed by Perestroika. In both cases, societal hopes for the liberalization of the political regime and new opportunities for a person’s individual activities were not fulfilled, as has always been true on the territory of the Russian Empire, then the USSR and then a number of post-Soviet countries.

Drug Moi, directed and performed by Viktor Ryzhakov. In the picture: Viktor Ryzhakov. Photo: Yuri Korotetsky and Natalia Vremechkina

Drug Moi [My Friend] (2020), the next play by Steshik, was of great interest to theatres outside of Belarus. It was first performed at Lubimovka Festival in Moscow in 2021. That year, Viktor Ryzhakov, a famous director who works closely with contemporary plays, was curator of the Lubimovka off-program, which used to be a competition for experienced and well-known playwrights. It was Ryzhakov who selected, directed and performed in Drug Moi himself as part of a director’s showcase at the Moscow Sovremennik [Contemporary] Theatre.

An association between Ryzhakov’s Drug Moi and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is apparent. Drug Moi’s night wanderings of two characters without properties, without names, without biographies amongst a landscape of identical panels recalls Beckett’s classic frozen pair waiting for Godot by a dry tree. The mise-en-scene in which Ryzhakov performed the play was very conventional, and at the same time emotional. In the production, in the center of a darkened stage, a small black screen with a reflective surface was barely visible. The performer, holding white papers in his hands, stood slightly to the left of the screen. On the right, symmetrically placed with respect to the screen, were drops of water falling.

One of the more notable literary features of Drug Moi is the author’s layering of different realities. The plot of the play is simple enough: friends go out looking for cigarettes, they save an injured man, they meet someone with insomnia and mental problems, they quarrel and fight over a trivial issue, and one friend is taken away in an ambulance. But this plot, heavily grounded, also acquires a mystical meaning. At the beginning of the play the friends behave like young adults, but at the end it is revealed that they are close to sixty years old. Thus, events which occur during one night move characters from their youth into old age, and the one-night journey represents a lifetime.

Drug Moi, Konstantin Steshik during the discussion at the Lubimovka-2021 festival. Photo: Yuri Korotetsky and Natalia Vremechkina

In my opinion, both social commentary and lyrical elements are fundamentally important in this play. First, the action cannot be accurately attributed to the Soviet or post-Soviet era, since historical markers such as panel houses, an ambulance, a janitor’s office and tea bags are common to both periods. So, two friends could be on the road at night in either 1971 or 2021. Moreover, the custom of going out at night for a cigarette originated in Soviet times. Therefore, it can be assumed that on this night the heroes of the play go out looking for a cigarette during the Soviet era of stagnation and without noticing it find themselves in Lukashenko’s stagnation. This temporal change explains the apparent aging of the friends at the end of their journey.

Moreover, even though their identities as characters are bound up in their group dynamic, the audience learns that these characters are eternally lonely: “He only has me, and I have him” (Steshik 18). While their sense of self might be seen as anti-social, I understand that the two friends’ social ineptitude has social and political roots. It seems to me that the characters live outside of society, as if they were walking in a space where all public institutions, except the ambulance service, have fallen asleep. And this night is the only time during which they might be free and independent from any type of social and political pressure. This atmosphere of silence in the form of menacing dark buildings, between which our heroes move in their night journey, is seen as a terrible premonition of what will happen when morning comes, when life begins to stir there. Is it possible that the surrounding world has changed radically during this night? What disaster will befall us in the coming morning? Steshik’s poetic play, written in 2020, was full of ominous predictions, and these forebodings materialized for the peoples of several countries when Russia invaded Ukraine on the morning of February 24, 2022.

Over the past few seasons, after the presentation of Drug moi during the Lubimovka festival, this play has been performed in several theatres throughout Russia, including the Moscow Art Theatre.[2] The most challenging aspect of interpreting this play for the stage is for the actors to capture the essence of the story, which is presented to us as a first-person direct report. How should the characters of I and Friend interact, and how should the characters we meet as their friends appear to us in the night? It is also important to consider in what way the theme of the play will be interpreted, and if a social message will arise from this interpretation.

Drug Moi, directed by Peter Shereshevsky. In the picture: Pavel Vorozhtsov as I, Victor Khorinyak as Friend. Photo: Alexandra Torgushnikova

The Moscow Art Theatre production of Drug moi, directed by Peter Shereshevsky, premiered on November 5, 2022. It can be best described as a symphony, not in the sense of symphony as a soundtrack, but rather as a coexistence of a number of separate performances within the same production. These performances interact with each other, like musical themes in a symphony, creating a complex stage action when certain themes come to the foreground in different combinations. For instance, two visual artists, Maria Motornay and Agafia Bit-Garmus, were cast as performers. Their careless, almost childlike drawings were projected on a large screen. After being projected for one minute, the ghostly scenery of the performance disappeared, creating a lively visual effect. The outlines of various locations appeared and disappeared on the screen at different points along the path of the Hero, Pavel Vorozhtsov, and the Friend, Victor Khorinyak. For instance, there was a narrow path with panel houses situated along its trajectory, and streams of rain falling behind the actors’ backs. When the actors disappeared in the darkness, their projected figures standing in the rain appeared on the screen next to a man lying under a lantern with droplets of blood on his neck.

The animations of character sketches which appeared and disappeared not only conveyed their movement, but also represented the actors to a certain degree, revealing the inner turmoil of the characters’ souls. Such a performance by the actors subtly conveyed the ghostly quality of the entire production. Moreover, the lighting by Maxim Kashurin led the audience to either forget about the artists sitting at the table, or to pay attention to them once again.

Other components of this polyphonic production included six performers who were seated on chairs at the left and right boundaries of the stage, holding musical instruments in their hands and occasionally playing them. Their black concert costumes stood out against the yellow work uniforms of the visual artists.

The performers did not communicate with each other but instead spoke directly to the audience. This acting technique conveyed an ironic interpretation of Steshik’s play, and the spectators laughed a lot. At the same time, the visual artists created a sad and melancholic atmosphere on the screen.

Drug Moi, directed by Peter Shereshevsky. In the picture: Pavel Vorozhtsov as I, Victor Khorinyak as Friend on a screen when getting older. Photo: Victor Khorinyak. Photo: Alexandra Torgushnikova

The Brechtian principle of separation of elements was perfectly executed in the climax of the production, when all the elements suddenly came together, in the scene where friends who have grown old during an overnight journey are welcomed by a female janitor, at the climax of the performance. Gradually, all the characters gather at the artist’s table. Here, a Woman, played by Olga Voronina, appears to the Steshik’s Hero as “a somewhat dirty woman in a green janitor’s vest” (Steshik 15) and plays the violin, towering over everyone like an angel who takes in all the suffering under the spread of her wings. At this point, the visual artists draw clever designs and funny folds and wrinkles onto the photo images of the young faces of Hero and Friend. Everyone drinks coffee and enjoys the warmth, waiting for the story to come to its happy end.

To summarize, I strongly believe that on the one hand the Moscow Art Theatre production successfully interpreted a conventional narrative with great wit and skill through unexpected scenic depictions and a reproduction of the melancholic mood that runs throughout the text. On the other hand, the director and the actors adopted the world created by Steshik as a Christian parable in which everyone is rewarded according to their actions. Therefore, in essence, they transformed the play into a Christian mystery.

Drug Moi, by Stershik, directed by Andrei Sidel’nikov. In the picture: Ivan Baykalov as I, Vladislav Demyanenko as Friend, Grigory Sergeenko as Muzhik. Photo: Alexej Ivanov

The 2022 stage production of Drug moi directed by Andrey Sidelnikov and performed at the Saturday Theatre in St. Petersburg turned out to be a more serious undertaking. The theatre characterized the play as a modern existential parable narrated in the genre of road movies. Actual realia were used in the design of the performance, while the set designer Maria Smirnova-Nesvitskaya applied the pars pro toto principle here. For instance, instead of a car, only a red front door with a car mirror moved across the stage, while a real ambulance was brought onto the stage together with two pairs of gurneys and a functioning siren. One of paramedics held a recognizable orange case on his lap and the other held a flash light in his hand. The atmosphere of the fictional night was enhanced by the overall lighting design. Most of the episodes of the play were visible in small spots of light surrounded by complete darkness, an effect designed by Maxim Akhrameev. The innovative setting contrasted with the conventional acting style: almost all the scenes between I, played by Ivan Baykalov, and the Friend, played by Vladislav Demyanenk, were performed using the methodology of Stanislavski’s psychological school. For the duration of the production, the relationship between two friends evolved, conflict increased, culminating in a slap, a fight, and a break-up, the climax of the play. The conflict between friends depicted in the play has a number of possible explanations.

Drug Moi, by Stershik, directed by Andrei Sidel’nikov. In the picture: Anna Vasil’eva and Ekaterina Rudakova as an ambulance servers. Photo: Alexej Ivanov

Director Sidelnikov explained his interpretation of the moral dimensions of Steshik’s text. He said:

Generally speaking, this story represents a struggle with yourself. One of the characters, one side of yourself, doesn’t want to help others, he simply wants to live his life and not get involved in other people’s problems. At the end, the friend who comes to save everyone leaves and finally disappears, like all the good things in a person’s life. All this happens over one night, which turns out to be their entire life.

Sidel’nikov, 2023

Here, it seems to me that the logic of the director and that of the playwright collide. To me, the quarrel between friends is written in a spirit similar to that of Lewis Carroll’s narrative, where Tweedledum suggests to Tweedledee: “Of course you agree to have a battle?” By making the dialogue very heavy in moral sense and very realistic in a sense of acting style, the director and actors have shattered the lyrical text, which could not possibly withstand such intense emotions. In the final scene of the play, the character Friend disappears from the scene and the location where they disappear into darkness. The hero I has aged, the work of a make-up artist who comes on stage and transforms the actor in front of the spectators’ eyes. The finale of the production might be understood as a moral sentence for the hero I because he killed a good person inside himself during the night.

Drug Moi, by Stershik, directed by Andrei Sidel’nikov. In the picture: the final of the performance. Photo: Alexej Ivanov

Although the Saturday Theater’s production of Drug Moi differs from the one staged in the Moscow Art Theater in terms of acting style, atmosphere, and genre, which was interpreted by Saturday Theatre as a monodrama, in both cases Drug Moi is understood as a parable about moral and ethical issues.

However, judging by the reviews, none of the stage interpretations of Drug moi seemed to take into account the sociopolitical aspects of the play. I do not think that reviewers missed the references to social issues in Steshik’s text, since both productions were produced after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rather, the reviews suggest that in Russia, it has become dangerous to discuss social issues on stage.

Homo Post-Sovieticis in Texts by Pavel Pryazhko

Pavel Pryazhko is often referred to as the main figure in the circle of Russian-speaking playwrights. Like Steshik, Pryazhko, writing under the pseudonym Aphrodite Dubovik, was first celebrated at the Nikolai Kolyada festival Eurasia, where a 2004 production of his play Serpentine, which dramatizes a snake-like tangle of human relations one New Year’s Eve that unwind during a television broadcast, received an award nomination. Three years later, the playwright gained scandalous fame. Earlier, I mentioned that the first presentation of a then-unknown Pryazhko’s play Trusji [Underpants] in 2007 at the St. Petersburg Theatre on Liteyny was directed by well-known playwright Ivan Vyrypaev.

Sosed by Pavel Pryazhko, directed by Dmitry Volkostrelov. In the picture: Ivan Igor Nikolaev as Uncle Kolya, Ivan Nikolaev as Pasha, public. Photo: Yana Gorbatcheva

Pryazhko’s dramaturgy is a tasty morsel for the researcher. At first, many theatre observers called his plays “not quite plays” because of their eventless structures, although the playwright himself insisted on the theatrical nature of his works, claiming that “I create a lining for a show” (Skorokhod 70). Apparently, the playwright’s work does not lend itself well to conceptualization by directors since his plays are very heterogeneous. The author, despite the fact that his style is always recognizable, writes as if he is in no hurry. One cannot disagree with Irina Lappo, who aptly noted that Pryazhko “constantly adds new colors to his palette; he masters new dramatic techniques. The playwright seems to be considering the topics that concern him from different angles, looking for new opportunities to express the inexpressible” (70). Having failed to find common threads to describe the artistic world of Pryazhko, researchers conceptualize only some of the author’s motives and formal experiments, highlighting a number of plays whose structures can be explained by specific formulas. My work is no exception. In my book Post-drama Analysis, I have already considered the innovative principles of character structure in Pryazhko’s plays. In this article, I would like to focus on one of the features of his play Sosed [Neighbour], produced multiple times on stage.

Sosed belongs to the group of texts like Urozhaj [Harvest] (2007), Sady i Parki [Gardens and Parks](2015) and Pole [Field] (2015) in which Nature becomes one of the major characters. In Pryazhko’s latest two plays, Sosed [Neighbour] (2018) and Shashljiki [Barbeque](2022), he explores the theme of the so-called dacha or cottage lifestyle. By this, he means a horticultural cooperative (or Sadovodstvo, meaning gardening), which was something like a partnership of gardeners in Belarus, usually located near large cities. City residents would spend their weekends growing vegetables, fruits and berries in those cooperatives. They did it for pleasure and to feed their families, to help with the shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables in stores. After the fall of the Soviet empire, six acres of land, which many Soviet people were given by the state, became their private property. Now, the land could be sold or transferred to other family members. The action of Sosed takes place in 2018, the same year that the play was created, and on one such site.

The plot of this play, like the plot of Drug Moi, can be described in a few sentences. Two neighbors, Uncle Kolya and Pasha, meet at the fence between their summer homes and start talking. Although their conversations revolve around the lifestyle of the countryside, the content of their discussion goes beyond the immediate context and touches upon social issues. As their dialogue develops, we understand that Uncle Kolya and his wife, Aunt Luda, have been living in their summer residence since Soviet times and that their plot and cottage are a place where artifacts of this past are kept with special care:

P. And what is a lot of garbage?
N. Trash, Pasha. The whole attic.

Pryazhko 5

Pasha is a young owner of the land which he inherited from his late father, who was Uncle Kolya’s friend. In their dialogue, the young man is passive: he only reacts and makes timid attempts to end the conversation. But like an immobilized fly stuck in a web, Pasha obediently listens to Uncle Kolya’s stories. As previously mentioned, these narratives do not go beyond the suburban realities: potatoes that need to be boiled, a vegetable garden that needs to be dug up, a wife who cannot be contradicted. The play’s artifacts of dacha lifestyle are recognizable to those who spent summers in the country during a childhood under Soviet rule, yet they are clearly absurd to those who do not have such experience, so that any presentation of this play, whether it is a production or a reading, will be accompanied by laughter from the audience. However, comedy is not the only way that the play can be performed on stage.

Sosed by Pavel Pryazhko, directed by Dmitry Volkostrelov. In the picture: Trash that is being kept from the Soviet times in the Uncle Kolya’s hands. Photo: Yaroslavna Efimova

The most successful take on this play was Dmitry Volkostrelov’s 2019 production for Teatr Post [Theatre Post], whose title refers to Hans Ties Lehmann’s book Post Dramatic Theatre, in St. Petersburg. In Volkostrelov’s interpretation of Sosed, all the objects people used to carry on their dachas in the Soviet era were displayed in foyer as a museum exhibit. While waiting for the action to start, anyone could approach and touch a bucket of potatoes, a bench, a hose with a handmade spout, a hoe, old wooden shields that need to be burned, and other such objects. Performers’ interactions with these artifacts would set the rhythm for the dialogue. On the stage, every new round of conversation between the two neighbors, Pasha, played by Ivan Nikolaev, and Uncle Kolya, played by Igor Nikolaev, started by bringing in an object from those exhibits in the foyer. These objects acquired an almost sacred significance on stage, especially since the performance of Igor Nikolaev as Uncle Kolya gives them special meaning. For example, after describing the old stool, he told us about its origins, the history of its repairs and how he was currently using it. This stool, as well as the basket, knife or plastic bag with old clothes that belonged to his wife, were all connected to different episodes of Uncle Pasha’s life. Within an hour, the old man’s past and present unfolded before us, filled with stories about boring people, a dilapidated country house, his wife Luda’s tyranny, and the quantity and quality of potatoes he stocks up each year, for example.

The actor did not shy away from comic techniques. His character treats every detail of his life with a fierce thoroughness, regardless of whether he needs to find the right working jacket in a pile of junk or accidentally hears how the new neighbor is resentful of his wife’s behavior. This technique leads to the understanding that in general, Uncle Kolya’s ordinary life and fate are perceived as absurd. By elevating every small thing to the rank of extraordinary, the old man provokes the young neighbor to a similarly serious response:

P. It’s really beautiful, uncle Kolya, a very beautiful knife.
(Pavel stopped twirling the knife, looks at it, just holds it.)
N. Yes?
P. I think so. He is like that.
(Pavel smiles) Dangerous. …
N. Luda’s dad made it in prison.

Pryazhko14

Interestingly, Pasha, played by Ivan Nikolaev, Igor’s son, is not at all affected by the emotional engagement of his older neighbor. The younger Nikolaev has a unique and organic acting style: his performance is indistinguishable from real life. Before the action begins the actor invites the audience to come from foyer into the hall, with a neutral intonation and low voice. At this point he isn’t performing as an actor, but rather serves as an usher. Shortly after the show starts, his hero will greet Uncle Kolya with the same intonation. Playing a man without qualities, Ivan Nikolaev not only reacts to an uninhibited neighbor, but also develops his own theme in the play. Pasha shifts from one foot to the other, puts down his backpack and picks it up again; he seems to be waiting for Uncle Kolya’s emotional remarks to derive affective meaning from a minimum of reactions, and his thoughts and dreams seem far removed from the dialogue.

Sosed by Pavel Pryazhko, directed by Dmitry Volkostrelov. In the picture: Ivan Nikolaev as Pasha, Igor Nikolaev as Uncle Kolya. Photo: Yaroslavna Efimova

As the action continues, it seems that Pasha cannot easily extract himself from this cunning web of communication, which is funny for the audience, but risky for the young protagonist. In the middle of the play, those who haven’t read the script may feel a sense of dread about an ominous ending, much like Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. This allusion comes from the play and the performance supports it. The knife that Uncle Pasha gives as a gift to his young neighbor seems to be a Chekhovian gun that will eventually lead to a dramatic twist at the end. Moreover, a mysterious ghost gradually emerges from the dialogue: Aunt Luda, Uncle Kolya’s wife and a sinister character who does not appear on stage. She works as an elderly judge, having begun her career in the Soviet courts, even though her brother and father were serial offenders. This comedic quid pro quo, a judge who is a daughter and a sister of criminals, takes on a suggestive meaning at the end. Aunt Luda is a true demon of the garden; she terrorizes not only her husband, Uncle Kolya, forcing him to do things against his will, but also her neighbor Pasha. Uncle Kolya whispers to the young neighbor a statement that he accidentally overheard about his wife:

N. … And when they passed, he also let it slip: “I thought there were some kind of criminals living there. Bandits can live. And it turned out to be a woman.”
(Pavel smiled)
P. And this is a woman, yes.

Pryazhko 26

This minor comment by Pasha, rather than a dramatic or bloody twist, leads to the culmination of the performance. The play, like most other works by Pryazhko, lacks a climax in the classical sense. Sosed’s dramatic structure involves the accumulation of numerous references to garbage in the neighbor’s narratives, references to material, sound, smoke, and, in short, all that man carries with him, which connote the destruction of nature. The natural landscape is not an actor per se but it opposes human narratives by virtue of its existence. This oppositional role that nature performs with regard to humanity is revealed in the opening lines of the play: “Spring, morning, birds are singing” (Pryazhko 1), and the closing lines, “Birds are singing on the branches of trees in country gardens. … The closer to noon, the brighter the sun becomes, the more the earth and air warm up” (27). However, in Ivan Nikolaev’s interpretation of Pasha, we notice, through his detached smile and his face turned toward some point in the distance, that he hears the birds singing and feels the sun warming the ground throughout the entire conversation.

Pasha is a young man who did not live in the USSR; he hasn’t enjoyed the land and the natural environment in the same way as his father. Because of this, he is drowning in conversations with Uncle Kolya, who has emerged from the USSR. Additional meanings are suggested at this point: the earth and air in the cottage cooperative seem to be poisoned by the fumes from old clothes that rot on the mezzanines of summer houses and in sheds, wrapped in torn plastic bags and newspapers of the Soviet era; also relevant are moth-eaten drapes, women’s coats with fur collars, grandfather’s overcoats and jackets, old Soviet-style heavy sideboards from the seventies which symbolize heavy burdens of the previous century in modern light, and wooden houses, locking away within them leaky pots and soot-black pans. These objects imply a world replete with unnecessary junk that was impossible to throw away and unbearable to keep in city apartments so that the formerly Soviet citizenry carried them all the way to the country. The sound of Aunt Luda’s chanson pervades the gardens and prevents others from enjoying the sun, the earth, the birds singing or the warmth and quiet of sleep.

It seems that the Soviet legacy is indestructible on this land. Only in the finale, inspired by the story of how new people asked Aunt Luda to turn off the chanson, Pasha cautiously dares to take action: he joins his voice to a new generation of the cottage owners and timidly asks Uncle Kolya to ask his wife to behave more quietly. But, in the weak scale of this play’s dramatic actions, Pasha’s timid protest is equivalent to a challenge in a romantic melodrama. Thus, in the Volkostrelov’s Sosed staged at the St. Petersburg Post Theatre, Pasha turns into the protagonist, so the performance leaves the audience with a faint hope that Pasha’s generation will someday remove the Soviet junk from this land.

This production is also noteworthy in its use of stage space. The action takes place in a white room, and there is no actual stage. The audience sits in three locations divided from each other by narrow walkways. The performance site consists of a narrow path between the groups of the audience, like the paths between flower beds in a garden. Despite this, both performers act as if they are behind a fourth wall, and they do not seem to notice the audience. This paradoxical combination of elements is further enhanced as the performers hold real potatoes and a real knife but perform imaginary actions with them. For me, such a combination of performance elements leads to the effect similar to what Viktor Shklovsky called the phenomenon of ostranenie [defamiliarization, also translated as estrangement].[3] This effect creates an affective distancing from the otherwise everyday story of neighbors talking to each other over a fence. Thus, this combination of real props and mimed action leads us see the familiar as strange. It also forces us to recognize ourselves from the outside not only as the characters, but also as ourselves participating in the absurd ritual.

Sosed by Pavel Pryazhko, directed by Liena Schmukste. In the picture Girts Kruminsh as Uncle Kolya, Elmis Kruminsh as Pasha. Photo: Katerina Jakovleva

The play Sosed might also be open to an alternative interpretation. At the end of the year 2022, the play was staged in Riga, in Latvian, with a translation by Edith Tischeider. Director Liena Schmukste, who said that this text somehow “hooked” her, invited the outstanding actor Girts Kruminsh to play the role of Uncle Kolya; until recently he was a star of the New Riga Theatre, and has played many characters from Russian classics, for example, in Chaika [Seagull] by Chekhov or Zemlyanika in Revizor [Inspector General] by Gogol, Obrezkov in Zhivoy Trup [Alive Dead] by Leo Tolstoy and Oblomov in the same name Goncharov’s novel adaptation, etc. in Alvas Hermanis’s performances. The actor gave depth and drama to Pryazhko’s Uncle Kolya. The director, who is unfamiliar with the Soviet past, interprets the play as a story about the incompatibility between loneliness and the yearning for friendship.

Sosed by Pavel Pryazhko, directed by Liena Schmukste. In the picture Girts Kruminsh as Uncle Kolya. Photo: Katerina Jakovleva

According to the critics’ reviews, the main focus is a deep dramatic collision of Uncle Kolya played by Girts Kruminsh. For instance, theatre critic Lyudmila Metelskaya described the production as “Hamlet in the Void.” Metelskaya praised Kruminsh’s performance, commenting that he manages to “play Hamlet without getting into a pose or waving his arms or raising his voice or fussing with his face.” She described Uncle Kolya as a hero who carries the burden of loneliness and is forced to serve a despotic woman, saying, “We are slaves, Pasha, worse than slaves” (Pryazhko 19) without realizing it. In this interpretation, Uncle Kolya became the protagonist in order to arouse sympathy from the audience.

This case shows that while Sosed might be interpreted outside the cultural codes of Soviet heritage, it is then read as a psychological drama rather than an absurd comedy.

The environment inhabited by the heroes of Steshik and Pryazhko is a world of fossils, a world of the past, a world full of the rotting remains of the USSR, where modern people find themselves in a funnel of time, in a space where all the healthy sprouting of life is eaten by Soviet garbage. This situation generates a conflict of chronotopes, when the contemporary subjectivity has to live without the present. This reality is reflected in the plays of two bright authors from Belarus with the help of innovative methods of dramatic writing. Konstantin Steshik, skillfully combining epic and lyrical instruments, creates a picture of an elusive life; his characters tumble from their youth and fall into old age. Pavel Pryazhko, having perfected the tools of the absurd comedy, places his characters in the atmosphere of Soviet rituals that poison all living things, even the simple communication of human beings with nature.

The censored theatrical art of Belarus has not yet produced outstanding productions of these plays. The Belarusian stage does not recognize the richness and diversity of dramatic texts that numerous theatre professionals discuss internationally. However, the new wave of Belarusian drama suggests that there may be hidden streams in the depths of Belarusian theatre, and these concealed tendencies will strongly manifest themselves immediately after the collapse of the Lukashenko’s regime.


Endnotes

[1] For more information, see Critical Stages, December, 2023, Issue 28.

[2] Notable performances have been given by the Invisible Theatre and the Theatre “Saturday” in St. Petersburg, as well as the Drama and Comedy Theatre at Kamchatka, the Theatre on Spasskaya in Orenburg and the Chelyabinsk Youth Theatre.

[3] Let me remind the reader that Bertold Brecht was familiar with Shklovsky’s literary theory of ostranenie and applied this principle to theatrical art.

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*Natalia Skorokhod used to be a Professor at the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts (Department of Theatre Art, RGISI, Saint-Petersburg, Russia) as well as a researcher in the field of history and theory of drama and literature. She has PhD and postdoctoral degrees in art studies. She presently lives in Berlin and has the status of “scholar at risk.” She has her author program on contemporary Russophone drama in exile at the Free University and works on her research project Performing of Social Collapse: Russophone Plays of the XXI Century with the support of the Russian Program of GW University.

Copyright © 2024 Natalia Skorokhod
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