Shakespeare in Saratov


Version 2

Theater Plus blog No. 140. There was a period there for awhile when I was traveling often to Saratov. It was a great time in my life and in the life of Saratov theater. The reason for this was Valery Raikov, the managing director of the Saratov Youth Theater. He was doing incredible things – bringing in world-class directors to work with his troupe (including Lee Breuer), bringing in important theater managers from around Russia to run great workshops, bringing in up-and-coming Russian writers and directors to give them a chance to show what they could do. In many cases, they could do much. Yaroslava Pulinovich broke through as a writer here with her play “Natasha’s Dream,” while numerous young directors, including Dmitry Volkostrelov, pictured below at a press conference next to Moscow director Yelena Nevezhina, had a chance to ply their trade here. This was my first encounter with Volkostrelov. I had heard much about him in previous months, but had not yet seen his work. His simple piece at a Shakespeare workshop here in Saratov made me stand up and take notice. It wasn’t long before I – and many others – recognized him as one of the most talented and interesting directors of his generation. Take a look at the man on the left above. That is Valery Raikov (sitting next to Oleg Loevsky, who is on our right). He is a perfect example of how dangerous it is in Russia to actually stick your neck out and do something well. All his success, and the attention that came with it, began rubbing higher-ups the wrong way in Saratov. When there was a tragedy at the theater – a damaging fire beneath the roof – the authorities used the opportunity to get rid of him. Well, I’ll tell you what – nobody has heard of, or has cared much about, theater in Saratov since Raikov was pushed out. (I can’t help but add that fire is one of the most common ways of settling problems among criminal circles in Russia. I don’t know any details. I’m just saying.) Fortunately for Raikov and us, he since found theaters in Moscow to work for. But what a loss for Saratov. And then I have to add one more tidbit. Andreas Merz, a young director from Germany, was one of the working guests at this festival-workshop. I don’t know if it was his first trip to Saratov or not. It certainly turned out not to be his last. Andreas won the heart of Raikov’s daughter Yekaterina, and, to make a long story short: Her name is now Raikova-Merz and she travels around Europe and Russia with her husband who has become a very successful director. Nice little fairytale ending to that story. 

07 November 2011
By John Freedman

The Saratov Youth Theater has significant experience ferreting out new talent. Over the last few years it has organized and hosted numerous workshops that have helped introduce Russia to plays by such important contemporary writers as Yaroslava Pulinovich of Yekaterinburg and Dorota Maslowska from Poland. These events have also given emerging directors the opportunity to try out things they might not have been able to do otherwise. The Moscow-based German director Georg Genoux has worked here in the past, as has the St. Petersburg director and playwright Dmitry Yegorov.

But never had the theater hosted a workshop like the one that wrapped up last week. Titled simply “The Shakespeare Festival,” it was a three-day marathon of six staged readings of Shakespeare plays — some of them going quite far afield from the original.

The festival was the brainchild of Moscow’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar Alexei Bartoshevich and Oleg Loevsky, who, simply though inadequately put, is Russia’s living encyclopedia of all things theater. The idea, as both men described in various ways over the course of the festival, was to put young directors and actors together with Shakespeare’s texts and to see what would come of the collisions.

Most of the showings were prepared in the extraordinarily short period of three to four days, meaning that the directing, as well as the acting, was fast, loose and energetic. Three of the directors (Polina Struzhkova, Yelena Nevezhina and Dmitry Volkostrelov) were from Russia, two (Yann-Joel Collin and Razerka Ben Sadia-Lavant) were from France, and one (Andreas Merz) was from Germany. It was a veritable cultural stew filled with surprises.

Perhaps the greatest impression I took away with me was that of the audience. The halls were packed for every performance. There were hordes of students and large numbers of professional-looking spectators, all of whom took active part in the discussions that followed each reading. Whatever one may have thought of the success or failures of the showings, it was obvious that the city is hungry for theater and that its populace always has an opinion about whatever it encounters. One can only conclude that these series of workshops at the Saratov Youth Theater — of which the Shakespeare Festival was the seventh — have done an extraordinary job of attracting and educating new spectators.

Alongside interpretations of “The Two Gentlemen from Verona,” “Twelfth Night,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Othello,” I thought two readings stood out especially — Dmitry Volkostrelov’s “To Be or Not to Be? There is No Question” and Andreas Merz’ “Titus Andronicus.” The former was a modern riff on the notion of Shakespeare’s most famous monologue, while the latter was a radical take on Shakespeare’s bloodiest play that was a mix of farce, grotesque and comics.

Merz’ actors squealed like children, played with masks, splattered tomato-juice blood all over themselves, sang like karaoke stars, cooked up real salads and pancakes, and hopped around like bunny rabbits in the telling of the tale of a ruthless king and the vengeance his top general takes on him for his murderous cruelty. The result was a jarring and often rudely funny parody of corrupt, two-faced, power-hungry individuals. For the most part the perfidy of Shakespeare’s play was turned upside down and mocked by the director and his actors, although a remarkably straightforward performance of Titus by Valery Yemelyanov never allowed the sense of horror to be lost entirely. It was a tight-rope walk of a show that left some spectators furious, others confused and others quite enthusiastic.

Volkostrelov, one of the most interesting young directors to emerge from St. Petersburg in the last decade, put together a fascinating contemporary look at one of the key aspects of “Hamlet” — that moment when the Danish prince first contemplates suicide.

But this was not the director’s own interpretation of Shakespeare’s text — it was, rather, a compendium of interpretations offered by a random selection of ideas drawn from the internet and from young residents living in Saratov. The director and his team put together their own narrative indicating what some young people know of, and think about, the famous “to-be-or-not-to-be” speech. Does it mean anything to them? Does it have relevance to their lives?

These various statements were woven into a text delivered by four actors dressed in black who stood motionless on an empty black stage. At various times behind them various images of computer screens, cityscapes or scenes out of famous films of “Hamlet” were projected on the back wall.

Perhaps predictably, the contemporary ruminations on thoughts of life and death drifted into banalities, consumer concerns, indifference and misunderstanding. None of that made the performance itself any less compelling, for this emerged as a true example of bringing new life to an old text.



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