Words to Be and Words to Be Silent (2014)

5th TheaterReposting of Theater Plus blog No. 263 (approximate). The title above is the title I used for publication in the Column section of The Moscow Time’s website. It was published in the print edition (yes, there used to be one of those) as “Brush Up Your Shakespeare to Understand Today’s Russia.” Details on the craziness – the ban on obscenities that was about to take effect in Russia, and some claims from a parliamentarian that were SO wild, SO insane, that even Culture Minister Vladimir “I Plagiarized My Dissertation” Medinsky had to speak out. As for the obscenity ban – it never worked. Quite a few theaters did as the Prokopyevsk Drama Theater and pulled shows or censored texts. But once the law took force – it never took force. I don’t know of a single case brought against a theater for employing obscenities in a performed text. I do recall that a few films that came out right at the time bleeped a few words, but that ended quickly. The theater I now work at, the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, has a show – The Golden Ass – that unleashes a long string of obscenities at one point. But for five minutes leading up to the juicy moments, the actor repeatedly warns “parents with children and any representatives of the Ministry of Culture” that they must leave now, because they won’t want to hear what’s coming. So that’s what’s left of that law – a joke. Which is pretty much what it was all along. My photo above shows the Fifth Theater in Omsk which declined to remove Anna Yablonskaya’s play “Pagans” from its repertory despite the law banning swearwords on stage.

  • By John Freedman
  • May 04 2014 16:29

“Hamlet.” Has there ever been a better play to fall back on when you need to have a chat about Russia?

“Words, words, words.” “To be or not to be.” “The rest is silence.” All phrases that sound loaded in many a Russian historical context. These days words get tossed around like the proverbial ping pong ball in a hurricane. Sometimes they surprise, sometimes they dishearten.

I think it is safe to say that Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky surprised many last week when he spoke out against parliamentarian Yevgeny Fyodorov for some strange, unfounded and completely illogical claims. After all, many have grown accustomed to the fact that Medinsky himself is a frequent source of curious, even controversial, commentary. Be that as it may, Medinsky sent an official complaint to the State Duma in response to Fyodorov’s outburst.

Fyodorov lashed out at the Golden Mask Festival and some of the productions it honored with awards in mid-April. Fyodorov’s complaints were many, but, as reported in Gazeta.ru, some of the choicest were, 1) that “three immigrant workers from Tadzhikistan” were given an award by the festival’s musical jury; 2) that several of those who participated in the selection process in 2013 should have been disqualified because they were fired from different government positions in 2014, and, 3) that actor Alexei Devotchenko engaged in an “anti-government performance” during a celebration of the Golden Mask’s 20th anniversary in late March.

For the record, Fyodorov is the same individual who claimed in early April that CIA agents in Hollywood wrote all the songs for legendary Russian rock musician Viktor Tsoi.

In a seven-page response to the Speaker of the Duma, Medinsky answered Fyodorov’s accusations point by point and concluded by saying, “I consider it imperative to inform you that the facts set out in [Fyodorov’s] speech are either presented in a skewed manner or are utterly untrue.”

In another development entirely, theaters quickly began responding last week to a law banning obscenities in film and theater that was passed by the Federation Council on Tuesday. Assuming that President Vladimir Putin signs it into law, it will take effect on July 1.

In the Far East in Vladivostok, “opinions of managers and directors of seaboard theaters on this question were split,” reported PrimaMedia.ru. “Some consider that the lawmakers are right and that obscenities in the cathedral of art are unacceptable, while others are certain that the country has enough problems as is and that the new law will not work.”

A theater in Prokopyevsk in Kemerovo Oblast chose to get a jump on obeying the new law by changing their policy immediately.

“We are ready for the new law,” Lyudmila Kuptsova, managing director of the Prokopyevsk Drama Theater, told Izvestia on Wednesday. “Some of our directors have voluntarily removed swearwords, some I had to have separate conversations with. From now on we will take this matter into consideration at the time of signing contracts.”

This evoked a furious response from playwright and director Mikhail Ugarov, the artistic director of Moscow’s progressive Teatr.doc, who railed on his Facebook page, “Let’s all lay down for the patron in advance, just in case he decides to come!”

“You can’t do battle with the Russian language, I say that as a philologist,” Ugarov declared in comments made to Izvestia. “We won’t react in any way to the passing of this law. At present there is an active law that defends an author’s rights, so I have no right to interfere with a playwright’s text.”

Confusion quickly arose over Izvestia’s claim that the Fifth Theater in Omsk had already closed its production of Anna Yablonskaya’s “Pagans” due to obscenities contained in the text. However, in exchanges that unfolded on several individuals’ Facebook pages on Wednesday, it appeared that claim was erroneous.

Ugarov posted the following: “Managing Director Alexandra Yurkova of the Omsk Fifth Theater writes that Anna Yablonskaya’s “Pagans” was not removed from the theater’s repertory and will not be removed. Furthermore, there was no editing of the text.”

Responding to this news, Yelena Gremina, Teatr.doc’s managing director, declared, “If all theaters will ignore this law, [the authorities] will have to take that into consideration.”



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