Some Russian critics “love to kill what they can’t control” wrote John Freedman in the Moscow Times in 2015. He continued: “Theatre, of course, is bigger and messier and more lively than all of us put together.” After four consecutive nights watching new Russian plays (little performed in the UK) translated by Noah Birksted-Breen at London’s Frontline Club—plays that are consciously about the social state of Russia and her theatre, one could go away thinking Russia herself wants to kill what she can’t control. The question is whether and how this may happen. Is Russian theatre in peril? Sources comment that it is alive and kicking in the provinces, where most new plays are staged. But they are dystopian works "that define Russia as an unconquerable, forbidden, illogical country where any social experimenting is drowned in the mysticism, viscosity, and waywardness of the Russian soul." The theatre critic Pavel Rudnev writes that Russia’s theatrical elders are expressing “anti-liberal” notes with stagings of some of Dostoevsky’s best-known works expressing the pointlessness of a revolutionary spirit . And the Putin government’s insistence on converting more and more theatres into state-run institutions and its pressure on private landlords who rent out space to the politically independent and outspoken theatres such as Teatr.doc must ring alarm bells. Softly, maybe, but ring they must.
On the first night of the play readings, a venture between the journalists’ charity, Plymouth Theatre Royal, and Sputnik Theatre, the choice of work, Doctor (Notes of a Provincial Doctor) was a good illustration of the present federation’s disintegration of social structures. The play explores how many hospitals in the Russian provinces are understocked, understaffed, or are being dismantled, often leaving patients with nowhere to turn. The play has been in rep at Teatr.doc for ten years as a result of its popularity with the medical community, in particular. Elena Iseva, the playwright, uses verbatim techniques to expound, word for word, the experiences of a doctor as he journeys from medical student to surgeon in rural Russia. Played with a hint of wistful yet slightly boorish sentimentalism by Alex Cox, drawing surely on Chekhov’s Mikhail Lvovich Astrov in Uncle Vanya or Tcheboutykin in The Three Sisters, Doctor (Notes of a Provincial Doctor) lays bare the sick, badly financed, and sometimes hilarious state of the Russian health system.
The reading of Zhanna the night after, by twenty-seven-year-old playwright Yaroslava Pulinovich, may, at first, seem to bear no connection. It’s a stark look at a self-made new Russian woman who outmaneuvers the mafia gangs in the lawless “pop, glamour, and gangster” period of the 1990s (the first chaotic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union) to manage a small chain of boutiques, making herself wealthy in the process. We join Zhanna just as her toy-boy is about to leave her for his younger and pregnant “real love.” What follows is a hard-hitting account of Zhanna’s quest for revenge. While Zhanna has been commonly referred to by the critics as a “straightforward melodrama,” it charts an important psychological shift in Russia’s national character during Perestroika and the move from economic restraint to excess living in a “grab what you can” cultural moment.
It goes on to caution against arts and culture that diverge from Russia’s traditional values, stating, “No experiments with form can justify the substance that contradicts the values traditional for our society.” What must this do to a people?
If the first two plays deal with Russia’s immediate history, Grandchildren by Alexandra Polivanova and Mikhail Kaluzhsky, is an attempt to rationalize Stalinism. Dealing with territory written about so hauntingly and truthfully by Vassily Grossman in Life and Fate, the play offers testimonies from the grandchildren of those whose family members were Stalinists, in the NKVD, or members of the Communist Party. It deals with guilt, self-censorship, and with the need to excuse and the desire to forgive. It is original, for when do we hear about or from the relatives of mass murderers, executioners, or any kind of criminal offenders? Who tells their stories? They are often the ones forgotten in the mass outcry pitying victims and venting rage against the victors, and they are left to process the legacy of inherited guilt on their own, when in fact, one could argue, it should be a communal experience. But if this play is trying, in some small part, to do what the Nuremberg Trials did for Germany—to bring a country to face and therefore to reconcile with its past—the post-reading discussion, given by speakers Alexandrina Markov, Oliver Bullough, Vladimir Ashurkov, and John Freedman warned that Russia may be creeping back into the Soviet Era, not out of it. The fact that a new Stalin educational center has opened in Penza, Meyerhold’s birthplace, is not lost on Russia’s artistic community, yet it highlights a deep psychological conflict raised in the play. Russia has not processed Stalin and WWII, yet through censorship and political pressure (Putin’s version of Stalin is to be taught in schools for example) her government continues to inflict wounds on open sores before they have had a chance to be understood or heal, a typical old-style KGB tactic. Is Russia heading back into the dark murky days of the USSR?
In December 2014, Vladimir Putin signed a new cultural policy document detailing Russia’s “rejection” of the “principles of tolerance and multiculturalism.” It goes on to caution against arts and culture that diverge from Russia’s traditional values, stating, “No experiments with form can justify the substance that contradicts the values traditional for our society.” What must this do to a people?
The closing play, Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Has Not Started Yet, commissioned by A Play A Pint & A Pie and the National Theatre of Scotland, perhaps has a preemptive imaginative answer—of sorts. Reminiscent of the style in Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, and premiering just as Russian troops occupied Ukraine, it is not about a war on a frontline, unless you see that line as a domestic one. Instead, using a large number of vignettes, it explores a variety of Russian characters suffering neurosis, psychosis, and schizophrenia as a result of what is happening to them in their own country. Characters are unable to function in a world that is increasingly lived through the pursuit of sensual fulfillment or, in equal amounts, internal and external oppression. They suffer mental and emotional overload and their natural human tendencies are suppressed, either by themselves or others. In the play, the characters fail to distinguish between what is real or not real (referring to Russian State TV’s tendency to fake news reports, or bend the truth of news stories to fit their agenda), they cross boundaries, abuse others, and look at the world through a filter of mysticism. One scene recounts a moment where a father feels that there is a connection between the simultaneous events of his son going missing and his ability to refrain from smoking at such a time of great stress. We don’t hear if the son is found and we presume that he is not. We realize that so many Russians are in jail, searching for meanings of their own, as the state’s official roads to truth dead end. Russia’s citizens look at their own lives and their country’s history, through the bars of state-led oppression.
What does the future look like for Russian theatre? It is unknown territory, though some fear one path may already have been laid out years ago in the Stalinist period. Teatr doc. itself is allowed to exist for the moment. But the authorities could shut Teatr. doc down if they wanted. Why don’t they? Perhaps it is something to do with why Putin invades other countries: he keeps himself in power by creating problems only he can solve. Perhaps the announcement that the Minister of Culture would vet new plays and since redacted because of a public outcry, was also a psychological trick. For now, though, Teatr.doc’s artistic director refuses to listen to what she calls the “whispers in her ear” or believe any “conspiracy theories” about the State’s real feelings about theatre, and the one she runs especially.
What does the future look like for Russian theatre? It is unknown territory, though some fear one path may already have been laid out years ago in the Stalinist period.
Putting in half measures against Russia’s artistic dissent by kicking Teatr.doc from building to building, yet allowing their plays to take place, or by threatening the censorship of new work but not following through with it, seems a fine line for the Russian government to tread and it forces the theatre world to be constantly on guard. Theatregoing in Russia is a serious business, though they reject it as a “time killing” enterprise. The 115 theatres in Moscow pride themselves on being almost completely sold out all of the time. Where else in the world does theatre matter as much as this? Putin is, for now, cutting just enough slack for theatre to survive as a much-muted place of dissent, but will it be enough for its people? Might they demand more? Theatre is “messier” and “bigger” than us, so it seems only time will tell.