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"Let Rome in Moskva melt": Antony and Cleopatra at Sovremennik.

"Let Rome in Moskva Melt": Antony and Cleopatra at Sovremennik

After the famous Moscow Arts Theatre, Sovremennik (in Russian the name means "the contemporary") is probably the most prestigious theater in Moscow. In its current repertory Sovremennik boasts several productions by Kiryll Serebrennikov, a young director who, after emerging less han a decade ago as an enfant terrible of the Moscow stage, has rapidly evolved into one of the most admired directors in the country, famous, among other things, for his uncompromising modernizations of the classics, riotously inventive staging, and wickedly post-modern sense of humor. Recent years have seen Serebrennikov's rise to the status of a brand name of sorts; theater mangers across the country vie for his Midas touch: his taking charge of a production has been proven to guarantee a combination of artistic sophistication and, despite his flair for the shocking, resounding commercial success. His contribution to Sovremennik's 2006 playbill was a greatly anticipated production of Antony and Cleopatra.

The project was Serebrennikov's first direct foray into Shakespeare. Probably in an attempt to forestall accusations of too-extravagant departures from Shakespeare, both the program and the playbill bore the unnecessarily coy subtitle "a version." This version of Antony and Cleopatra was set against the backdrop of an unspecified location in the contemporary Middle East, which occasionally also looked like the present-day Chechen Republic. This staging bristled with all things Muslim and was iconically evocative of everything a television viewer is likely to associate with the more fundamentalist elements of the Islamic world. The costumes varied from motley hijabs to black burkas for women, and from kaftans to military camouflage or black commando/terrorist outfits for men. In contrast, Rome's representatives looked decidedly western and projected corporate efficiency and sober imperturbability. Caesar, every inch a ruthless CEO, wore an austere suit and comported himself with frigid reserve.

The stage was framed by a booth on each side (at the end, the booths were turned into a pair of museum sarcophagi in which the heroes found their final rest). A female figure in Muslim attire inside one of the booths was in charge of a soundtrack of sorts: a lesson in Arabic that intermittently accompanied the action. With the placidity of a tape recording, a voice first introduced the audience to simple locutions and their translation; as the play progressed, the innocuous salam aleikums gradually gave way to more complex and disturbing ones, such as "I have lost my wife" and other disconcerting appeals for help and exclamations of despair. Translation, or rather untranslatability and miscommunication--whether between east and west or love and duty--turned out to be one of the production's extended metaphors. As for the spoken text itself, it appeared to be a reasonably modernized blend of prose and verse--a synthesized version of several standard translations. At times more colloquial, even folksy (though not unpalatable) diction disturbed the decorum.

Philo's report about the "dotage of our General" was delivered to the accompaniment of a video transmission from Cleopatra's bedroom: two interlocked bodies, busy at making a beast with two backs, for some time writhed on a giant screen, before rolling, minimally dressed, from behind the scenes onto the stage, dusting themselves off, and assuming the roles of Antony and Cleopatra. Serebrennikov cast his favorite, Chulpan Hamatova, Sovremennik's most accomplished, versatile young actress as his Cleopatra. Of small stature, still a wisp of a girl at thirty-two, Hamatova only for a moment seemed an unusual match for the production's Antony, the veteran of the silver screen Sergei Shakurov, twice her age.

The inventiveness of the opening was but a foretaste of Serebrennikov's imagination, which is famous for never running dry. His other inventions included a bizarre, chalky, mummy-like soothsayer, equipped with a yard-long phallus (at the end of the play he tragically re-emerged without it, a bloody spot in its place); the battle of Actium was rendered with charming minimalism--a fleet of paper boats burnt to a cinder to the accompaniment of a brass band; some business was, perhaps, excessively stylized: for example, Cleopatra, presumably making use of her status as the serpent of old Nile, died by kissing her reflected image in a looking glass.

The director's penchant for contemporaneity resulted in a wealth of clever topical allusions that ranged from hilarious to shocking. The Chechen motif grew especially strong and was presented with a blend of casual matter-of-factness and grotesque humor. A messenger, who read his missives from one of the glass booths, turned out to be legless. Later, having strapped on a beard and an AK-47, he doubled as Pompey, challenging Rome to a battle (which is to say, a Chechen field commander challenging Moscow to come and get him). No other staging could have made Pompey's "Your hostages I have, so you have mine" resonate to greater effect. By the end of the play, the set became a picture of devastation; the burnt walls and shreds of basketball nets and other gym accessories couldn't help but remind one of the sadly familiar images of the infamous Beslan school, destroyed in 2004, together with hundreds of hostages, when Russian troops battled it out with Chechen militants. When surrendering to Caesar her treasures, Cleopatra spoke with a Chechen accent and, together with her women, clutched photographs of her property in the all too familiar manner of desperate Chechen women shaking the pictures of their slain or missing loved in the face of their compassionless conquerors. Antony, when in full military regalia, evoked any of the number of famous Russian generals, from Georgi Zhukov, the conqueror of Berlin, to the tough and much admired general-cum-politician Alexander Lebed, whose life was tragically cut short by a helicopter crash. When in his cups, Antony occasionally reminded one of Brezhnev (Shakurov recently played him in a television series to much critical acclaim); at other times he comically evoked Yeltsin's tongue-tied gravitas. Opposite Shakurov's old party warhorse, Ivan Stebunov's perky Caesar was an unmistakable parody of Russia's current president. Here the analogy seemed even more appropriate than in Serebrennikov's signature production of Ostrovsky's The Forrest for the Moscow Arts Theater. There the director had the play's contemptible and comic timeserver and hanger-on set the audience on a roar by exaggerating some of Putin's mannerisms.


Whether or not the political parallels that the production indulged in were justified and useful, or wanton and gratuitous, predictably, turned out to be a matter of debate. Some reviewers favored the latter opinion and expressed their displeasure with Serebrennikov's impertinent and inflammatory allusions--the Chechen angle in particular was perceived as a needless trivialization of the all too real human tragedy. Others, while acknowledging Serebrennikov's cleverness, condemned the staging as mere gimmickry that did not make Shakespeare the audience's contemporary, but rather distanced him from it. One unimpressed critic suggested that what Serebrennikov was out to do, was to test once again how much the audience would let him get away with (I will come back to this point later). Thankfully, the judgment of the playgoers is the only one that Russian theater has to heed now. Even though theaters in Russia remain a largely state-sponsored enterprise, the powers that be appear unconcerned with exercising censorship and prefer to concentrate their efforts on oppressing and marginalizing independent media and other forms of non-artistic dissent. In today's Russian theater one can get away with a lot--both aesthetically and politically--a circumstance which, I think, now more than ever makes the theater the nation's conscience.

Overall, the critical reaction to Serebrennikov's version of Antony and Cleopatra was lukewarm. When Serebrennikov's political and other topical allusions did not give offence, they at least caused some annoyance. What is more important, the gags and gadgetry of the staging were perceived by the reviewers to be too busy, too distracting. The staging, critics

contended, instead of setting off the performances of the principals, distracted from them. Furthermore, almost every review I read expressed some degree of frustration over the perceived lack of chemistry between Shakurov and Hamatova. Their interactions were condemned as unconvincing and their passion was called lackluster. Since both are highly accomplished actors (I, for one, thought that their performances, though indeed at times taking back seat to the staging, were quite good), it occurred to me that Serebrennikov may have been catching the flak that was rightly Shakespeare's. Unlike the four great tragedies, which are performed in Russia all the time--a Muscovite, for instance, has the luxury of choosing among three Leafs that currently play in repertory at three different venues--Antony and Cleopatra has no recent Stage history in Russia. In fact, not a single of the half-a-dozen or so reviews that I read mentions any other production of the play. Although most reviewers noted some of Serebrennikov's "re-writes" (mostly abridgements and colloquializations) of Shakespeare, one cannot know if they had actually read the play or thought hard about it. I suspect that, like their Anglophone counterparts who deal with unadulterated Shakespeare, Moscow critics may have expected that Anthony and Cleopatra, when done right, should be every bit as satisfying as a well-done Hamlet or Macbeth. A quick look at the archive of the reviews of Antony and Cleopatra in England or America demonstrates, however, that an entirely positive review of a production of this play is all but impossible to find. Actors of unimpeachable virtuosity are routinely found by reviewers wanting in their abilities to represent the pair of Shakespeare's great lovers. Antony and Cleopatra has a reputation for leaving its audiences less than satisfied, not least because their expectations of a grand love between the eponymous heroes, of the heroes' grandeur in life and, especially, in death, are frustrated.


That Shakespeare seems to have been bent on disallowing his Antony and Cleopatra sufficient space and time to celebrate their love, on saddling them with anti-heroic handicaps, and on offsetting many a pathetic high with a bathetic low tends to be left unacknowledged by a reviewer, and the director and the principals squarely shoulder the blame. Who has not observed audience members shaking their heads in disbelief at Antony's grotesquely botched suicide or rolling their eyes at Cleopatra's lapse from momentary dignity to contemptible fussing over her valuables? Since spectators tend to bring their own Antony and Cleopatra with them to the theatre and expect to see something like a Romeo and Juliet for the middle age, it is not surprising that they often feel they haven't got their money's worth. In my opinion, however, Serebrennikov, despite the extravagant liberties he took with the play, succeeded in, among other things, transmitting its wildly experimental nature: the director seems to have been determined--determined in a very Shakespearean manner--to stay faithful to what I can only comprehend as the play's odd and perverse objective of finding out how much it is that it can get away with. Rather than soft-pedaling the play's remarkable, frequently absurd disruptions--disruptions that make Antony and Cleopatra uniquely consonant with post-modern sensibility--Serebrennikov, I think, wholeheartedly embraced them, even as he tried to match Shakespeare's experimentation and daring with his own. Like most theatrical productions in Russia, this one is sure to stay in the repertory for years. I, for one, plan to see it again, not least for the pleasure of seeing how Shakurov--an actor of Al Pacino's caliber--succeeds in making Antony--with all his brash expansiveness, self-destructive spontaneity, and endearing sentimentality--so remarkably and quintessentially Russian.

VITALIY EYBER, University of California, Berkeley
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Author:Eyber, Vitaliy
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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