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A festival of theatre in Moscow.

ACCORDING to a joke currently circulating in Moscow, Russia is a country which has no history but has an unpredictable past. Both the present and the future are equally problematic, and the complexities of a constantly changing situation are reflected in the theatre as much as they are reflected in other aspects of contemporary Russian life.

It was therefore a fascinating experience to take part in the week of theatre seminars arranged by the International Association of Theatre Critics to coincide with the University Theatres Festival in Moscow in May.

The disintegration of the old regime in Eastern Europe has made a radical difference to what was once Soviet theatre. In the first place, the old subsidised system is increasingly having to adapt itself to commercial pressures, and is finding this very difficult in a situation where theatre is no longer as hugely popular as it once was. In a world of constant flux, real life is more dramatic than the theatre. In a world where economic problems grow more terrifying by the day, people have little or no money to spend on the theatre, and if they do go they want to be distracted from their miseries and not reminded of them, which is one of the reasons why M. Butterfly is the hot ticket in Moscow at the moment.

Small companies which until recently saw themselves as providing a counter-culture now have no official line to oppose. The euphoria which initially greeted the momentous political changes is increasingly being replaced by confusion, uncertainty and an underlying pessimism. One current professional production in Moscow which reflects this, for example, is Tverboull 3, directed by Alexey Papemy, a play which deals with the problems and misery of life today on Tverskoi Boulevard. Ironically, a work reminiscent in some ways of The Lower Depths is located in a district which is only a stone's throw away from the immensely popular Moscow MacDonalds.

Against this general background of political and social upheaval it was interesting to observe the theatrical response of the young people partaking in the University Theatres Festival. Because of its relative freedom from commercial pressures, University Theatre at its best can provide a wonderful training ground for young talent: a means by which students can experiment with both content and form as well as with techniques of enactment.

The Tbilisi University Company gave us one of the h'lghlights of the week -- Pirosmani, based upon the life of a Primitive painter from Georgia who died in appalling penury in the 1920s but whose works are now proudly displayed as national treasures. Pirosmani's life story was the means by which this company explored the role of the artist not in history but here and now in their own society. The piece was vibrant with striking visual images often based upon the paintings themselves; there was imaginative use of masks and movement, and truly wonderful singing. It was also significant that the performance was in Georgian: ten years ago the Georgians would have been obliged to translate their play into Russian.

The best production in the Festival was undoubtedly that by a group of Finnish students who had devised a play loosely based on Strindberg's Self Defence of a Madman. An eccentric Strindberg scholar was translated in fantasy into the person of Strindberg himself and sank deeper and deeper into a world of erotic nightmare as his marriage -- to quote the programme -- was |going down the toilet'. When at last the licentiate regained his own form in the present, his misogynistic ravings were treated with utter contempt by his girlfriend, a modern young feminist who responded to his chauvinistic rantings by playing |Littel Piggy's Birthday' on the record player and leaving him to it. (The programme itself, incidentally, provided a nice illustration of the linguistic difficulties which an international gathering can present -- the commentary was in English, but concluded with a heading which read SLUT. This turned out not to be a reflection by Strindberg on the morals of his wife, but to be the Finnish word for end.

Unfortunately, other shows in the festival did not reach this standard. Student enthusiasm can be infectious but can also degenerate into self-indulgence, and there is no excuse for incompetent acting at any level.

The Kemerovo University's decision to perform Satre's Kean, using a Russian text based on a twentieth-century French version of a nineteenth-century melodrama about English theatrical history, was a perverse choice in view of the fact that none of the performers had the technical skill to overcome the many difficulties with which they had presented themselves. Moscow University chose to perform Nina Sadur's The Weird Woman but their highly exaggerated production style fought against the text, trivialising rather than illuminating it. The decision to include in the Festival programme a version of Anouilh's The Rehearsal by the American, British and Swedish Embassies Theatre Group resulted in a production so badly acted and incompetently directed that it was the unintentional comic highfight of the week.

It was noticeable that although the plays chosen for performame were generally revivals, it was the new work which resulted in the best productions. lonesco's Bald Prima Donna was very competently done by the Strasburg University group but one wonders why it was chosen--there was nothing about the performance which lifted the play out of the museum of theatrical history. Nina Sadur (the writer of The Weird Woman) maintains that young writers are generally more interested now in writing books rather than plays: there is certainly also a feeling that everything Western has to be caught up with, which results in a frantic skipping through what is still seen as the Western Avant-Garde. In the situation of a festival in which University companies could have experimented freely within a new situation, it was sad to find that so much of the work was essentially stale,

University theatre should be adventurous, should take risks, should not, like most amateur work, merely ape what has happened in the professional theatre. At a time when the theatrical monoliths of Eastern Europe are breaking down, it is particularly important that the enthusiasm and imagination of young people should be channelled into live theatre, but not merely to be abusive about the past or to bring rituals to life. Until recently, going to the theatre in Eastern Europe was an inner necessity, seen as a channel of national identity and of implied political debate. Now that the situation is open, it is important that theatre should not find itself relegated merely to being escapist entertainment.
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Title Annotation:analysis of the quality of plays produced by Russian students
Author:Friesner, Susan
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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