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Lord smiling upon people, lions, eagles, partridges and trees

Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre on tour at the Barbican centre, London, 28 February and 1 March 2018

During the blizzards and unbearable cold brought by the so-called ‘beast from the east’ (although accusations are unfounded, as the cold was obviously everywhere, east, west, north, and south) the Londoners had a theatre treat from Moscow, Russia as a strong motivation for them to brave the snow and the wind. The performance itself was more than 3 hours (and it is very normal by Russian theatre standards), and saw one of the finest Moscow theatres visit London again. The company had already been here with its acclaimed productions of ‘Uncle Vanya’ and ‘Eugene Onegin’ directed by Rimas Tuminas, the artistic director of Vakhtangov Theatre. This time a Lithuanian Tuminas brings a production that is very personal for him: it is based on two novels of modern Lithuanian author Grigory Kanovich (born in 1929) and is a new version of the production that was undertaken by Tuminas himself in the early 1990s in Lithuania. This time Tuminas made a new adaptation of the text itself, taking the pieces that were important for his own auteur statement, while also directing it, and he is now working with his favourite actors in the Vakhtangov Theatre (Vladimir Simonov, Sergey Makovetsky, Evgeny Knyazev, Aleksei Guskov), while also inviting Victor Sukhorukov, a wonderful and multi-faceted actor from Mossoveta Theatre, to join the company. Victor Sukhorukov, a magnificently open and kind man, a huge star of Russian cinema whose status is almost mythological because of his appearances in Balabanov’s ‘Brat 1’ and ‘Brat 2’ in the 1990s, kindly agreed to give an hour-long interview before the last show at the Barbican, allowing additional insights into understanding of this deep, intimate show that has an ambition of embracing the whole world.

The show is loosely based on two of Kanovich’s novels: ‘A Kid for Two Farthings’ and ‘Smile to Us, O Lord’, but it is almost unnessesary to know about the writer or about the history of Lithuanian Jews during the 20th century. Tuminas obviously builds this show as a metaphysical fable of human wanderings, search for one (or many) God, for the light and relief from sufferings, as everyone in this story evidently has suffered to the extent of the possibility of being compared to a group of biblical Jobs. It is a story featuring three Jews (and more come their way), but ‘the Jew’ as an ethnic category becomes almost obliterated (despite the fact that every newcomer greets them with ‘good day, Jews’) by the fact of the ‘Jew’ of this show becoming equivalent to ‘Everyman’. Yes, one could think of the image of ‘wandering Jew’, ‘suffering Jew’ of the 20th century - and once there is strange sound reminding us of a war siren, and then a final scene bringing allusions to a gas chamber. However, in Tuminas’s scaling of the world, there are only these Jews in the whole world (and thus their ethnicity becomes irrelevant as there is no one to compare them with, or they could become anybody – Russians, Germans, Poles), and their final destination – Vilnius – is scaled – like Mecca, Jerusalem, mount Athos, or even Chekhov’s ‘Moscow, Moscow’ and could be any city, and actually becomes the centre of the world, the goal of life, the final destination of the journey as a whole.

Many metatheatrical reminiscences come to mind when watching this production, and ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Three Sisters’ are the most powerfully connected to this production. Indeed, it seems that nothing happens on this journey of three Jews to Vilnius, and, in fact, matters of life and death are brought into question and continously questioned, acted upon, sought for, deliberated. Similarly to two other plays, no final answer as to the outcome of the journey is given, while a strong catharsys is experienced by the audiences because of the sheer acuteness of the plight for something unknown, ununderstood, but beautiful and probably indeed waiting for everyone, and here the quote from the end of ‘Three sisters’ sounds so to the purpose: ‘it seems, in just a little time, we will know why we live, and why there is all this suffering... If we could only know!’.

But what is actually happening in the production? Three Jewish men with different stories decide to undertake a journey to Vilnius, as one of the protagonists – the stonecutter Efraim Dudak – wants to see his son before he is executed or put to prison for shooting at the city governor. He is offered to be given a ride by the water carrier (in possession of a horse) Šmulé-Sender Lazarek, while the former owner of a grocery shop and now a beggar Avner Rosenthal joins them (just because he has nothing else to do and wants to see something new). One is reminded of a short poem ‘Three wise men of Gotham//They went to sea in a bowl’, with Samuil Marshak’s translation of it known to every kid in Russia. As Victor Sukhorukov puts it, it is a usual number for a fable – three men on their journey – and there are many other things that are established as ‘three’ in our minds, so it creates a paradigm that would be immediately close to everybody’s heart and mind. Some practical details put the show to the end of the 19th or beginning of 20th century historically, but somehow they are just framing the story, as it needs to happen somewhere, and one gets a feeling that this show is beyond politics, history or any particular period of time. It is about personal quest where one’s own efforts are combined with those of close to you, and where through this unification God’s presence on this earth might be felt in the end.

Victor Sukhorukov, Aleksei Guskov, Sergey Makovetsky and Victor Dobronravov (from left to right). Credits: Valeriy Miasnikov

It is interesting how the production focuses on constant possibilities of change of one’s nearest in this quest. Dudak’s three wives have died (and he poses a stone on their respective small boxes with ashes as he leaves his home), his children are also somewhere far from home, while, as Lazarek says, his wife trying to keep him is like trying to grasp the wind – impossible’. The two protagonists were played in turns by Vladimir Simonov and Sergey Makovetsky (for Efraim Dudak) and Evgeny Knyazev and Aleksei Guskov (for Šmulé-Sender Lazarek). So they live their family connections behind, and are joined by the man who is the epitome of loneliness and disconnectedness – Avner Rosenthal played with virtuosic changes of actor’s palette by Victor Sukhorukov. And then during the show they meet another man who pretends to be blind and crippled at first – Khloyne-Genekh (played by Victor Dobronravov) and he joins them, finding his own place on the cart, and then the Palestinian (with his aim being The country itself), played by Grigory Antipenko, becomes their company, as well. This company could be expanded indefinitely, in fact – it is just that the story and time are limited. The cart drawn by invisible horse (the horse is represented by a woman’s portrait) is built on stage through putting many pieces of furniture on top of one another, and thus rising to a metaphor of a Noah ark, or Russian ‘teremok’ able to give shelter to newcomers.

Evgeny Knyazev, Sergey Makovetsky, Victor Dobronravov and Victor Sukhorukov (from left to right). Credits: Valeriy Miasnikov

This acceptance of the unknown men and the possibility of temporary brotherhood and closeness with new human beings is one of the main messages of Tuminas – that is why the nationhood, the ethnicity become irrelevant here. That is why may be this show was so close to the British audiences of the Barbican, as well as to Russian speakers there and other Londoners who came to see the production – it very effectively, very simply eliminated this barrier. The cart is positioned on an almost bare stage (set designer – Adomas Jacovskis) and thus takes the major share of the space place, being indeed like a ship flowing through the waters of the universe. The doors of Efraim’s home are on the right (he bars the doors before leaving) and the expected Vilnius (Jerusalem de Litta) is on the left, and that’s where all newcomers appear from (including the people saying farewell to travellers in the beginning and Rabbi Aviézer saying their final words of wisdom to them). They are also welcomed by the ‘harbingers of civilization’ Judl Krapivnikov (Alexander Ryshchenkov) and his travelling companion (Maria Volkova). This pair (somehow reminding me of Pozzo and Lucky in Beckett) brings some practical news and mechanisms to travellers, and while causing initial disturbance and hence the trip to Vilnius, they are not able to puncture the inner tranquility of passengers any longer, even though their hand-made siren is an obvious innuendo of future air raids during the war.

Victor Dobronravov, Sergey Makovetsky, Evgeny Knyazev, Victor Sukhorukov (from left to right in the foreground). Credits: Valeriy Miasnikov

And within this frame, poetically brought to a minimum by Tuminas, with every step of the beginning of a journey is mirrored by the same action in the end (barring and opening of the doors, double arrival of Judl, etc.), nothing really happens – it is just the journey, just the talks of the passengers and their monologues, ‘just’ the expectation of death and getting to know it, making the unknown closer and more desirable, needed, almost not frightening. And in these discussions, full of refined poetic and philosophical moments, as well as of tender and unexpected humour is the whole substance, the whole ‘raison d’être’ of this production. And this is where the mastery of acting from one of the most well-known and beloved Russian theatre actors comes into play.

Aleksei Guskov (left) and Vladimir Simonov (right). Credits: Valeriy Miasnikov.

Sergey Makovetsky and Evgeny Knyazev played the pair of Dudak and Lazarek on 1st of March, while Vladimir Simonov and Aleksei Guskov were playing the same parts on the 2nd of March. Makovetsky is one of the finest and most famous actors in modern Russia (both in theatre and film), and he had excelled in both Uncle Vanya and Eugene Onegin. However, as Efraim Dudak he lacks inner development and ‘the milk of human kindness’ that seems to have been so natural for this role. He is always too dark, brooding, prepared to die, one does not feel his expectance of renovation or love for his children and wives – Makovetsky makes him a philosopher who has already dismissed life and does not expect much for the death. He is a loner from the start and plays his out his lonely quest, showing us someone who only unwillingly shares the company of his friends and peers, and in a way suffers through it while searching for answers to his own questions. Vladimir Simonov, on the contrary, plays a huge, bearded, kind feagure resembling Prospero from The Tempest, and he is full of this quiet submission to fate, but also ready to ressurect as some other being, and hopeful for some grains of happiness waiting for him in future. He also finds soothing harmony with his companions, and Simonov himself is physically more attuned than Makovetsky to physicality and movements of the cast (many moments require synchronicity on the part of three or four men).

Vladimir Simonov (left) and Victor Sukhorukov (right). Credits: Valeriy Miasnikov

But it is the comical or ‘tragi-comical’ (as Polonius would have put it) parts of Avner Rosenthal and Khlyone-Genekh of the show that were most magically done in this performance, and they were executed by Victor Sukhorukov and Victor Dobronravov respectively. Sukhorukov has an extraordinary range of different emotions and movements to paint his childlike, not-of-this-earth-character. Life has stripped him of his pride, has not given him anyone to love and has taken all his possessions, but that leaves him a pure man in front of the forces of nature. Sukhorukov says that Avner is exploring the ways his life could have taken, the steps missed, the paths untaken, and in this way this role is extraordinary and indeed resembles a Bekketian figure (at some point the trio or a quartet even moves on stage in a way characters in Beckett would). Avner is so unrooted that everything is possible for him – and Sukhorukov revels in his levity, in his ability to try anything because he has nothing to loose. Avner becomes the figure who tries out on stage the Greek idea of metempsychosis, the idea and the belief in migration of soul, its possible metamorphosis into another creature or living substance (like in Ovid’s work), including trees and animals. His moments of speaking about being a tree, then modelling the situation by imagining a squirrel restling in him and in the end actually metaphorically becoming a tree by climbing a tall fence at the back of the stage (a really good border symbol between here and there) are the most poetic and moving in the whole show.

Victor Dobronravov as Khloyne-Genekh. Credits: Valeriy Miasnikov

And then he quickly changes to moments of fun where his rhythmic physicality and his constant awareness of his partners is amazing. Sukhorukov mentions in his interview that he is on the journey together with his colleagues both as actors and characters, and that he adapts to the changes in cast respectively. He also describes the ‘flow’ when his many demands in the most difficult moments (standing on a high ‘cart’ made of pieces of furniture, acting the ‘road movement’, saying his lines, awareness of his partners and also the coordination of his legs and body in case he falls backwards) all come together to form one line which is flexible and can be adapted and changed according to his own wishes and the situation in the theatre hall. Sukhorukov's own energy as a person attests to this incredible light and energy that he produces on stage: he makes the place around him feel warmer, and one is drawn to this circle and immediately feels at home. Victor Dobronravov also does an amazing job in ‘fun’ tricks of the show – his games with ‘being a cripple’ and then a long process of playing ‘works of art’ (they are recognized by the audience) near the Palestinian who is taking a hot bath deserved a special applause from the Barbican. Another ‘lyrical-tragical’ performance was from Yulia Rutberg as the She-goat who was so human that one felt she was indeed the soul of Dudak’s wives metamorphosed into an animal. In the beginning and the end she was suspended above the entrance of Dudak’s house like an angel or like a flying woman from Chagall’s paintings, guarding the men silently and tenderly.

Yulia Rutberg as She-goat. Credits: Valeriy Miasnikov

But still, in my view, it is Victor Sukhorukov who emerges as a silent leader of the whole show – and he admits that he indeed feels this way, as he is the one who plays the show every night. Sukhorukov also mentioned forgetting about being in London when on Barbican stage, and feeling the huge generosity and response from his audiences here, which was a perfect sign that this piece of theatre transgressed the boundaries of politics and culture and became a unique metaphysical journey of man towards God understood by everyone could think and feel. What was to be found in the end was left unclear by Tuminas – unless some light on the left is an indication, but wasn’t it also part of the parcel – to live through the questions and never receive an answer? It was a wonderful experience during these cold and windy days, and it was a pleasure to be accompanied by a composer and a music critic Gerard McBurney (whose own show 'Genesis', a collaboration with LSO and Simon Rattle, could be seen at the Barbican recently), who could understand Russian and also enjoyed it enourmously, expressing his wish to see more of Russian contemporary theatre in future.

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