The great St Petersburg company shows what's possible when actors dedicate their entire lives to one theatreby Michael Coveney / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
The Maly Dramatic Theatre of St Petersburg is recognised today as one of the outstanding theatre companies in the world. Its appearance at the Brighton festival with a new production of Uncle Vanya, followed by a national tour, is certain to be one of the year’s cultural highlights.
When the company visited Glasgow in 1990 with its six-hour epic Brothers and Sisters, one Scottish critic said, “Forget slice of life: this is the whole loaf.” Here was an extraordinary picture of “the other Russia” in which only hardship followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and up to half of Leningrad (St Petersburg) perished during the German siege in the second world war. We followed the fortunes of a small peasant collective suffering under Stalinism, but redeemed by a personal heroism that was almost shocking in its intensity and scrupulous detail.
Every now and then we witness an order of acting and presentation in Russian theatre that is different from our own. Mostly this is to do with the longevity of the ensemble, a principle of Russian theatre companies (there are 60 alone in Moscow) that was adopted for a while by our own National and Royal Shakespeare Company but is now quite lost.
The ensemble idea, adopted widely through Europe in the great companies of Bertolt Brecht, Giorgio Strehler and Jean Vilar (that is, in Berlin, Milan and Paris) after the war, originated in the Moscow Art Theatre at the end of the 19th century. When I first saw the Taganka Theatre of Yuri Lyubimov, founded in 1964, I knew that the principle had been adapted to a modern ethic; the Russian theatre was reborn in the mid-1960s.
Lev Dodin is one of the masters of contemporary Russian theatre. Now 60, he has been artistic director of the Maly since 1983. The theatre was founded in 1944 in modest circumstances within a block of flats—maly means “small.” So it has remained, while Dodin’s policy of recruiting his former students at the local theatre institute where he still teaches has resulted in the fixed personnel and common purpose of the troupe.
“We are still a state budget theatre,” he tells me by email from St Petersburg, “and our budget is still very small. It’s just that in former years this poverty was not so obvious. Poverty used to be everyone’s lot… Today, life has become much more expensive, there are very obvious social differences, and poverty has become much more noticeable.”
Dodin’s Maly first came to Britain in 1988, at the invitation of the Glasgow Mayfest, with Stars in the Morning Sky, an astonishing play about the Moscow prostitutes who were “moved on” by the authorities just before the 1980 Olympics in the city. Deeply moving and funny, the play seethed with the anger and animal high spirits of Cinderellas (“The only chains we have to lose are our necklaces”) who would never go to the ball. The action was punctuated with the raucous ruminations of the late radical poet Vladimir Vysotsky, whose unforgettable Hamlet was a cornerstone of Lyubimov’s Taganka repertoire.
Three years later, the troupe returned to Britain with Brothers and Sisters and Gaudeamus, which comprised 19 jagged, violent, sexy scenes among various Soviet army conscripts. These productions remain in the company’s repertoire, as does an acclaimed version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale directed and designed by our own Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, who founded Cheek By Jowl. Donnellan is adamant that the Maly’s pre-eminence is down to the fact that Russian actors live in a more actor-friendly system and are not fitting in their theatre work, as in Britain, around television and films.
“Russian actors are in a job for life,” says Donnellan. “Obviously this has its up-side and, in less good, or more stagnant, companies, its down-side. But for a group like the Maly, it does mean that they are more fearless, artistically, than their British counterparts.” And Uncle Vanya? “Don’t miss it,” he says. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”
“Uncle Vanya” is at the Corn Exchange, Brighton from 17th May; at the Barbican, London from 24th May; at the Lowry, Salford from 31st May; at the Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry from 7th June; and at the Oxford Playhouse from 14th June.