What happens to superannuated critics? They become judges at international drama festivals. Few are as bizarre as the one just held in the historic heart of the Ukraineby Irving Wardle / December 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
They say that Mr K got going in business by shooting his Canadian lover after she had bought him the best hotel in Lviv. I can’t object, as I have been spending a week free of charge in that hotel, as well as pleasant afternoons in the blue champagne pool of his casino, surrounded by caged singing birds. In any case, I don’t even know if the story is true. There is not much of which I am sure at the moment. Except that whenever I set foot outside Mr K’s domain I find another world. Blind old ladies sing on street corners; people with banners outside the town hall demand something or other; traders selling bananas and hand-woven straw slippers are said to be former university teachers.
Tonight at the opera house we should be seeing a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome directed by R Viktyuk, Russia’s most highly paid director (they say). The show will start at six o’clock. Or then again, perhaps at eight. If, that is, the company arrive.
They do arrive. We, however, do not. We have been out all day viewing the tumbledown castles of Zolochev, Olevsk and Pidhivzi; we do not make it back to Lviv’s “Misery Square” until 8:30pm and it is another half hour before we shove through the crowds and the guards and persuade the management to shoehorn us into the auditorium. By this time it is rather late in the day to grasp Viktyuk’s production. The show is said to begin with a transcript from the Wilde trial and has a cast list identifying the Biblical characters with Wilde’s friends and relations. But all I can see is a stage full of PVC and bondage straps, with Salome (alias Bosie) swishing about in a bejewelled jock-strap and Herodias (alias Wilde’s mother) as a martial artiste flooring a queue of rampant males. How amusing to find eastern Europe still catching up with western decadence, we think smugly. Not that we are in a position to feel smug, as we are festival judges who have just missed half the show.
If you have ever wondered what happens to superannuated critics, the answer is that we become judges at international festivals. It’s a form of afterlife; but you do get to places you might otherwise never see: for example, Torun, birthplace of Copernicus, and Plzen, famed for its brewery-or, in the present case, Lviv, where I am sure something important must have happened, apart from famine and massacre.
For one thing, it was the home of Les Kurbas, a director revered as the Ukrainian Meyerhold until his execution in 1937. He remained an unperson until ten years ago, when Volodymir Kuchynsky founded a Kurbas theatre in Lviv. This is a small house with a beautiful domed auditorium. Sometimes spectators sit on the stage and look down on actors performing under the dome, using the house doors and staircase to evoke events beyond the visible acting area. Like Kurbas in the 1930s, the company performs adapted classics and a Ukrainian repertory unknown to the outside world. One night, a version of Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov transformed into Faust and Mephisto; the following night, a philosophic dialogue between a stork and a monkey, by the 18th century poet Hryhory Skovoroda.
We judges decide that this is a troupe of no common stamp; but, sad to say, ineligible for any award. There is some Ukrainian reason for this which I fail to grasp; but it goes to strengthen my suspicion that judges are here solely as window dressing. That suspicion has been growing from the day when Yaroslav, the festival director, greeted each of us with a small plastic mask on a bit of elastic and a festival pin dating back to 1996. We began by holding our daily meetings in the auditorium of his theatre, which is dark and smells of the tomb. Even so, it was a comedown three days later to be ejected and left to conduct our debate on the daring ritualisation of Ivan Franko’s Stolen Happiness in a coffee bar over the road. For our Egyptian member, who had a nasty time getting here on Ukrainian Airlines, this was the last straw. “Why,” she raged, “haven’t we got a proper room; and how dare the festival director include a production of his own with his wife in the lead; and when, if ever, am I getting my travel expenses reimbursed? I am from a third world country!”
Ah, the travel expenses! This strikes a chord with the three western judges, if not with our three colleagues from Kiev. Pay your air fares, we were told, and reclaim them in dollars on arrival. Then the rouble collapsed, dragging the Ukrainian hryvnia down with it. A third of the festival budget went up in smoke, along with much of the announced programme. There should have been a Russian judge but he cancelled, too. As a result, we dollar visitors are reduced to a line of supplicants with outstretched hands. We are not exactly flogging straw slippers on Misery Square, but we have been granted an insight into the Ukrainian state of mind. Not much money is involved, but pursuing it becomes an obsession. Every day we beat a path to the festival office, every day there is a new reason why the money has not arrived.
In the festival office I run into Boris, a Ukrainian from Melbourne, who tells me there are two Ukrainian characteristics I should be aware of: jealousy and Schadenfreude. See how the poisonous rumours are circulating? They are saying Yaroslav wouldn’t pay the poor Dutch company one hryvnia; but he paid the Poles in hard currency because they did a deal to bring his dreadful Strindberg show to Warsaw. Yaroslav appears, looking grim but plying us with vodka. More people cram into the room. Someone tries to telephone a stranded acquaintance in Warsaw. He is cut off. He loses the telephone number and fumbles for it through his papers, which end up in a jumbled heap on the floor. I keep still and breathe as little as possible. I do not want to leave because there is a rumour that the Soros Foundation has come through with some hard currency. The accountant returns from the bank empty-handed. She is a small defenceless lady; but she has a burly husband permanently in tow. He is a doctor; so whatever else you can’t get, nobody goes short of antibiotics or fizzy vitamin C. Then the money arrives. What the hell have we been making all this fuss about? Let’s go out and breathe.
Oresta, an architectural historian, takes us to High Castle-a look-out point from which the 700-year old city stretches out in all directions to the desolate collectivised countryside which, as Ryszard Kapuscinski says, took its revenge on Soviet agricultural policy by ceasing to give birth. Disregard the Stalinesque tower blocks and it could be Vienna, with Old Russian and Gothic additions. Is any of it Ukrainian? Oresta indicates the green domes of the autocephalous Orthodox churches. A pity there’s no river. There is a river, she says, but you can’t see it. “Under the Poles, 300 years ago, we had plague and found it was being carried by the river; so we built over it.”
How apt for a subjugated city to be built over a buried river. Especially in this century, when the Ukrainian language has been forbidden, like polluted water. The printing of books in Ukrainian was banned in the Soviet Union. Ukrainians who emigrated to Canada found their language outlawed in the prairie provinces and saw their books burned outside the Manitoba parliament buildings. In Kiev, the eastward-looking capital, the preferred language is Russian. If there is a centre of the Ukrainian identity, there it is-Oresta says-in the domes and squares of Lviv dilapidated but not despoiled like Kiev.
On the streets of Lviv you see careworn old faces and sullen-faced middle-aged men; drab inhabitants of a drab environment. But alongside them are shoals of glittering girls, stepping out on gleaming legs and wearing clothes of a quality nowhere to be seen in the shops. Some of these lovely creatures are our translators; they explain that they dress with the help of personal tailors. Their English is fluent and they plan to emigrate to New York or Vancouver. Behind their smiles you sense a certain hostility towards Anna, the festival’s supercharged foreign liaison officer and the only non-Ukrainian on the scene. She accompanies us to a meeting at the casino where the claims of Ukrainian culture are to be advanced to an audience of foreign visitors. Yaroslav takes the floor. Anna goes to join him, but he says something to her and she sits down abruptly. “What was that about?” I ask later. “He said he did not want me translating because of my Siberian accent.”
Yaroslav is followed by a portly, polar bear-like speaker swaddled in multiple layers of wool. I ask Anna what he is talking about.
“He is saying that our Ukrainian classics-Ivan Franko, Skovoroda, Shevchenko-should be known worldwide; and he doesn’t want his speech translated for these cosmopolitan outsiders.”
Boris Vuznitsky, art curator for the region, is also a nationalist but is glad to be translated. He has conducted us around his countryside restoration sites, including a monastery stacked to the roof with religious images he has salvaged from rubbish tips and farmyard middens. Now we are shown the treasures he has rescued for Lviv’s art gallery. A lady muffled in scarves escorts us through the collection. Room after room of crucifixions. They all look alike to me; twisted ribcages, hair like Medusa’s snakes. Some licence is evidently admissible in the location of the spear-wound, but there is always plenty of blood. The rooms smell of the plague. The scarf lady comes up to me conspiratorially. “Drei Monate,” she whispers, “kein Geld.”
We the judges have made our choice: a production of Lermontov’s Masquerade by the Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas. Not a Ukrainian show, but the next best thing: a show from the breakaway republic which takes the pants off a hallowed Russian classic. The Lithuanians are good at this. A year or two back, Eimuntas Nekrosius staged Chekhov’s Three Sisters as an assault on the Red Army through the absent figure of the girl’s father, General Prozorov. Masquerade is a joke-free Romantic tragedy. In Tuminas’s version, the gambling and illicit passion unfold in a comic playground: a snowbound park where the heroic leads are constantly suffering metaphorical and physical pratfalls; up to the point where a jealous husband poisons his innocent wife, who then ascends a plinth and freezes into her own memorial amid the whirling snowflakes.
Beautiful. Left to myself, though, I would have chosen a Moldovan Hamlet which opened after the Ukrainian judges had left town. Eastern Europe is currently putting this play through the mincer. Recent treatments have variously brought on the ghost as the unquiet Spirit of Communism, and shown Claudius crawling off under a sheepskin to die safely in his bed. In Sandu Vasilake’s monochrome production, the dead (in white costumes) share the stage with the living (in black). Yorick thus makes a carefree early appearance, pointing the way towards the transformation of a revenge plot into a parable of reconciliation which culminates in the duel scene. The full company, dead and living, assemble to watch it. The drowned Ophelia returns and curls up contentedly at Gertrude’s feet. Gertrude rises to exchange a loving kiss with her dead king. In this Elysian atmosphere, the duel seems almost irrelevant, except as a means of completing the reunion. The impression is no more sentimental than Gluck’s parade of blessed spirits. But can this really be how some Moldovans are coming to terms with their own past?
The question sticks with me as I shuffle out of the opera house and back into Misery Square, past the huge unearthly monument opposite our hotel. Anna tells me it is a memorial to the country’s grief. Not exactly. It commemorates the writer and patriot Taras Shevchenko, imprisoned for ten years under the tsars for political conspiracy, prophet of the Ukrainian people, author of the heroic poem “Haydamaks” which inspired Les Kurbas to develop a Ukrainian theatre. The monument rears up like a towering wave, inscribed with characters and events from Shevchenko’s work. Or licking upwards like a black tongue, almost uprooting itself in the act of shrieking a message which I cannot understand.