from Some Thoughts on Russian Theater at the Turn of the Century
Marina Davydova

From the beginning, closely associated with the new drama was one of the most brilliant directors of the new generation, Kirill Serebrennikov. He literally fought his way into Moscow's theatrical scene by staging Vasily Sigarev's Plasticine at the Center for Playwriting and Directing. Until that time, the Rostov-on-Don-born director assayed his aptitudes outside Moscow. And he did it "in one stroke" in theater, film and television, and was even honored with the prestigious TEFI TV award. His second production in Moscow was Mark Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids at the subsidiary stage of the Pushkin Theater.

"Such plays are not material but an occasion for staging," – he used to explain to me. "After we cut all the stage directions in Plasticine, all that was left was "shit", "fuck", "suck"... Such text is more difficult to work with than Hamlet. Understand?"

Yes, I do. Swimming in shallow water is less comfortable than in an ocean. Serebrennikov swims and swims and does it well. He is on the whole a showy director, or rather is quite fond of scenic effects and doesn't shun scandalous escapades. His productions always abound in music, reckless and vibrantly mischievous acting, reprises, ingenious (if sometimes forced) gaiety. He is often reproached for lack of chiaroscuro – profundity, thoughtful silence – but this is not a flaw but the nature of his flair. He is not so much an explorer as a smart showmaker, consciously staking on billboard luster. It is unwise to complain that a carnation doesn't smell like a rose. It certainly doesn't but it surely has many other virtues.

For "shallow water" drama, Serebrennikov invented a new, and in many ways oppositional to Stanislavsky's, "method of physical actions." His actors wouldn't say a word just for the sake of it. They would necessarily jump, lie down or perform an acrobatic trick. Physical actions don't induce a desired condition (if you want tension in pronouncing a monologue, take a bottle and try to uncork it), but illustrate it in a rather ironical manner. In general his performances resemble a modern dance performed not to music but to the text of a play, which seems only logical considering that both in modern dance and in modern drama the protagonist is always the crowd. In both cases, the characters are so-and-sos having nothing notable about them and presenting interest only in their totality. What Serebrennikov did was to boldly implement the technology of interbreeding modern text and modern dance. This didn't turn shallow water into an ocean, but Serebrennikov deserves going down in theater history for having been the first in Russia to find a new and, more importantly, adequate scenic language for modern drama.

The knack of creating spectacular theatrical shows is by itself a rare occurrence. But what Serebrennikov distinctly stands out for is not just that but, first and foremost, his ability to combine this knack of his with the raising of acute social issues. Paradoxically enough, this ability became especially perceptible after he somewhat stepped away from new drama and turned to the classics. This ability appeared as large as life in Ostrovsky's The Forest, not quite as large in Anthony and Cleopatra and later in Figaro. In its treatments of the classics, the Russian theater rarely allowed itself to make straightforward social statements. And when it did, it happened within the cramped space of the new drama, like Theater.doc or Praktika Theater. But the productions of these companies were short on spectacle or effect for the simple reason of being small and having no space for a director to really launch out. And Serebrennikov needs a lot of space. He knows how to work with big-timers on a big stage (which is also rare nowadays). He knows how to turn his compositions into social events. At the same time he is not indifferent to the quests of the Western theater, and time and again he borrows something from it to try to adapt them to the Russian soil.

This directorial style, socially relevant in declarations but commercial in form, Western arthouse-oriented but rooted in the Russian tradition of benefit performances, seems to be the exclusive product of the present day. However, it has analogues in the Soviet-Russian past, and these analogues are the productions of Mark Zakharov, the founder of the former Soviet Union's most popular Lenkom Theater. With all the differences between these two figures, a number of common features are easily detectable. For Zakharov is also a show-maker, staking on effects and, to a degree, on the pop component of theater. It is not accidental that most of his productions abound in music, including live music.

He also always worked with big-timers and allowed them to have their star turn onstage. Much like Serebrennikov, he was by and large accused of trying to pass a commercial product off as a genuine work of art. Finally, he is probably the only Russian practitioner of theater who tried to combine the striking, almost Broadway-like theatricality with the raising of acute social issues. The constants of the Lenkom style can be seen with unaided eye in Serebrennikov's latest productions. And in Figaro, one thing that makes it related to Zakharov's works of the Soviet period becomes especially evident – the theme of the lone hero, an idealist among hypocritical go-getters, a romantic in the world of pragmatics.

Zhadov in the legendary Plum Job and Ostap Bender, Rezanov and Baron Munchausen – almost all Zakharov's characters in the Soviet period fit within this pattern. And in Figaro this pattern manifested itself quite clearly. In this production, the obstinate and thoughtful Figaro (Yegeny Mironov) bears more resemblance to Griboedov's Chatsky than to the nimble and resilient servant of Beaumarchais' play. Put into his mouth is the monologue that castigates all the social vices of the modern world. All the reprises in this production, all its funny double-dealings are merely a patterned frame for this central motif. The fact that the formally commercial theater brought up one of the central issues of the "stagnation period" probably for the first time provided theatrical evidence to the effect that sated stagnation continues to holds sway outside the theater. Time took a detour to return to the swampy backwater of the old days...