In Context: Russian Comedy on the British Stage

I love Russian theatre, and on my day off recently decided to attend an event at the National Theatre. In Context: Russian Comedy on the British Stage was chaired by Julie Curtis, Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford, and featured Suhayla El-Bushra, who recently adapted Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide for the National, and Noah Birksted-Breen, Artistic Director of Sputnik Theatre Company which has premiered many modern Russian plays in the UK.

The event, which took place in the Cottesloe Room of the Clore Learning Centre (next to the Dorfman Theatre), began with a discussion of the history behind The Suicide in particular. Julie Curtis explained that Nikolai Erdman came to prominence in Soviet Russia with the Theatre of Revolutionary Satire, which had the job of staging Soviet propaganda: simple leaflets wouldn’t do, as most of the population was illiterate. His work was linked with that of Meyerkhold, a director whose attempts to move away from realism towards a more visual theatrical language marked a break with the Russian theatrical tradition of Stanislavsky. Later, he wrote for the unlikely-sounding NVKD Song and Dance Ensemble. His play The Suicide was written around 1930, an unfortunate time in many respects. For the majority of the 1920s, Soviet society following the civil war was relatively stable; with the NEP in place, artists and writers enjoyed relative freedom. However, from around 1929 onwards there were greater restrictions and further persecution of artists. In 1930, satire was declared unnecessary within the Soviet Union: as society was now perfect, satire was no longer needed. In addition, the acclaimed Soviet poet Mayakovsky committed suicide, making the staging of a play called The Suicide particularly problematic. In the end, Erdman was arrested, though he was later released and got off pretty lightly all things considered. The Suicide was not staged: the first production took place in Sweden, not long before Erdman died in 1970.

The event then moved on to discuss modern Russian theatre, the “low spot” between 1991 and 1995 and subsequent resurgence with plays like Bogaev’s Russian National Mail (1996) and the work of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century there has been a resurgence in fringe theatre, such as teatr.doc, and acclaimed new writing such as Yaroslava Pulinovich’s Joan (2014), about the rise of a businesswoman who initially gains power during the post-Soviet era of “gangster capitalism”.

Throughout the afternoon we were treated to various scenes and excerpts from Russian plays by a group of National Theatre actors, Ayesha Antoine, Liz Hill, Adrian Richards and Rebecca Scroggs. We saw the same scene from both the original and the updated versions of The Suicide, a scene from Joan, and extracts from Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Bulgakov’s The White Guard. These scenes were a treat: I particularly liked seeing the comparative scenes from The Suicide: I haven’t seen the updated version, but I have seen a production of the original, and it was fascinating to see the changes that were made. I have to say, however, that the spirit of the original remained, even though the characters were different, and credit must go to Suhayla El-Bushra for ensuring this was the case.

The extracts from the other plays served to illustrate the breadth and depth of Russian comedy through the generations. The social satire of The White Guard and the broader comedy of The Government Inspector were great fun, and I really enjoyed the scene from Joan, which reminded me a little of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. I would definitely like to see a full production of this play: Noah Birksted-Breen translated the work and suggested that there may be a possibility of a London production at some point – I really hope so.

I really enjoyed my afternoon: I hoped to learn more about Russian comedy and I certainly did. This was my first “educational” event at the National, but I don’t think it will be my last.

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