16 October 2006

Dear Leo Tolstoy

Last week, for the third time, I saw NIE's Past Half Remembered. It's one of their twentieth-century lives trilogy, the life in question being that of Maria Mikhailovna Gurevich, a Russian whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. Unlike the character, the real Maria Mikhailovna never quite made it to 100, but that's a small piece of license in what is an extraordinarily faithful recreation of her story.

You see, until doodling round the internet just now, it hadn't really occurred to me that NIE's might be a true story. Its sweep, from WWI, through the Russian Civil War, to the siege of Stalingrad, with Mikhailovna always in the wrong place at the wrong time, seemed just too conveniently large. And it fits the requirements of Russian clown/storytelling way too neatly, a real feast of theatrical ingenuity and madcap idiocy. Still, it's a great piece of work, powerfully imagined whether true or not, extremely funny, terrifically sad, and beautiful.

I want to discuss with you Russia as an aesthetic idea. NIE's show, though brilliant, conspicuously stops its storytelling around the end of WWII. And I saw one genuine Russian show (NIE are international, the nearest nationality to Russian being Czech) in Edinburgh this year, The Family Semianyki, by clown troupe Licedi, which is likewise aesthetically stuck in about 1916: battered suitcases, and costumes Popov would have thought old-fashioned. For sure, it's hardly surprising that our Western idea of Russia is held in pre-war stasis. Remarkable, though, that the same seems to be true of Russia's.

It's worth noting that this thesis rests largely on clown-based work. I haven't seen the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, currently showing in London, and perhaps they'll prove these ideas do not apply to text-based theatre. But I'm not so sure. Although they're widely professed to be brilliant, it seems aesthetically they're developing strictly along the path indicated by Stanislavski. This doesn't mean they're not brilliant, and I may be totally wrong. (Imagine, if you wish, this whole paragraph in parenthesis.) But they're certainly not strikingly contemporary. The photos prove that.

Could it be that Communism, breathing down artistic necks, held back any serious progress? That it seemed safer to stick with what was known than to innovate? I think this is plausible, and it would explain how the Russians got so good at what they do. Afraid to move forward with leaps, the finest artistic minds turned to refining what already exists and they refined it almost to perfection. (The long rehearsal periods help, too, I guess.)

There is one obvious counterexample here. Derevo are clearly producing work of a contemporary stamp. I tend to dislike their exercises in pure aesthetics, but it's worth noting that when they were founded, two years before the wall came down, they quickly became known as "the first underground theatre in Russia". They were the product of something in the wind, one of many signs things were about to change. And they were able to thrive in a post-Soviet world hungry for new forms that had hitherto seemed risky.

When it comes to clown, this all seems hardly surprising. When was there last a clown of any nationality that seemed aesthetically current? There are examples, but the overwhelming majority have an odd timelessness at best and, failing that, a retreat into the safely-trodden past. And a remarkable number from whatever country hark back to a semi-rural Russia that seems little advanced from the world of Natasha's dance. What's that all about?

It seems attractive to say that you fixed Russian-ness so firmly in the popular imagination that no-one has yet succeeded in imagining it better. Attractive but wrong. In the west we have a cliched idea of Russian-ness that your clowns serve to confirm almost as much as do ours. And clown relies on shorthand, on the recognisable situation ripe for disruption, so appealing to the cliche is an obvious strategy.

The whole of life is in War and Peace, you laid Russia bare. Along with Chekhov (whom you considered "an even worse playwright than Shakespeare") and one or two others, you created such a strong sense of your country that it's recognisable even today: to the extent that it's become cliche.

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