fri 28/02/2020

Tuning in to New Russian Drama | reviews, news & interviews

Tuning in to New Russian Drama

Tuning in to New Russian Drama

Sputnik Theatre Company performs four plays for today at the Soho Theatre

Credit for beginning the dialogue goes squarely to the Royal Court’s international department, which back in 2001 pioneered a programme that brought four plays to London for staged readings at the theatre; one of them, Plasticine by Vasily Sigarev, went on to a full production there, and won the uncompromising Urals-based writer an Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award the next year. The Court’s Russian directions continued over the years that followed, and it contributed to the RSC’s “Revolutions” season in Stratford last autumn.

As its name implies, Sputnik is fired by ambition. Clearly less well resourced than better-known players, it has to prove its long-term mettle. But three productions of contemporary Russian works between 2005 and 2007 won the company decent critical plaudits. If the right ideas are circulating, plentiful funds aren’t necessarily needed to bring in impressive results.

Artistic director Noah Birkstead-Breen himself translated the four Soho plays, and stages them. The hunt for shared themes is probably superfluous. But they are all plays which to which have an answer to the question, “How dark is it out there?”

Natalya Kolyada’s Dreams (1 February) is a bleak postcard from Minsk. In Belarus, living according to your conscience, not least making theatre about it, is a challenge indeed. Kolyada is a co-founder, with her husband Niklai Khalezin of the country’s Free Theatre, now almost five years old, which has struggled along via virtually underground performances (and disruptions by police) at home. But real international acclaim has resulted, including from the likes of the late Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard.

Dreams draws directly on the real-life testimonies of four women, and the stories of their respective boyfriends’ and husbands’ run-ins with the police, and the far-from-joyful consequences. Fidelity to the disturbing reality of everyday life is also there in Vladimir Zuev’s Mums (3 February), which tackles the unresolved human problems of Russia’s aggression in Chechnya. Here it’s the stories of a group of women who are holed up in a Grozny basement, and won’t leave before they get news of their soldier sons who were sent there to fight, and remain missing.

A Belarus production of Dreams is also unthinkable. One of Mums in the Russian regions almost fell victim to pressure. “They wanted to close down Mums in Penza because some government official from Moscow didn’t like it. The actors put up a real fight and got a working group together.” So recalls Yaroslava Pulinovich, whose play Beyond the Track featured in the RSC programme and whose dramatic monologue Natasha’s Dream about orphans in contemporary Russia closes the Soho Theatre run on 4 February.

For Pulinovich, the initial challenge of finding a committed - and sympathetic - director is possibly becoming easier. “I’d say there is an interest,” she says. “Young directors are keen to put on contemporary plays and it is happening more. Gogol and Chekov are great, but we don’t need that all the time. Directors understand that too.”

Maxim Kurochkin’s Tityus the Irreproachable (2 February) might look like the odd one out in the Sputnik programme, an absurdist futuristic satire that also works as political allegory. But even here the darkness of reality filters convincingly into its parallel worlds. Birkstead-Breen is already planning for future years - and wondering whether there might be a comedy somewhere out there.

Sputnik Theatre Company’s Russian Festival runs from 1 to 4 February at the Soho Theatre. Book online.

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