Life Is Grand?

For a modest boy from Minsk, Pryazhko made a phenomenal career.  Several years ago his short plays were noticed at the Belarus Free Theatre contest.  Time flies: and already Pryazhko is a regular at the Lyubimovka, the New Drama Festival, the Yasnaya Polyana workshop; Teatr.doc has entire ten-day festival series dedicated to Pryazhko.

Nikolai Khalezin’s Free Theatre is the most famous Belarusian political theatre in the CIS, persecuted by the Lukashenko regime, while supported by Tom Stoppard and Ariane Mnouchkine.    However, whereas Khalezin did quite a bit of PR for his theatre (which is truly independent and relevant), the phenomenon of Pryazhko is in the fact that the author of such plays as “Panties”, “Third Shift” and “Life Is Grand” did absolutely nothing for his own advancement.  Quite the opposite: Pryazhko does not like traveling; Pryazhko gets bored abroad; Pryazhko sits quietly during the discussions of his plays.   Many call him autistic, but that is a questionable assertion.  At the St Petersburg Festival in memory of Alexander Volodin he engaged in a fierce and hopeless fight with adult critics in order to defend his workshop colleague. After a showing at the New Play Festival, he was put through the wringer concerning his characters’ absence of reflection, but Pryazhko defended his characters. Simply put, autistic he is not.  He prefers not to talk in situations, where he feels that talking would be a waste of time. In this regard, Pryazhko can best even such a die-hard proud intellectual as Maxim Kurochkin.  Do not trust their modesty – it is nothing more than good breeding and snobbery on the part of someone who really does understand more than the people asking the wrong questions. 

Pryazhko is a man of style.  Yes-yes, he does have the Belarusian-made rubber ankle boots, those special blue shirts that match his eyes, also made in Belarus; and when there was a terrorist attack at the Belarusian subway station, he was planting blackberries in his garden; and when he was asked to write something on the burning issue of “Neklyaev – a presidential candidate”, he said that he preferred dietary meals. Pavel Pryazhko, the author of what are, perhaps, some of the most accurate and deadly diagnoses of the contemporary post-Soviet society, maintains his calm and doesn’t pick fights for no reason.  At the same time, his plays cannot be called apolitical – that’s the paradox. 

What Pryazhko does get into in earnest are conversations about the language of contemporary art.  As a self-educating man, he is meticulous and detailed, and, as a result, he is generally able to put anyone, who asks him where the conflict is in his plays, flat on their back.  For Pryazhko, who takes keen and photographically precise “recordings” of scenes and language of today’s life, conflict is spilled everywhere.  The nature of that conflict has simply changed – something that is perfectly logical, natural and normal in the context of world history of theatre and drama.  His characters are perfectly capable of reflection: what else, if not reflection, is constituted by the two parallel streams of consciousness of the two protagonists of his play “A Locked Door”? A guy leads a healthy lifestyle, drinks gallons of water, dreams of having new leather shoes and wants only one thing: for his clueless parents, friends or girls to not interfere with his autonomy and quiet.  A girl works at a coffee shop, listens to Arabic music at night and does belly dancing.  To call them unicellular would mean pinning a label on ninety-nine percent of 20 to 30-year-olds living in today’s Russia or in any other country.  From here on out, different kinds of “reflections” are involved.

Pryazhko writes plays often: he writes them and e-mails them to a certain number of people, signing them as “pasha” with lowercase “p”.  He loves to set concrete goals for himself: a sketch on a certain subject, for instance, or an attempt at such and such a genre, or a stab at putting together a play out of “garbage that was left after the editing”.  Pryazhko is careful when working with “garbage”: he builds his action scenes out of awkward silences and drawn out pauses, creates dialogues out of incorrect syntactic phrase structures and repetitions.  At the same time, it would be a mistake to consider Pryazhko a mimic. He uses his nonintervention stance to “record” the material straight out of life, as it were.  But his plays are far from being banal sketches: in them a detailed capture of the particulars of a man’s mundane existence is placed within a perfectly abstract, empty, clear space. These are rather complex structures built on simple material, which is what gives birth to such platitudes as “where is your characters’ future?” or “why are these unicellular characters not reflecting?” As a matter of fact, this is how a typical aberration manifests itself: unwilling to make sense of the structure and form of the language chosen by Pryazhko, his interpreters resort to ideological explanations, reducing everything to an agenda.  This agenda is understood as follows: if this is not about me, an intelligent and reflecting person, it must be about single-celled creatures.  Generally speaking, though, Pryazhko’s method, if he were to take an “intellectual” as his subject, would result in the same existence model as for the unicellular organisms: life broken down into atoms is elemental.  

Pryazhko’s metropolitan success started with the controversial “Panties”.  Support came from his colleague, the then already famous Ivan Vyrypaev, who read the play together with Yevgeny Tsyganov and Oksana Fandera in the lobby of St Petersburg’s Theatre on Liteiny.  Naturally, there was uproar: the insolent New Drama actors were accused of taking over the territory of the cultural capital.  There was swearing in the play.  Two protagonists woke up hung over in a tent out in the country and were trying to get rid of their third drinking partner’s dead body.  The play had a blasphemous interpretation of a new Jeanne D’Arc – a girl named Ninka, who, after her father’s death (that same third camping companion), lost her mind a bit and began collecting panties. The play was staged at the Moscow’s Teatr.doc by Elena Nevezhina, a student of Fomenko, and featured Arina Marakulina, Alexei Yudnikov, Konstantin Bogdanov and Fekla Tolstaya, and, admittedly, the public reconciled itself with the fact of the foul-mouthed Pryazhko’s existence within the theatre space.   Minsk is the one that hasn’t reconciled with that fact – and Belarusian theatre figures, amazed to this day by their thirty-year-old countryman’s success in Russia, are asking the same question: how can you read and even stage this filth? 

The next momentous event of “Pryazhkoviana” was “Life Is Grand”; for their minimalist production of this play Mikhail Ugarov and Marat Gatsalov were awarded the drama jury’s special prize at the 2010 Golden Mask Festival.  “Life Is Grand”, now Teatr.doc’s signature hit that has toured a great number of festivals, was an ideal combination of a proper method (the text was read from the page in some places and ad-libbed in others) and a good company of actors, where everyone – from Anna Egorova of the OKOLO Theatre to Sasha Rebenok – had their own part. “Life Is Grand” truly demonstrated Pryazhko’s musical abilities: who else could arrange the speech components used by male coaches and their underage girlfriends in such a masterful way; who else could manage to distinguish within the habitual chaos of life’s “hang-ups” an internal harmony and its discord?   In that sense, “Life Is Grand” was an extremely important text.  Though afterwards, as if to spite the comedy lovers, Pryazhko refused them the pleasure of laughter and successively cut out all the funny scenes from “A Locked Door”, and from “Light Breathing”, and from “Melancholy Seized Me…”.  It is unfortunate, yet we have no choice but to put up with it.

Pryazhko got lucky: his work managed to find fans even among the  highbrowed critics; his plays got into the hands of smart directors (the young “formalist” Dmitry Volkostrelov stages Pryazhko’s texts one after another); he is valued by fans of extremes from the neighboring art forms, such as the documentary film maker Alexander Rastorguev.  But it is almost as if all of this is happening in spite of Pryazhko’s wishes and will.  It seems that, if he had it wanted to, and if there was no Internet, we never would have found out anything about him. 

 

Kristina Matvienko

 

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