A Mirror to the Face of an Era

There are very few people who feel nothing when it comes to Kirill Serebrennikov.  Some see him as virtually the primary threat to the existence of "traditional" theatre; others secretly expect him to become the future leader of the Moscow Art Theatre.  This year he led the Moscow Art Theatre's Seventh Workshop, thus taking his historical place among names such as Michael Chekhov, Evgeny Vakhtangov, Roman Kozak, the Russified Americans, and other "offshoots" of the Theatre's multi-branched tree. 

He is being accused of opportunism and praised for his courage.  His interactions with the higher-ups who sponsor his projects are being watched with a good degree of wariness.  That is despite the fact that many people are not aware of the following incident in his biography: he managed to disband a Komsomol organization in a perfectly Soviet institute and found himself on the list of people restricted from traveling abroad. His lack of theatre education is still something that is being held against him¸ and the progress of his master class at the Moscow Art Theatre School is being followed with great interest. Serebrennikov's "troupe", scattered across several theatres, includes Marina Neyolova, Natalia Tenyakova, Alla Pokrovskaya, Oleg Menshikov, Sergei Shakurov, Chulpan Khamatova, Evgeniy Mironov and other first-rate actors.

His ability to engage in absolutely anything without discrimination is astonishing: music videos, commercials, movies, TV series, operas, drama -- new and eternal (which he had once suggested to have entombed for about a hundred years). Though, truthfully, both new and eternal drama interest him only insofar as a pretext for giving his observations on a topical issue. It is no surprise that he became one of the primary driving forces behind the multicultural Territory Festival and the Platform Project, believing that something fundamentally new can sprout in this borderland of arts and genres, the no man's land of independent art where, for all intents and purposes, the harsh laws of the center do not apply.  

He began staging plays since his school days (his first one was dedicated to... Friedrich Engels).  His parents demanded that their only son engage in a "masculine" profession, and the latter graduated cum laude from the Physics and Technology Faculty of the Rostov University.  Admittedly, though, this director with a degree in UHF electrodynamics is proud of his education, "The degree that I have makes me less of an engineer than a scientist.  We weren't taught so much to compute or to calculate as to understand the fabric of the world. Physics is one of the few sciences that proves the existence of God."  Along with exploring the structure of the world, he was staging his productions in every theatre in Rostov-on-Don. 

Serebrennikov instantly wowed Moscow's theatre-going public with his production of "Plasticine", based on the play by Vassily Sigarev.  The director gave an aesthetic form to this inarticulate, interjection-filled outcry of a text about the death of a teenager, who, from his school days, is being thoroughly and scrupulously murdered by the world.  And this new form, full of theatrical play, forced the audience to cringe in horror a lot more than the realistic gore that pours forth in abundance from the silver screens.    

The forbidden themes in Mark Ravenhill's "Some Explicit Polaroids" were taunting; the picture of utter loneliness that the play presented was chilling.  His first productions in the Moscow Art Theatre were startling.  At first, due to the horrible coincidence (the première of his production of the Presnyakov Brothers' "Terrorism", a play about violence in all areas of life, from family to the subway, was marked by the tragedy of the "Nord-Ost" performance.)  Then afterwards, due to the language revolution: in his production of "Playing the Victim", also by the Presnyakov Brothers, the director could not delete a single swear word from the overall story of all-too frivolous a cynicism that had devalued anything and everything.  And Oleg Tabakov, the Moscow Art Theatre's snowy-haired artistic director, was forced to agree with him: controlled vocabulary was no match for the truth of perception.

Soon, however, Kirill grew bored in the two-dimensional arena of contemporary dramaturgy.  Gorky, Ostrovsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Williams, Beaumarchais, Lermontov, Shakespeare, Brecht, Tynyanov, Gogol, as well as Verdi and Rimsky-Korsakov have quickly regained their place on his "ship of modernity".  They could help take a ride in a time machine; hold an antique mirror to the face of our unsettled era. Thus "The Forest" (Moscow Art Theatre) became a return to the age of festering stagnation; the cold and cheerful clubs of the Komsomol and the Cheka availing themselves eagerly of its fruits.  "Figaro. The Events of One Day" (Theatre of Nations) became a tectonic fault that shuffled the social strata, where Count Almaviva represented the newly-minted, well paid-out new Russian "nobility"; the Countess "of the ex aristocracy" -- the blue blood of a disappearing breed; Cherubino -- a cynical and tenacious street riffraff; and only Figaro himself remained a kind of a joker, an educated stranger, who managed to break free from one social circle but was denied entrance to another. 

"Antony and Cleopatra" (Sovremennik) presented the chronicles of a war between the West and the East, with a school gym as its stage (a momentary reference to the events in Beslan).  The background sound was a soft, silken voice, with an undercurrent of threat to it, teaching a certain oriental language to a group of Western soldiers, whose failure to learn their lessons in linguistics and history was both criminal and tragic.  

"The Golden Cockerel" (Bolshoi Theatre) was a digest of Soviet-post-Soviet way of life, where the cast of characters included Dodon -- the party boss, sniper guards, guest worker radio operators, the Queen of Shamakhan -- a black widow, the loud-voiced Cockerel -- a child torn away from his mother and forced to grow up during the many years of "territorial cleansing".      And the pinnacle of it all -- a parade of big-headed children with bows and plywood warheads in honor of Dodon's deadly marriage. 

He has not lost his desire to stage the newly-written works either, however. Last year's dilogy can attest to that: his most controversial play "Almost Zero" (authorship is attributed to Vladislav Surkov), skillfully staged, wonderfully performed, but irritating with its moral falseness, and the daring play "Otmorozki" ("The Jerks"), based on Zakhar Prilepin's work, that was strikingly reminiscent of "Plasticine".  In the first instance, Serebrennikov invited his audience to walk to their seats, while stepping on the spines of actual books (the exact same editions that are kept in our libraries), almost as a way of personally  experiencing the darkness that emanated from the bandit intellectuals, the fruit of Vladislav Surkov's labor.    In the second, he put the distinguished audience through a rather painful procedure by forcing them to take an impartial look at the so-called radical youth, to see in them a pack of baited wolf cubs, who didn't get enough affection and love, and who were so well-suited for operations undertaken by political strategists (though, admittedly, the latter underestimated their blind fury and creativity that violated all agreements).  These teenagers, incapable of murder and betrayal, filled their internal void with grandiloquent slogans about a stolen motherland, and were doomed to be shot like a pack of rabid dogs.  These were children of a divided Russia that could be reunited only by way of a bloody conflict, if at all.  They are objects of intense pity -- an uncomfortable feeling for the intellectual elite or an average citizen with a full stomach.

In Serebrennikov's productions critical sociality goes hand in hand with flamboyant theatrical form.  It is impossible to present him as solely a civic orator or as solely an aesthete, advocating art for the sake of art.

Of course there are times when he allows himself to leave the main road of social expression.  "Sweet Bird of Youth" comes to mind (Marina Neyolova's best work of recent years, wherein she played both a young girl with broken fate and "amputated" youth, and an aging prima, clinging to any and all feelings in order to still feel alive).  Or Lermontov's "Demon", which was staged only a few times but was memorable for Oleg Menshikov's multifaceted performance.  The same "Demon" that scintillated with unrestrained pride, hateful immortality, a man's hard passion that came late in life, an urge to become "reconciled with heaven", and contempt for the world, "where without fear no one can either love or hate".   

Still, the primary theme that stands out in his works is the metaphysics of Russia as a kind of a mystical space, from whence it is impossible to escape and whose fate is impossible to avoid.  For anyone -- be they a star of the world opera stage, like in the movie "Yuri's Day", or the very top of the vertical power structure, like Paul I in "Kizhe" (Moscow Art Theatre), or the young, ambitious, venturous Chichikov (Latvian National Theatre), well educated in business school and earning his first fortune in a "creative" manner.

The smell of degeneration and advancing carrion can be felt throughout.  Two guards are escorting a bag of dust -- the remains of the ascended lieutenant Kizhe; the "dead man" Sinyukhaev shuffles along, his eyes covered by his father's copper coins.

The dead from "The Golovlyov Family" lead a full life, in a manner of speaking: they serve tea, nurse a baby, play cards.

The freshly-planed little room of a stage is vividly reminiscent of the "comfort" of a brand-new coffin.  Gogol's landowners -- the rightful representatives of the government -- flock to the spanking new investor in the dead souls like flies to a corpse.   Not a trace remains of Chichikov's former joviality and ardor: carrion is contagious even for this straight-A business student.
And the empty heavens loom black over the black souls and black clothes of the characters in "Almost Zero". 

Serebrennikov likewise takes apart one of our country's principal myths -- the war that it is customary to call Holy.  The viewpoint of a victim from either side is the only viewpoint that he finds acceptable.  And that is the reason he stages one of the most terrifying wartime phantasmagorias, "The Naked Pioneer", with the poignant Chulpan Khamatova as a fourteen-year-old wife of a regiment, who had an occasion to see Marshal Zukov (Zhukov) and    to understand his tactics for sustaining the army's fighting spirit -- shoot every third soldier.

And during the anniversary days of the Great Victory he presented "Requiem" on the stage of the Moscow Art Theatre.  In it Hanna Schygulla confessed to carrying the shame of being German her entire life; Daniel Olbrychski remembered his grandfather, who died at Katyn, and recited Vysotsky in Russian; Muriel Mayette, director of the Comédie Française, talked about prisoners condemned to death, who performed "The Imaginary Invalid" in the barracks of a concentration camp; and Israel's oldest actor Yankele Alperin played a boy from Auschwitz.  At that same time armored vehicles were driving past the theatre for the rehearsals of the military parade in honor of the Victory Day's 65th anniversary.

Kirill Serebrennikov's Russia is a joyless place, but his inexhaustibility of imagination, his integrity of an artist and his desire "to get to the very essence" in his artistic understanding of the mysterious Motherland ("to work karma to the end") inspires hope.  

Olga Foux



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