The Servant of Godot

Yuri Butusov came to theatre rather late in life. He failed the entrance examination for the deparment of acting, and by the time he was thirty, he entered the faculty of directing under the leadership of Irina Molachevskaya, Tovstonogov’s assistant. As it turned out, he had the perfect timing, for here at the institute he met his company, his team. And that is more important than recognitions and awards, more important than a roof over your head and a sacred stage under your feet, more important than anything. From his very first steps in that profession Butusov understood how to live in art.

Mikhail Trukhin, Konstantin Khabensky, Mikhail Porechenkov, Andrei Zibrov. Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzi, Lucky… Fate separated Yuri Butusov’s company of actors, doling out TV series fame to some,
movie stardom to others, and to others yet -- a senseless tragedy (thus, a dark street encounter with a couple of thugs practically destroyed Andrei Zibrov’s career). But no amount of fame can eclipse the innocence of the first steps.
A classroom at the Saint Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy on Mokhovaya Street, a production of “Marriage”. Kochkarev is trying to cheer Podkolesin up; he is pretending that he is a child and is jumping into spectators’ laps. Once during that particular scene they injured the knee of the provost for academic affairs. It is not known whether he appreciated the hazardous nature of the director’s conception, but what is known is that “Marriage” gave rise to Butusov’s team. Soon they would be presenting another work: “Waiting for Godot”, which would become part of the Lensovet Theatre’s repertoire and a trademark of the generation that was left at the crossroards, that learned how to defend itself using jeering and irony, but that still desperately longed for meanings that were genuine and not imaginary. For the mysterious Godot. In their search for a new language for “Godot”, they came up with dozens of clownish gags – dramaturgy of absurd (or paradox) was something that was virtually never “covered” in Soviet theatres. And soon theatre community would exhibit a rare show of consensus: for his production of “Godot”, the young director Butusov would receive two Golden Masks at once (a unique occurrence) from both his colleagues on the jury and from the critics.
“Godot’s” success, as it turned out, was not accidental. It was followed by “The Caretaker”, “Woyzeck”, “Caligula”, “The Bedbug”, and other plays. The Lensovet Theatre gladly accepted the influx of "new blood”. And that influx began to disappear, dissolving within replacement actors, introductions of new actors, someone else’s productions, numerous TV series (what a torture it must have been after their theatrical works to have to play those endless cop roles, in which the entire country recognized “Butusov’s guys”) – within a river of everydayness and quick fame.
As for Butusov himself, he remains attached to the dramaturgy of paradox – Pinter, Camus, Ionesco, Beckett. Even Shakespeare looks like an older comrade in such company. “For a long time our art was based on the socialist realism method, where life is explained, every action has a specific logic behind it,” he says. “But you cannot explain a human being. And when our theatre school turned into a school of explanations, of imposition of logic, theatre became monotonous and boring. And we became swarmed with bad realism, the so-called truth that had no room for poetry.” Butusov is more interested in understanding the logic of paradox, in fumbling for the bottom of the abyss, in passing through a realm of sheer anomalies and coming back alive, in making the audience fall in love with a villain, which, you must admit, is harder than trying to find an excuse for one.
Post-modernist consciousness in Butusov’s works often turns into a head-on collision of form and content, laughter and death, horror and delight (the blinding of Gloucester to the optimistic march from the movie “Circus”; the murder of the younger York brothers under the guise of a child’s play). By giving its audience such dangerously explosive emotions, Butusov is creating pantomime sideshows within the tectonic faults of the plotline, within the gaps between the lines. And those sideshows help clarify his internal plot (the reconciliation fight of the two bosom buddies Banquo and Macbeth, the Duke of Verona’s frighteningly cruel declaration of love, which turns into a ruthless hunt).
The logic of paradox taught him to find paradoxical moves. The proverbial “eyelets and hooks” seem to connect the unconnectable (a cancan of the widowed queens infuriated with Richard, who thus inflame their ire; or one of the reasons for Treplev’s suicide – the sight of the aged and matronly Nina, who had been handled by third-grade merchants but who still firmly believed in her purpose – a mockery of the dream that is more monstrous than all of his life’s failures).
In the end, this specialist in “absurdity with a human face”, a jazz improviser of drama practically always produces a clear and a surprisingly beautiful production formula. And his protagonists are often people vested with absolute power, unconstrained by any limitations and thus equal to their desires.
In his production of “Measure for Measure” he gives the same actor (Sergei Yepishev) the role of philantropist Vincenzo, the duke of Vienna, who grew tired of being torn between the imperfections of the law and the imperfections of human nature (the weakened good), and the role of his successor, deputy Angelo (the energetic evil), showing that they are, in the end, but mirror images of each other.
In “Macbeth” he gives the bloody usurper (Grigory Siyatvinda) a new life, and in it his lot is that of the last, lowest, gentlest of people – a butterfly catcher, who allowed himself the luxury of blissful abstention from a bloody historical process.
In “Richard III” he “murders” Richard (Konstantin Raikin) with pillows in the hands of his nephews, the boys, whose lives he had ruined. And Richard, a man who was in such dire need of human affection (which was the whole reason he fought so hard for the crown - a symbol of affection from those around him), who reveled so much in his victorious histrionics (it gave him power over the world that was stronger than the one afforded by any kind of crown), suddendly becomes more frail than a reed, overcome by love that has awakened within him.
In "Ivanov", he turns back Chekhov's story -- from the failed wedding to the first scene, when the sick wife has not yet been betrayed, and then even further back, beyond the scope of Chekhov's story, when the energetic Ivanov (Andrei Smolyakov) was still trying to make the life around him more comfortable, still carrying that impossible burden, sorting out the mess left by some wind-fallen trees on the site of yet another cherry orchard. It is as if Butusov is making him search for that point of no return, when one can no longer resurrect "the living soul" within. Even when the gun hanging on the wall is shooting blanks.
In "Hamlet" he leaves Hamlet (Mikhail Trukhin) all alone in the world, without his only friend Horatio. Much like Ionesco's Bйranger among his fellow countrymen who have turned into rhinoceroses. And then he dares stepping into the same river twice by getting his old team together on a different stage (and even in a different city) and staging another "Hamlet" about two classmates, or former classmates, to be exact, (Claudius and Hamlet are of the same age), whom fate has forced onto opposite sides of the barricades.
No matter what it is that Butusov stages -- whether it is Shakespeare or the Presnyakov brothers -- he invariably drags out his favorite topic about a lost man's return to his true self, his essence. Like Plato, he is searching for a way out of the cave, whose back wall shows only the shadows of the real world -- the world of ideas. And he stubbornly goes back to this theme of a lost paradise, engraved in one's memory, where man cannot return. But remembering that paradise will keep man from becoming completely lost. Although, when asked where such faith in man's capacity for spiritual resurrection comes from, the director dismissed my question with a dark joke: "Don't forget that by that time all these characters are dead."
It has been twenty years since Butusov began his directorial career. Asked a second time, he finally accepted the offer to lead the Lensovet Theatre that he is well familiar with, in order to try and build a Theatre Home, a model that has exhausted itself to such a point that only those overly lazy do not bother asserting that fact. He did it merely to take up the challenge -- "if I don't do it, who will". And as his last act he staged in Moscow his most confessionary and most paradoxical production of "The Seagull"; his ode to and damnation of the holy beast of Theatre, an unrestrained, reckless jam-session. And he himself became its heart, its "world soul", crowning each of the four acts with his eschatological dance-scream, which is both painful to watch and impossible not to.
Actresses, managers, doctors, and fiction writers -- all the characters in his "The Seagull" -- are the honorable actors. Hungry for roles, which they steal from each other, almost as if they were unwilling to be satisfied with just one.
Hungry for fame and the attributes that go with it (armfuls of flowers thrown at the feet of Zarechnaya prior to the beginning of the performance -- a rehearsal for that fame). As well as for something that is bigger than any fame -- the flight, the ecstasy, the enlightenment. "People, Lions, Eagles, and Quails" is not simply a play by Treplev, but a formula for that ecstasy, played by Nina (Agrippina Steklova) as if she were doing it for the very last time. The others, Dr Dorn (Artem Osipov), for example, literally rip that formula from her lips, as if trying to bring back the pristine sensation of theatre. Beaming with happiness, Nina walks off to be eaten by this monster, mistaking its hungry roar for the music of the spheres, not noticing anything around her, not even the death of Treplev's (Timofei Tribuntsev) soul. The latter, having tied his hands and feet to the ropes, is stubbornly trying to swing himself from side to side in order to keep the illusion of flight to his dying breath.

 

Olga Foux

 

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