Olivier Salad Following the End of the World

Konstantin Bogomolov is rapidly turning from a "straight A" director with good philological background, who likes the Glass Bead Game and the most surprising combinations of texts within the context of a single production ("Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There" and "The Reserve", "Princess Turandot" and "The Idiot", "The Seagull" and Gagarin's speech), to a rebel and a radical.


He wrote the following in his blog once: "We've already had the end of the world. And the sickly sweet smell extends to us from the past... For some reason, for me it centers around the Great Patriotic War*... When human bodies were used to make soap. Or when the road to Berlin was paved with corpses, even though such a thing was no longer necessary... And it was not even the fact that this had taken place that was the most important, but that we experienced it all. Or, more precisely, our ancestors did. At first they called for that blood in a hungry, savage manner. They conjured it. Then they spilled it. And after that we were born. Already supplied with the genetic information, advising us that something like this is possible."

The nonlinear, fractured art that has lost its wholeness is clear proof of that. In the end, this blog post became an epigraph to his tragicomedy "Lear", staged at St Petersburg's "The Shelter of Comedians". Polemics that broke out among St Petersburg's theatre-goers, who split into ardent defenders and opponents of the production, soon reached Moscow. And when the "Na Strastnom" Theatre Centre organized "Lear's" guest performance in the capital, they had to quickly set up "Theatrical Sleeplessness" (additional nighttime performances), in order to accommodate everyone who wanted to see the play. Opponents of the production are firmly accusing the director of banality, as though post-apocalyptic worldview has become just too commonplace on theatre stage. Defenders are fervently offering their explanations to the unexpected plot twists that arise from the meeting of different texts and eras, because "Lear" is truly interesting, and the surge of arguments about it is direct proof of that.

The timeless tragedy found a quite specific time setting -- the Fateful Forties. Shakespeare received new co-authors in the persons of Nietzsche, the poet of the superhuman, and Paul Cйlan, a German-speaking Jewish poet (born in Czernowitz, which was occupied alternately by Stalin's and Hitler's armies, he survived the war, but lost his entire family in concentration camps), Varlam Shalamov and Samuil Marshak, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine and texts from medical reference books, which sound like a sinister poem in the context of the play – a poem about the immortality of cancer cells in contrast to the mortal healthy ones, about the sophistication of Soviet punitive psychiatry.

Shakespeare's characters acquired names and patronymics from Soviet history (among others): Semyon Mikhailovich Cornwall, Samuil Yakovlevich Gloucester (Irina Salikova), Mr. Zarathustra (Tatiana Bondareva), ambassador of Europe to this country (this was the exact phrasing used, not "to USSR"), etc.

And they also swapped genders while they were at it: clean- and not-so-clean-shaven Goneril Learovna (Alexander Kudrenko or Gennadi Alimpiyev), Regan Learovna (Anton Moshechkov) and Cordelia Learovna (Pavel Chinarev) and their feminine husbands launched an infernal carnival of tenacious death and blossoming degeneration. The part of Lear is played by Rosa Khairullina – a great actress, who is capable of "frenzy of risk" better than anyone else these days. Her portraits а la Warhol decorate the programme and the walls of a narrowing office the color of brick or dried blood (the color of the Kremlin) that ends with an elevator – a funnel, a drain, a crater. Based on the circumstances of the period, the easiest thing to do would have been to equate Lear with Stalin (especially, given the fact that the production has quite a few references to "the Father of the peoples"). Yet the creature that Khairullina portrays on stage is neither Lear nor Stalin, but rather something resembling the old age itself – cantankerous, pitiful, doomed and clinging to life, imperious and repressed. Lear has cancer – the author of such a complex production gives such a simple, "overly human" explanation to the primary intrigue of Shakespeare's tragedy: the reason why the king exiles his favorite daughter over a few words of disobedience. Cancer is the reason for Lear's bitterness, which quickly transforms into madness.

With the agility of a magician Rosa Khairullina presents the audience with newer and newer psychological gags of this great male part. In the finale -- a slightly creepy copulation with the "map of Britain" - a rubber sex-shop doll. Ridiculous, powerless cursing of the old man, who never did learn foreign languages (Lear can only guess by looking at their faces that what Zarathustra and polyglot Gloucester are translating are not his words at all). Mournful, teary-eyed silence of a psychiatric hospital patient, who got to experience the effectiveness of electroshock, haloperidol and aminazine treatments. Pitiful whimpering of a haggard old man – the last argument in his fight for life. The song "The Spring Shall Come but not for Me" sung in a womanish and criminals' manner.

But Lear is also a source of metastases for the entire country. Setting up a feast with his inner circle, Lear-Khairullina surrounds himself with fake lobsters**, commenting impassively, "This stage is a symbolic representation of political leaders as cancerous cells that have affected the country." There's the old and withered Goneril Learovna, yelling shrilly as she tries to pull out the creatures that climbed into her underwear, or the coquettish Regan Learovna, whose creepy "pregnancy" (a hump) will end with a miscarriage. They have both received their father's inheritance and are now impotently fighting cancer (lobsters). Those two ignoramuses do not realize that cancerous cells die only together with their host - the country. Cordelia, the tall and savagely shy youngest daughter – she had a changeling look in her own home – drones on, telling her withered father about something book-related that had struck her girlish mind (something from Nietzsche), something about integrity and completeness, achieved in timely death. At that moment, Lear is frightening to watch.

But the ambassador of all of Europe Zarathustra, that blond-haired rogue (Tatiana Bondareva), takes an even more careful look at the young woman – what a perfect chick! and gets her as his girlfriend – all tear-stained after a fight at home, with child's mittens on muscular ham-fisted hands and a pair of ice-skates to boot. Cordelia runs away from home in a fit of youthful maximalism. She has no idea yet of the chilling horror of a wedding night with heroic philosophizing instead of amorous declarations and target shooting instead of love. The newly converted Cordelia with a swastika on her sleeve will fly in on a Junkers aircraft to liberate the country that has been stricken with metastases. The Duke of Cornwall will become one of her numerous victims. Lear's policy led to the country's occupation. And that means that no one here is purely guilty or innocent; victims and executioners have switched places and received equal rights.

A separate episode about Samuil Yakovlevich (Gloucester) and his sons – his legitimate son Edgar Samuilovich, a Jew, and his illegitimate son Edmond Samuilovich, Russian on his mother's side – becomes a very important interlude. Gloucester's namesake with the last name of Marshak was never a secretary of the USSR Union of Writers, but even his literary path from the creation of "Zionides" to "The Red Calendar Day", from translations of Shakespeare's sonnets to translations of Mao Zedong's poems speaks volumes. In the play, Gloucester is a meek intellectual, an expert in languages, a sad-eyed conformist (samurai Cornwall, who appears to have jumped straight out of Guignol, will put them out with a corkscrew), who will read his legitimate son's "prohibited" work, which contains the terrible word "the Lord", and hide him away in a mental home – lest that tyrant Lear find out. But Lear will soon end up as a meek patient of the Serbsky Institute, and the wardmate Zarathustra will convince the young man that "there is no God; God is dead." Everything became jumbled in the house of Lear.

But the illegitimate son (the beautiful Anna Chipovskaya) will step over people's heads to get to power: his (her) true nature will be bursting forth from a dispassionate creature, like female charms from a military uniform; from a sexless adjutant, encased in boots and a soldier's blouse, to a beauty with flowing hair, clad in a bathrobe. The one who had just silenced his (her) archenemy – Cordelia. Literally silenced by biting off her (his) tongue during a kiss – Bogomolov is striving more and more to not be "comme il faut" on stage.

The "life-asserting" finale turns out to be the production's bitterest moment. The war is over; Lear's family gathers once again "on the tribune of the Mausoleum" and around the family table. The Olivier salad and some herring, left over from when Lear was partitioning Britain, are brought to the table like Hamlet's "funeral baked meats". The dead can be distinguished from the living only by bloody stains on their shirts (almost exactly following Cйlan's, "Your golden hair, Margareta / Your ashen hair, Shulamith"). Perhaps the only difference is that Lear and Cordelia got used to smoking in their places of exile. God is dead, and he took with him the right to catharsis, leaving people only with foolish eternity that greatly resembles oblivion.

 

Konstantin Bogomolov (b. 1975), Russian theatre director. Graduated from the Philological Faculty of the Moscow State University and the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (Andrei Goncharov's course). Recipient of the Seagull award for his play "Much Ado About Nothing" in the "Take a Step" category for non-traditional reading of a classical work. Staged productions such as "A Sad Joke", based on Chekhov's stories (Moscow's Mayakovsky Academic Theatre), "Much Ado About Nothing", based on Shakespeare (Moscow Drama Theatre on Malaya Bronnaya), "This Soldier, That Soldier", based on Bertolt Brecht (Moscow's Gogol Drama Theatre), "Wonderland-80", based on Dovlatov and Carroll (Moscow Theatre Studio under the direction of Oleg Tabakov), and others.

 

 

Olga Fuks

 

 

 

Photographs courtesy of the "Na Strastnom" Theatre Centre's press office

 


 

 

 

* The term "Great Patriotic War" is used in Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union to refer to the period of World War II from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945

 

** In Russian the word for "cancer" and the word for "lobster" are homonyms

 

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