While the rest of the UK theatre world is in Edinburgh, an interesting situation has taken place in Stratford-upon-Avon last week. Not only were the RSC and The Wooster Group brought together on the Swan stage in a trans-Atlantic production of Troilus and Cressida, but they were joined by Dmitry Krymov’s multi-talented troupe from Moscow– complete with a performing dog – in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), next door at the RST. The two shows caused a stir in town – the first counting nightly walkouts, and the second wrenching admiring sighs, gasps and guffaws out of the auditorium. With the American, the British and the Russian theatre traditions brought together in this way, I could not help but think about this encounter in the context of culture-specific modes of authorship – one of the themes I have recently been exploring in a monograph entitled Theatre-Making (Palgrave, 2013).
Having initiated the project, Rupert Goold envisaged that The Wooster Group would play the Trojans, and the RSC the Greeks. In March 2012, Goold handed over the British side of the project to the newly appointed RSC writer in residence Mark Ravenhill. Rehearsals deliberately took place in isolation until the technical rehearsal, when both sides were finally brought together onstage.
Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte approached the play via the white American identity crisis which, according to writer Philip Deloria quoted in her programme note, ‘inevitably’ turns to ‘Indianness’ for answers regarding authenticity. Her actors, dressed in native American-inspired garbs, additionally follow a selection of scenes from American films on screens erected around the set, mirroring their moves in a way which the New York Times’ Ben Brantley has previously called ‘sophisticated karaoke’.
Meanwhile, in the interest of ‘realism’, Ravenhill resolves to follow closely the authorial complexities of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ play, rather than imposing any coherence on it. He focuses however on the homoerotic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and adds a bit of camp courtesy of Zubin Varla’s wheelchair-bound drag queen Thersites. His Greeks, otherwise, might well be occupying Iraq, judging by their combat gear.
It is not surprising that Michael Billington’s taste did not extend into the territory created by this production – he declared it a ‘bizzarely disjointed spectacle’ and gave it two stars. What is alarming is that no attempt was made to understand –or to explain to the equally dismissive readers in the Comments section below (1) – the project in any relation to the participating artists’ individual artistic genealogies. The critic’s and some punters’ expectations were, therefore, leveled at the presentation of the text itself, rather than its translation into the theatre languages of the artists themselves. For example, the way in which the Wooster Group had pioneered their visual ‘karaoke’ for their first Shakespeare production of Hamlet in 2007, or the way in which the representation of the native Americans invokes their controversial use of ‘blackface’ in the 1981 production of Route 1 and 9, or even the way in which Ravenhill’s decadent representation of the Greeks may or may not reference his world-famous playwriting debut Shopping and Fucking.
In Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in Contemporary Theatre, I explore modes of theatre authorship starting from a premise that there is such a thing, as ‘theatre language’ distinct from but inclusive of the verbal language of the play.
The book focuses on notions of ‘de-professionalisation’ or ‘multi-professionalisation’ (think: playwright Mark Ravenhill-turned-director), and the increasingly obsolete and artificial divide between the so-called ‘text-based’ and ‘devised’ theatre. In the course of writing, two through-lines have emerged: the culturally-variant ideas of authorship between the East and the West (Europe and the US) and the co-dependent relationship between authorship and criticism. Part of my thesis is that the Anglo-American context has historically had much more of a text-centered approach to theatre-making than is the case in other European cultures. This is not to say that the text is less important in other cultures – on the contrary, Russian critics too can be quite scathing about any perceived directorial disrespect towards the playwright. But, a Russian theatre director is an author in their own right, while the British and American counterparts have more often been expected to act primarily as interpreters of the text.
Postmodernism, and specifically poststructuralism, did help to change this in the West. It introduced different conceptions of authorship (artist-led, rather than writer-led), capitalising on the Barthesian distinction between ‘text’ and ‘work’, for example, or his declaration of the ‘death of an author’. In the 1960s in the United States, Richard Schechner revolutionised the field of theatre by actively emphasising the notion of performance and ritual, drawing on anthropological studies, and eventually creating an independent discipline of performance studies. In 1980, Schechner’s protégé Elizabeth LeCompte went on to inherit his venue The Performing Garage, where the Wooster Group – which has splintered from Schechner’s The Performance Group – has also been based since 1975.
One must remember however that poststructuralism and postmodernism – although made familiar as theoretical paradigms – did not have the same effect on the Russian culture. One might argue that, to some extent, Russian theatre, steeped in its own heritage of both tradition and experiment, did not need it in the same way as the American theatre. Even though the experimental attempts of the Russian avant-garde artists (such as Vsevold Meyerhold or the OBERIU collective) were for political reasons eventually displaced by Social Realism and a standardised version of Stanislavsky’s System, Russian theatre did continue to evolve in its own way, further down the route of (often profession-specific) technical proficiency, when in the West more emphasis was being placed on the authority and creativity of the performer. In the increasingly globalised 21st century, encounters occur between representatives from these distinct backgrounds, without them realising that the language barrier between them cannot easily be resolved by a simultaneous interpreter. The differences are deep, conceptual.
‘In the Body’ movement symposium, whose participants included members of the Moscow Art Theatre School and British movement specialists, hosted by the RSC in September 2010, brought this language barrier into sharp focus. While on both sides there were elements that were fascinating to each other (Russian technical skill to the British, British creative forms such as ‘devising’ to the Russians), both were also slightly dismayed (the British at the Russian unwillingness to accommodate personal difference in ability, and the Russians at the British ‘amateurism’). The key challenge on both sides would have been how to refrain from judging each other, and the only answer in understanding and allowing for the difference.
Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), commissioned by the RSC’s World Shakespeare Festival, therefore came as a bit of a surprise – both in terms of the production and its Stratford reception. Those whose idea of Russian theatre might be based on the meticulous realism of Lev Dodin’s Maly Theatre, frequently seen in the UK until now, will find only some negligible traces of it in a production which features five meter tall puppets, opera singers, circus acrobats and a passport-bearing Jack Russell terrier. Krymov, who is primarily a theatre designer and a pedagogue committed to collaborative and multi-skilled ways of theatre-making, says the latter is based on Shakespeare’s own mention of a dog in the Mechanicals’ entourage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And this Dream is entirely concerned with the craftsmen themselves, to the exclusion of almost all other elements of the play.
Admittedly, Krymov’s production is much more interested in audience engagement than RSC/Wooster Group’s Troilus and Cressida. From the opening moments, elements of the scenery suggested by Shakespeare but discarded by Krymov are playfully dragged through the auditorium – a tree trunk, branches, a leaking fountain – all in close contact with the front rows. If you are lucky, the dog, Venya, might even let you stroke him. Next, an ‘audience’ are placed on stage too, so that we can observe the way in which our own behaviour or our own response may become satirised. With a voice seemingly lacking technical training, we are informed that the aim of our actors is not to give us enjoyment but to present a good performance. ‘Is this improvisation?’, ‘It’s modern art.’, ‘This is avant-garde!’ – runs the onstage commentary, until eventually we have all tuned in, and tender operatic harmonies are achieved between the ‘main characters’ and the ‘audience members’. Following the press night in Stratford, the Financial Times’ Ian Shuttleworth tweeted: ‘Could have been bollocks Regietheater, is in fact dog’s-bollocks Regietheater 5*’ and advised all his Facebook friends to catch it in Edinburgh.
Though on the face of it, Krymov’s work might bring to mind the kind of experiment that The Welfare State and Bread and Puppet theatre pioneered in the 1960s in the UK and US, respectively, it must not be mistaken for any kind of belated manifestation of postmodernism. On the contrary, it is still deeply connected to and representative of its own cultural heritage.
Adrian Giurgea traces Krymov’s work as a pedagogue and theatre-maker (the two functions seem inextricably linked as he often works with his past and presenstudents) to a particular moment in recent Russian theatre history when the designer David Borovsky created a ‘living curtain’ for Yury Lybimov’s 1989 production of Hamlet at the Taganka Theatre. This was an instance when set design ceased to have a merely decorative or contextualizing function, but in fact acquired the function of dramatic action itself.
The most interesting aspect of the three-way encounter between the Americans, the British and the Russians in Stratford-upon-Avon is therefore the way in which each one of them constitutes a presentation of a particular heritage and a particular artist’s journey to this point in time. But they part ways next week, and I fear that this point will be slightly lost again on London which sees Troilus and Cressida alone in September, and on Edinburgh which receives the delights of the Dream.
(1). One notable exception is John Wyver, who draws attention to his own more enlightened take on the evening here.