It seems that storytelling has always been pivotal to young director Max Hoehn’s approach to theatre. When involved in theatre at school and university (where he directed and acted in many Oxford University Dramatic Society productions), he knew that that he wanted to create “stories with an imaginative twist”, enjoying having a “bird’s eye view” of the proceedings and the ability to shape a story that comes with being a director.
Russophile Hoehn was already familiar with the story of The Queen of Spades before studying it at school (it’s a popular choice for A-level Russian with its clean style and accessible vocabulary) through Tchaikovsky’s opera. He recalls, “I was struck by these strange images – it’s quite grotesque, quite macabre; there’s this strange old woman and this troubled man and his obsession with the card trick and it stuck in my mind.” One of the main differences between the two is the way in which the novella is “driven by relentless irony and playfulness,” which isn’t really there in the opera. The scale of Hoehn’s production is also different to “the grandiose drug-trip” that audiences are used to and possibly the first time that The Queen of Spades has been explored in a studio setting – “it’s still a drug-trip with a dreamy and stylised design, but in a claustrophobic space.”
When adapting existing works, Hoehn takes great delight in being able to “take something that’s established and throw a couple of ideas in the air, see where they land and put them together to create something that’s both original and an adaptation.” He explains that the difference between British and Russian attitudes towards adaptations is that it’s a frequent occurrence in Russian theatre, where playwrights and novelists work together and putting novels on stage is “a form of analysis that they don’t have to justify in the way that we do. The Master and Margarita, for example, is done all the time. The British have Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby as a model, but I can’t think of many other examples.”
The Queen of Spades is Hoehn’s second production of a classic Russian prose text, following on from his staging of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in 2010, which he co-adapted. It was an ambitious project (“Margarita becomes a witch and flies over Moscow – how the hell do you do that in a studio theatre?!”) which he decided to present as a series of stylised tableaux with the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s as a visual reference point. Defining The Queen of Spades as an ‘adaptation’ or ‘version’ has been a matter of some debate, the team finally settling on adaptation. Raymond Blankenhorn’s verse script also includes other poems by Pushkin, making the production “a sort of Pushkin fantasia,” filled with dream sequences.
I ask Hoehn if the production could be considered operatic and he laughs, “Some people might say so – possibly as an insult! When people describe something as operatic, it usually means it has a heightened quality and opera is a combination of so many different things.” Hoehn’s “four-pronged attack” involves text, movement, setting and sound, with the aim of pushing these components to their limits and creating a sense of “total absorption in a parallel world that’s not afraid to be quite irrational.” Some scenes are led entirely by music and sound, influenced by German music theatre in which sound tells a story.
As co-Artistic Director of Fusebox Productions, Hoehn is very keen to bring opera and theatre, disciplines that are often kept apart, together and to tell stories in as many interesting ways as possible. Future plans include assisting at Glyndebourne next year and he would like to direct at the Arcola’s Grimebourne festival again (he directed Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis this season – an opera that “needs to be done with no resources”) and to work on an existing text that lends itself to a flexible approach, possibly in a highly stripped-down production with only two chairs.
The Queen of Spades plays at Arcola Theatre (Studio 2) from October 12th – November 12th 2011. For more information and tickets, visit the website.