When they burst on to the international fringe scene some 20 years ago, the self-exiled theatre troupe from St Petersburg, Derevo, were truly a breath of fresh air. There was no one quite like them. Combining the aesthetic of circus, butoh, mime and rock’n’roll, with a strict training regime, Derevo delivered performances that were a heady mix of humour and seductive mystique. For years in the early 2000s, the young generations of physical theatre makers made their Edinburgh pilgrimages to Derevo’s shows utterly in thrall of the company’s La Divina Comedia, Islands in the Stream, Ketzal.
First shown at the Pleasance Courtyard in 1998, Once… was a slightly atypical though highly memorable example of Derevo’s work. It was described at the time as melodramatic, Chaplinesque, whimsical and charming. I mostly remember it for its electric audience rapport, which is celebrated at the end with a bottle of champagne.
Seeing it nearly 20 years later, one is struck by just how young and fresh this vintage piece still feels and how little the company has aged. It has been reconstructed in minute detail, the original props still going strong, it seems. As ever, it prizes giggles, sighs and gasps from the auditorium as well as unrestrained guffaws from the less shy. But, like most of Derevo’s oeuvre, this is an eccentric show, full of fantastical digressions, structured on the principle of associative thinking rather than a linear narrative of any sort. At its core is an exploration of romantic love, yearning and pain – its motifs alluding to Hollywood as much as fairytales and modern literature. Its thematic content veers from exquisite Monty Pythonesque absurdity to actual deranged dancing with Death.
What is particularly remarkable however is the way in which the lapsed time heightens the value of this show’s direct link to its distant roots. Nowhere in Derevo’s work is the debt to Russian circus, Slava Polunin (with whom the company director Anton Adassinsky performed once) and even to Stanislavsky in some ways, more evident than in this particular piece. No other show around here is yet a better teaching tool on what the power of theatrical imagination can do. No champagne can even come close to the way in which Once… has aged – still bubbly, still bitter-sweet, still intoxicating.