The Russian Revolution season is upon us: its revolutionary juices have matured. It is as if a wine merchant of history declared that that dusty bottle of red wine (of course red!), which for many years was too young, was finally ready for drinking. Many a cultural institution in many a European capital will be happily drinking from this bottle this year.
It is not a race, but Hebbel am Ufer (or HAU for short) a German theatre and performance centre in the once bohemian West Berlin district of Kreuzberg, may have been one of the first to drink from the revolutionary bottle.
HAU's recent production Eternal Russia, which completed its mostly sold-out run at the end of January, was largely about that special Russian cycle of a revolution inevitably followed by a counter-revolution. The show uses a quote by Oscar Wilde which could serve as an epigraph: that nothing is impossible in Russia but reform.
Eternal Russia - conceived, developed, written and directed by the Moscow theatre critic Marina Davydova - is a clever little production. The audience of perhaps 50 or 60 people is literally taken on a walking tour of Davydova’s ideas. (Full disclosure: many years ago Marina Davydova and I studied together at theGITIS theatre school in Moscow). In the classic style of a promenade theatre (or parcours theatrale, as the French call it), we are guided by theatre staff through HAU3's old Berlin building to witness scenes of Russian history in different rooms on different floors.
There are no live actors. The story of the Russian cycle of the rise and defeat of all things liberal and revolutionary is told through the sets and props (co-creator Vera Martynova), electronic music (Vladimir Rannev), historic video footage, and short feature films. The Russian language is translated into English and German surtitles well enough for both Russian and non-Russian audience members to laugh at the same moments.
We keep returning to the same ‘red’ room where portraits, sets and props change every time we re-enter. A long dining table in the middle is imaginatively set for tea with the violent history of Russia of the last two centuries. The dining table serves as a familiar common denominator of a home (everyone has to eat!), and the visual representation of the changing times outside the room. Pre-revolutionary bone china and a classic sculpture of Venus crack loudly in 1917 to give way to the messy table of the early 1920s with dirty laundry hanging off Venus. Then comes the devastation of the Gulag 1930s with many of the dinner guests dead under and around the table, which soon fast forwards to the Soviet quasi-imperial longing for a conservative neo-classicism. Once the revolution won, who needs it! The new sculptures of the young Communists replace Venus, but their shape and style remain similar (sans nakedness). The new Stalinist army uniforms looks remarkably similar to those worn by the old tsarist officers.
In post-revolutionary Russia, where Stalin and his successors came to see themselves longingly as the new tsars, the imperial aesthetic and style become more important than political ideology. Newly build grand buildings with classical columns and imperial parades trump any revolutionary rhetoric and communist ideals.
This, of course, equally upsets the true revolutionaries and the liberals. In one black and white video a liberal character (Sergei Chonishvili) narrates the history of defeated revolutionary ideas with the air of a disillusioned acceptance. During the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 millions went on strike and mutinied. But the numbers have been dwindling. Mere thousands turned up to protest outside the Kremlin in 2011.
Ditto the Russian sexual revolution. The black and white video gives way to a Technocolour pseudo-vintage short and funny film (also directed by Davydova) featuring an assorted cast of today’s Moscow theatre beaumonde characters inspired by the the revolutionary sexual liberation of the 1920s. On screen they cross-dress, undress, and thus address their creative kin of some 100 years ago. We are told a story of naked revolutionary daring. Apparently, soon after the Revolution two young women - Inessa Armand (Lenin’s lover) and Alexandra Kollontai (Russia’s first female ambassador to Norway) - shed their clothes and walked around Kremlin naked, much to Lenin’s dismay. Whether true or myth, it reflects on today’s struggle (a never ending struggle) in Russia between the liberal intelligentsia and the church and patriarchal society where the likes of Pussy Riot are sent to prison.
Eternal Russia is neither a rich nor lavish production. There is a whiff of the ‘poor theatre’ aesthetic about it, which is compensated for by its creative energy. In the theatrical sense it is brave, for example, to play one entire scene in a dark room with nothing happening but projections of old Stalin-era photographs and audio narration. Yet this is when we get to hear some of Davydova’s most interesting ideas, some of which had been expressed in her critical writings over the years.
It is unusual for a theatre critic to succeed at directing. Kenneth Tynan, a prominent English theatre critic observed that: “a critic is someone who knows the way, but can't drive the car”. Much to the credit of both the producers and the director, Davydova’s maiden test drive at HAU3 delivers the goods. The deep and generous well of big themes that is Russia sustains and feeds this production.
There are, of course, books and dissertations and museum exhibitions which can be found on every aspect of Russian history. But engaging with them is often hard work. Eternal Russia does a lot of hard work for you. You are propelled along, made to see, listen, and think about Russia’s history, pain, illusions, hopes and disappointments. It is easy to see the educational value of Eternal Russia. Its modest and transferable format would easily allow it to travel. Museums and universities ought to take note.
Will Eternal Russia will be shown in today’s Moscow? Several Russian theatre critics travelled to Berlin and published raving reviews in the leading Russian newspapers. This ought to be a good omen, but in Russia you never know…
As the show ends, we are ordered by a booming mechanic announcement to leave the red room immediately. The only way out is through an ominously red-lit ‘Emergency Exit’. An emergency exit into Berlin’s chilly air may be the only way out of this Eternal Russia. But, given its eternal nature, we are very likely to be back.
Sergei Ostrovsky is a trustee and co-chair of Pushkin House