From Uncle Vanya and Anna Karenina to Three Sisters and The Government Inspector, there’s something of the Russian revolution about our current theatre season...
Russia smells of chemical toilets.
Now, before you all start attacking me with Premier League football teams and ovulating sturgeons, let me explain. And by “explain” I mean “blame someone else”.
When I went to Russia, in 2001, the air steward told me that all passengers on flights from Russia smell of chemicals. She also told me that all passengers on flights from England smell of meat and that passengers on flights from France smell of cigarettes. So, you know, if you’ve got a problem, go tell it to British Airways.
Anyway, nasal stereotypes aside, Russia is having what the fashion world would call a “moment” right now. While 2011 is purportedly the anniversary year of Terence Rattigan, a quick skim through the current theatre listings tells a far more Slavic story.
Filter’s new show Silence, at the Hampstead Theatre, was a starkly-staged exploration of Anglo-Russian relations, from the boardroom to the bedroom and beyond. Through flashbacks – always a slightly tricky thing to pull off on stage – music and the conceit of documentary making, the show manages to capture snippets of Russian life from Soviet surliness through the rave scene of the 90s right up to today’s hotel-hopping luxury.
Meanwhile, at the Arcola, Helena Kaut-Howson’s production of Uncle Vanya is gathering design award nominations like new lipsticks gather filth. Perhaps in this era of – excuse me while I smother a yawn – superinjunctions, the story of an ageing celebrity and his young wife’s escape to the country hits a nosy nerve.
It was also at the Arcola, just two months ago, that I watched Max Webster’s strange dance-inflected production of the literary leviathan that is Anna Karenina. You can say what you like about turn-of-the-century Russian writers (because they’re dead and you’re probably not saying it in Russian anyway) but you certainly get plenty of pages per pound.
But unlike good hummus and ironic shell-suits, theatre’s current love of all things Russian isn’t solely a North London phenomenon. Nottingham’s Theatre Royal opens on 8 June with a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. I know, I know, putting on Chekhov is hardly unheard of, but this time the Prozorov play is being performed by Cheek by Jowl’s Russian ensemble. To paraphrase the great tracksuit maker FUBU, this is theatre For Russians, By Russians.
Meanwhile, back in the capital, The Young Vic is hosting what that cunning linguist Nabokov called “The greatest Russian comedy”: The Government Inspector. Now, I would pay £17.50 to watch Julian Barratt trim his toenails, so the chance to see him wrap his laughing pipes around this bureaucratic farce is rather splendid indeed.
While making generalisations about Russian theatre is about as fruitful as trying to sum up English literature, I can’t help but notice that many of these plays speak of a harsh country, frozen by long winters, threatened by a dissatisfied population, divided by wealth and poised between the industrial and the bureaucratic. A country, in short, that speaks volumes to modern Britain.
So, crack open the caviar, pour out a little vodka for your lost proletariat and enjoy a summer of all things Russian this year. Although maybe we can skip the eau de chemical toilet.
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Illustration by Narcsville.