The ingredients of poison

Marina Warner’s recent post on the LRB blog has tempted me to write about Russian theater and about bobeobi, but I don’t know where to start. Let’s say the Russian theater is enjoying yet another golden, or at least gilded, age but there’s little coverage of it in the Anglophone press apart from John Freedman’s dispatches.

It could be that I don’t know where to look. Fortunately, Freedman has links to other people’s writings on Russian theater. But every time I pick a review at random, I read about the director’s innovative approach being a response to Putin’s latest bout of nastiness, or repression & censorship, or something in that style. As if Putin’s departure would make us immortal and forever young and restore the world to Eden.

Rob Weiner-Kendt’s review of the 2012 Golden Mask festival is an example of this approach.  Politics is the Zahir, and theater is an extension of politics – pure Brecht, no cross-pollination. “The Seagull in the Time of Trump” and so on.

Fortunately, Marina Warner is not one of those critics – far from it – but, not so fortunately, the performance she saw in Moscow last December was less representative of the modern Russian theater than I would prefer. I have no doubt of Alla Demidova’s grandeur, but I took Susan Moore’s praise (referring to a remarkable production I was privileged to see) as a warning:

Russian actress Alla Demidova puts in a magisterial performance as the Coryphaeus – leader of the Chorus – even when simply intoning the ingredients of poison in Latin.

I’m a little wary of the magisterial intoning. It worked perfectly for Warner, who was after the sound in the first place:

Then, after nearly two hours, without a break and without once leaving the stage, Demidova dropped her head into her hands and lapsed into silence; the lights went out and the house erupted in a standing ovation. The whole experience was dreamlike and fragmented, but filled with tableaux of far more lucid brilliance than any dream.

That’s a powerful “on the other hand” – almost two hours without interruption at the age of eighty: Demidova was born in 1936.


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